While it may seem unbelievable to the average layperson (note political correctness – layPERSON), some attorneys are unethical, even some PATENT attorneys. (In The Matter of S. Michael Bender)
Back in the 1990s – the mills of justice grind slowly – Bender was employed by American Inventors Corp., a so-called “invention promotion” firm. AIC charged inventors a fixed fee to promote their inventions, promising to refund the fee if AIC failed to procure a patent on the invention.
The agreement, however, failed to specify what kind of patent would be procured, and AIC satisfied its express obligation to the inventors by procuring design patents on their inventions. (For the reader unversed in patent matters, a utility patent covers the way in which an invention works, while a design patent merely covers how it looks.)
Between 1993 and 1999, Bender handled 1,000 cases for AIC. In 1999, investigators at the PTO began an inquiry into Bender’s activities. The PTO ultimately concluded that Bender “had neglected clients who lacked knowledge of the two types of patents by not telling them they were getting only design patents that most likely had minimal commercial value.”
They further found that Bender’s relationship with AIC created a “potential” conflict of interest. Bender sought to defend his actions by arguing that many of the design patent applications were already pending when he assumed responsibility for the cases from a prior AIC attorney, and he had assumed that the prior attorney had advised the clients concerning design patents.
Since the prior AIC attorney had been disbarred for the same conduct of which Bender was accused, the PTO declined to accept this argument. (Apparently, in addition to being ethically challenged, Bender is not too bright.) He was disbarred from practice before the Patent Office, although PTO rules allow disbarred attorneys to apply for readmission after 5 years.
THE LESSON TO BE LEARNED: Avoid “invention promotion” firms.
I've heard only negative things about invention promotion firms. Perhaps one of the more unfortunate consequences of this particular case is that it may help to undercut the merit of design patents. I think that design patents are interesting and valuable assets that may become increasingly popular. It's a shame that bad actors like AIC may bring them into ill repute.