Accuracy and Precision in Patent Writing

One concern I frequently hear from prospective clients, especially when I am explaining the patent search process, is that patents are difficult to read because they use complicated language instead of simple words.  “Why say opposed co-acting jaws pivoted to move between an open position and a closed position when you can just say scissors?”  Clients hate the fact that they often can’t easily search through Patent Office records – keywords that one might expect to use in a search may not be helpful because the patent has used this complicated language.  And then, once they can find relevant patents, they are often frustrated with the tedious reading.

These diction choices aren’t made to annoy clients or keep patents from being easily accessible.  The language used is used for very specific reasons which relate to the prosecution of the application through the USPTO and the later enforcement of the patent rights.  Two of those reasons are accuracy and precision.

Accuracy is the quality of being true, the capability to match or agree with a standard value or definition, or the degree of correctness.  In marksmanship, accuracy is the ability to hit near center.  In math, accuracy is the ability to get the answer 4 and not 5 when asked what 2+2 is.

Precision is the quality of being exact or the ability to avoid deviation.  In marksmanship, precision would be hitting the same spot six times in a row, even if it isn’t a bullseye.  In math, precision is the ability to calculate a number to not just 3.1, but to 3.14159.

Accuracy and precision play their own roles in patenting.  Accuracy involves describing what the invention is.  One might say that what an invention is depends on what the definition of is is.  And that is sort of the difficulty of patenting.  The attorney has to decide what that invention is and how far it needs to be described.  An accurate disclosure will describe the invention in true terms in a correct manner.  An accurate disclosure will be a complete description of everything the inventor contemplates within the invention and not a description of subject matter not invented.

Precision, on the other hand, deals more with the scope of the disclosure.  A precise definition is one that nails down exactly what the invention is, and thus makes clear what the invention, what the invention is not, and where the line – a bright line – between the two is drawn.

Accuracy is of great importance.  A disclosure which is not accurate is fraudulent; it doesn’t describe the invention, doesn’t inform a person having skill in the art how to make and use it, doesn’t put someone on notice that the inventor was in possession of the invention.  A lack of accuracy, at its worst, can invalidate a patent; at its “best,” it can make the prosecution extremely difficult.  This should be simple to understand: if an invention is “B,” it must be described as “B,” not as “A” or “C.”  Describing the invention as anything but B is simply incorrect, inaccurate, and fraudulent.

Precision is important as well, but it can be dangerous.  An overly-precise patent may be extremely narrow.  Value may be lost in deference to precision, and lost value is wasted opportunity.  On the other hand, precision can’t be ignored completely.  An application that lacks any precision – is completely ambiguous – won’t mature into a patent.  Example?  If you’re patenting a chair, you can’t simply describe it as a “thing.”  Yes, it is a “thing” (and is thus accurate), but that doesn’t really give any sense of where the invention falls in the greater world of things.  A bed is a thing and an aardvark is a thing.  A precise patent for a chair will describe that chair with enough exactness that someone can draw a line between a chair and a bed and know that the patent protection doesn’t extend to the bed.

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