Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me. Although a helpful phrase to teach children navigating the difficult social situations that arise in childhood, the truth is words can hurt us.
This is particularly true when it comes to legal matters.
There is power in the written word. This is true when it comes to the words we use, and the punctuation we use, when getting a patent. Using the wrong word can change protections. Using “or” instead of “and” can limit the reach of the patent. A spelling error within the application can mean the protections do not work as the inventor intended. Any one of these mistakes could make it difficult to exercise these protections in the event a competitor tries to steal the invention.
When it comes to punctuation, a common example of how an error can impact protection is the placement of a comma. In one case, the use of a comma helped establish whether the patent protected a medication that treated two groups of symptoms or three. The phrase within the patent at issue was the description of the medication treating “itching, burning, and stinging.” One side argued the protection extended to two groups. The first being itching, the second burning and stinging. The other side argued each symptom was its own group. Ultimately the court agreed with the second, pointing out comma use provided the necessary distinction.
There are many examples of the power of language when putting together a patent application, but the important lesson is to recognize that what we include in the application will directly impact our ability to protect the invention.