509.03(a) Duty to Investigate Entitlement to Claim Small Entity Status [R-10.2019]
While small entity status is not difficult to obtain, it should be clearly understood that applicants need to do a complete and thorough investigation of all facts and circumstances before making a determination of actual entitlement to small entity status. 37 CFR 1.27(f). Where entitlement to small entity status is uncertain, it should not be claimed.
The assertion of small entity status (e.g., even by mere payment of the exact small entity basic filing fee) is not appropriate until such an investigation has been completed. For example, where there are three pro se inventors, before one of the inventors pays the small entity basic filing, basic national, or individual designation fee to establish small entity status, the single inventor asserting entitlement to small entity status should check with the other two inventors to determine whether small entity status is appropriate.
If small entity status is desired on the basis that the entity is a small business concern, the investigation should include a review of whether the business is a small business concern as defined by section 3 of the Small Business Act (Public Law 85-536 as amended by Public Law 106-50). Review of whether the business concern meets the size standards set forth in 13 CFR 121.801 through 121.805 to be eligible for reduced patent fees is also appropriate. Additionally, if the business has assigned, granted, conveyed or licensed (or is under an obligation to do so) any rights in the invention to others directly or indirectly, the same review for each other entity would also be appropriate.
Furthermore, once status as a small entity has been established in an application, a new determination of entitlement to small entity status is needed in the application or patent (1) when the issue fee is due and (2) when any maintenance fee is due. If an ex parte reexamination is requested for a patent, the requester must affirmatively state in the reexamination request that it is entitled to small entity in order for a requester to pay the small entity filing fees. For example, requester can affirmatively assert small entity status by checking the appropriate box in line 3 on the transmittal form (PTO/SB/57). It should be appreciated that the costs incurred in appropriately conducting the initial and subsequent investigations may outweigh the benefit of claiming small entity status. For some applicants it may be desirable to file as a non-small entity (by not filing a written assertion of small entity status and by submitting non-small entity fees) rather than undertaking the appropriate investigations which may be both difficult and time-consuming and which may be cost effective only where several applications are involved.
The intent of 37 CFR 1.27 is that the person making the assertion of entitlement to small entity status is the person in a position to know the facts about whether or not status as a small entity can be properly established. That person, thus, has a duty to investigate the circumstances surrounding entitlement to small entity status to the fullest extent. It is important to note that small entity status must not be claimed unless the person or persons can unequivocally make the required self-certification.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office does not give advisory opinions as to whether or not a specific individual or organization qualifies as a small entity. In establishing reduced fees for persons, small business concerns, and nonprofit organizations, the Congressional consideration of the legislation which became Public Law 97-247 indicated an intent that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rely exclusively on a self-certification that a patent applicant qualifies as an independent inventor (now person), small business concern, or nonprofit organization. In addition, it was also stated during Congressional consideration of the legislation that no additional resources would be required to administer the system whereby fees would be reduced for small entities.
In view of the intent expressed during Congressional consideration of the legislation, it would be inappropriate for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to give advisory opinions as to entitlement to small entity status. Accordingly, any individual seeking to establish status as a small entity for purposes of paying the fee in an application or patent must file the assertion required by 37 CFR 1.27 and in so doing is self-certifying entitlement to small entity status.
Consistent with 37 CFR 1.4(d)(4), the payment of a small entity basic filing or national fee constitutes a certification under 37 CFR 11.18(b). Thus, a simple payment of the small entity basic filing, basic national, or individual designation fee, without a specific written assertion, activates the provisions of 37 CFR 1.4(d)(4) and, by that, invokes the self-certification requirement set forth in 37 CFR 11.18(b), regardless of whether the party is a practitioner or non-practitioner.