The Invention Secrecy Act: The USPTO as a Gatekeeper of National Security

by Scott Locke, Dorf & Nelson LLP

from Volume 8 (2018-2019)

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The United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) has the privilege of reviewing hundreds of thousands of inventions each year before the public learns about them. Consequently, the USPTO is uniquely positioned as a funnel through which the Government can collect information about new technologies and determine which ones have implications for the safety and welfare of the nation. Under the Invention Secrecy Act, the Commissioner for Patents may order that an invention for which patent protection is sought be kept secret if disclosure of the invention might be detrimental to national security.

In order for the USPTO to review patent applications and then to do its part in protecting national security, while respecting the rights of inventors, the Invention Secrecy Act provides for the implementation of a framework with three primary components: (1) the screening phase, which applies to all patent applications; (2) the maintenance of secrecy phase, which applies to those inventions for which the Government has made a determination of risk to national security; and (3) the compensation phase, which is the phase during which a patent applicant or patentee can request compensation for either or both the loss due to being required to keep the invention secret and the government’s use of the invention prior to issuance of the patent. Failure of inventors to abide by the terms of and to follow the procedures promulgated under the Invention Secrecy Act can have dire consequences, and thus, applicants and persons who counsel them should be aware of its contours, how the USPTO implements it, and how courts interpret it.