Daredevil: Yellow is a fantastic retelling of Daredevil’s origin story by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, whose watercolor illustrations are a great match for the setting and mood of the story. The subtitle is a reference to the color of Daredevil’s original costume. It’s part of a related series by Loeb and Sale that includes Spider-Man: Blue, Hulk: Gray, and the (hopefully forthcoming) Captain America: White. The story is framed as a retrospective by Murdock, relating how he came to start a law practice with Foggy Nelson, become Daredevil, and fall in love with Karen Page.
Nelson and Murdock’s first big break comes when the Fantastic Four approach the firm for representation. We don’t get a lot of detail regarding the work, but Reed Richards describes it as “the lease on the Baxter Building, patents, that sort of thing.” Foggy eagerly replies “We’d be happy to. And anything else you might want to bring us, Mr. Richards.” This is all incidental to the main storyline, but it raises an issue near and dear to my heart: the practice of patent law.
I. The Peculiarities of Patent Law
The practice of patent law can be divided into two broad categories: practicing before the Patent and Trademark Office and “everything else.” Practicing before the PTO includes:
preparing and prosecuting any patent application, consulting with or giving advice to a client in contemplation of filing a patent application or other document with the Office, drafting the specification or claims of a patent application; drafting an amendment or reply to a communication from the Office that may require written argument to establish the patentability of a claimed invention; and drafting a communication for a public use, interference, reexamination proceeding, petition, appeal to the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences, or other proceeding.
37 C.F.R. § 11.5. That’s quite the laundry list, but basically, this means drafting and applying for patents, which can involve a lot of communication with the Patent Office, including some adversarial procedures in which a patent is opposed by another party. It also includes giving advice and counsel regarding alternatives to patents, including those available under state law. Note that it doesn’t include anything to do with trademarks; with one very narrow exception, only attorneys can do that, and any attorney can. 37 C.F.R. § 11.14.
“Everything else” includes other transactional matters (e.g. negotiating patent licenses) and litigation (e.g. suing for patent infringement).
Why does this distinction matter? Because not just anyone—or any attorney—can represent someone before the Patent and Trademark Office, whereas any attorney can handle “everything else.” Admission to practice before the PTO requires a technical background (broadly speaking: a bachelor’s degree in science or engineering or the equivalent, see here for the complicated details) and passing the registration examination, which is sometimes called “the patent bar exam.” The examination consists of 100 multiple choice questions, mainly derived from the Manual of Patent Examining Procedure, the rulebook for patent examiners. The pass rate for the exam is considerably lower than most state bar exams.
Notably, admission to practice before the PTO does not require a law degree or a license to practice law. Non-lawyers who pass the registration exam become patent agents and lawyers who do so become patent attorneys. Both have the same abilities to practice before the PTO, but only a patent attorney can handle “everything else.” If a patent agent later becomes an attorney, he or she can pay a fee to have their registration changed to say “patent attorney,” but there is no functional difference.
II. So What’s the Problem?
Actually, there isn’t necessarily a problem. Reed did say “patents,” not “patent applications,” so it could be that he’s talking about something like negotiating licenses or handling an infringement suit. While patent attorneys often deal with the full spectrum of patent law, it is not uncommon for patent litigators or patent license specialists not to be patent attorneys. So Reed could have a separate firm handle the work of obtaining patents (aka “patent prosecution”) and leave licensing and litigation to Nelson and Murdock. Or Reed could even represent himself before the PTO, which is always an option even for someone who is not a patent attorney or agent, albeit not one that I would recommend, even for someone as smart as Reed.
Alternatively, Nelson or Murdock could be a patent attorney. I couldn’t find any information on their undergraduate degrees, so it’s possible that one or both of them have the required technical background. Statistically this is unlikely, since only about 7% of attorneys have a science or engineering degree. R. Kim Craft and Joe G. Baker, Do Economists Make Better Lawyers? Undergraduate Degree Field and Lawyer Earnings, 34 J. of Econ. Educ. 263, 271 (2003). Still, it’s possible, and Murdock clearly has an aptitude for mechanical engineering, since his billy club is chock full of clever gadgets of his own design.
It’s a pretty minor issue, but I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to talk about this particular quirk of patent law. I’ll be taking a look at the other books in the Loeb & Sale series in the future, but until then I recommend checking out Daredevil: Yellow for yourself!