Made in WA

Who Gets to Invent?

A pro bono program at the University of Washington opens up the patent application process to everyone.

By Benjamin Cassidy August 23, 2022 Published in the Fall 2022 issue of Seattle Met

Anna Bakhmetyeva, assistant director of the intellectual property program at the University of Washington School of Law, helps make the patent process less cumbersome.

Inventing something doesn’t necessarily mean you were the first to come up with it.

First, you must navigate the prohibitively time-consuming and expensive process to secure a patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Just searching to see if an idea has been taken might entail watching a 38-minute tutorial. If that’s not soul-crushing enough, legal fees and associated costs can run tens of thousands of dollars. That means the quest to nab a patent is over before it begins for many people. “Under-resourced, low-income people, they just are not able to get this legal assistance,” says Anna Bakhmetyeva, assistant director of the intellectual property program at the University of Washington School of Law.

Bakhmetyeva works at the Washington Pro Bono Patent Network, which launched in 2017 to help address inequity in innovation. Born from the America Invents Act and in partnership with the USPTO, the UW-based program matches under-resourced inventors with volunteer attorneys to help prepare and file patents.

The goal is not only to boost the total number of inventors in the region but also to “increase the number of historically underrepresented inventors as well, whether that’s women or people of color,” says Jennifer S. Fan, the director of the Entrepreneurial Law Clinic who oversees the Network.

Prospective inventors can’t just show up on a whim. Their household income must be no more than 300 percent of the federal poverty level—$54,930 for a household of two. They must complete a basic patent certification program online. And they need a prototype, detailed drawing, and explanation of how someone could actually make and use their invention. No napkin scribbles.

The Network has helped participants patent everything from a paint roller to a surgical instrument. But Fan says getting more inventors in the door is still the biggest barrier. “I’m always surprised that people don’t know that we’re a resource.” It certainly doesn’t take 38 minutes to find them. 

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