G Nataraj, a chemistry graduate and practising lawyer, started off 18 years ago as a registered patent agent. In 1998, he co-founded Subramaniam, Nataraj & Associates, an intellectual property law firm providing legal assistance to domestic and international clients in filing and registering patents, trademarks, industrial designs and copyrights. Nataraj has worked with over 2,500 clients across companies and institutions, including Lupin, Cadila, Intel, Procter & Gamble, the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. His firm takes up around 200 applications every month.
"Over the past few years, the business has grown exponentially," he says. "We employ 15 patent agents and are looking to hire more, but there is a skill shortage." The dearth of competent patent agents has begun to pinch firms like Subramaniam, Nataraj & Associates.
At present, there are only 1,626 registered patent agents in the country, which is quite inadequate. "The country needs at least 2,500 agents right now," says Nataraj. Changes in IP laws, coupled with trade development in India, has led to a sharp jump in patent filings in the country. In 2004-05, for instance, 17,466 applications were filed, which has grown to 37,000 in 2010/11. With the number of applications expected to cross 50,000 in the next three years, there is a pressing need for more agents.
Patent agents are professionals with a science background who have cleared the annual exam conducted by the Patent Office. Their job involves analysing the patentability of an invention, drafting documents and pursuing them at the Patent Office.
Law firms, educational institutes and corporates such as pharma, biotech, and information technology sector companies routinely hire patent agents. "Besides having knowledge of patent-related laws, the agents should also know the range of protection they can offer a client's invention. There are many colleges that offer courses in patent law. However, they lag behind in providing practical training," says Shamnad Basheer, Professor in IP law at Kolkata-based National University of Juridical Sciences.
While all those who have passed the Patent Office exam are in demand, law firms prefer those with law degrees as well. It makes sense: an agent without a law degree is not allowed to handle litigation when a client is denied a patent by the authorities.
"Law firms have to deal with a wide range of clients where they have to offer end-to-end solutions relating to a patent grant," says Basheer. Starting salaries for agents at top law firms vary between Rs 30,000 and Rs 40,000 per month. "For the corporate sector and scientific institutions, agents with strong domain expertise, including PhDs, are preferred," he says.
The small and medium enterprise sector also has immense opportunities for independent patent agents. "Patenting activity by SMEs in India is still modest compared to that in developed economies. But this is going to change rapidly," says Raghavendra Saha, Director, Patent Facilitating Centre. SMEs which cannot afford to employ law firms or set up in-house teams will opt for services of patent agents who are practising on their own, he adds.