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Teaching Michigan innovators to wield patents as both sword and shield

Ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Elijah J. McCoy Patent and Trademark Office in Detroit in 2012
flickr user Senator Stabenow

The Next Idea

Innovation means new ideas, and new ideas mean investments, all of which need to be protected.

That’s where the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office comes in.

Three years ago, they opened their first office outside of Washington D.C., and chose to put it in Detroit.

What does that mean for Michigan inventors, entrepreneurs, startups and researchers?

Christal Sheppard is the director of this Midwest Regional U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Sheppard says they had a long list of requirements when choosing a location for the first office outside the D.C. area in over two centuries, and Detroit met every single one.

Detroit was also ideal, according to Sheppard, due to the concentration of “world-class universities” in the area.

“There’s so much intellectual activity going on here,” she says. “We wanted to not only influence the entrepreneurs who are working today, innovators who are working today, but those of the future.”

Sheppard says it’s important for the USPTO to strike a balance with patent applicants. Of course, she says, applicants want as much protection as possible, and the government wants to give only so much protection as they determine the applicant deserves.

The end goal, according to Sheppard, is to incentivize innovation.

“Giving too much protection does not incentivize innovation. Also, giving too little protection wouldn’t incentivize innovation. So it’s supposed to be a cooperation so we end up in the exact correct place as best we can so that the public benefits but also the inventor benefits,” she says.

She says considering how to handle intellectual property is an important part of any business plan.

“Knowing up front how you’re going to protect [your idea] really helps you when you go look for capital,” she says. “If you’re going to spend a lot of money on something, the first thing we really recommend you do is to do a search to make sure no one else already owns that.”

Sheppard feels it’s important to teach people about patents and the process involved because it’s a vital part of keeping America competitive in the global economy.

To that end, she says there are many resources available to teach individuals about intellectual property, legal procedure, the actual process of applying for a patent, as well as programs offering advice and low-cost or free legal assistance for inventors going through the patent or trademark process.

Sheppard says she looks forward to seeing the office’s role grow and expand in Michigan.

“There’s just so much potential here,” she says. “There are so many things that we can influence in a very positive way.”

“By bringing this office here, we allow all of our stakeholders in this area to have direct access to the highest level of the PTO.”

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