legalzoom.gifLegalZoom, co-founded by Robert L. Shapiro of People v. O.J. Simpson fame, is a do-it-yourself website for getting legal documents but not legal advice. But, of course, this raises the question: if they’re not giving you legal advice, what is it you’re getting for your money?  Well, it appears you get some forms filled out with your specific information.

They claim to take your information and insert this into the proper forms but I have difficulty seeing how that can’t lapse into legal advice. Often, what information is inserted in which box comes down to making a legal judgment call.  Caveat:  the site claims that before you submit your order, a LegalZoom professional (but not a lawyer) will review the answers you provide on the questionnaire for consistency, completeness, spelling and grammar so presumably there is some check on how you filled in the blanks.

Two new services by the company are filing of patent and trademark applications. These services include:

Package 1: Complete Provisional Patent:  File Your Provisional Patent in 3 Easy Steps.  Retail Cost: $199.
Package 1: Standard Trademark. Retail Cost: File Your Trademark Online in 3 Easy Steps.  Retail Cost: $159.

Patent filings are divided between provisional patent applications, design patent applications and utility patent applications. I’m not sure lay inventors will fully appreciate the differences between these types of applications.

Under provisional patent applications, the site assures you that you will:

Receive immediate “Patent Pending” status and secure a priority filing date for a full 12 months. A Provisional Patent protects the way your invention works and how it’s used. It’s a quick and inexpensive way to protect your machine, manufactured item or business process.

Would everyone understand all the implications of provisional applications?  I’m not so sure.  Provisional applications sound nice but can be a dangerous step if entered into without proper guidance. Even the USPTO offers a laundry list of cautions about their use:

  • Provisional applications are not examined on their merits.
  • It is recommended that the disclosure of the invention in the provisional application be as complete as possible. In order to obtain the benefit of the filing date of a provisional application the claimed subject matter in the later filed non-provisional application must have support in the provisional application.
  • A provisional application automatically becomes abandoned when its pendency expires 12 months after the provisional application filing date by operation of law. Applicants must file a non-provisional application claiming benefit of the earlier provisional application filing date in the USPTO before the provisional application pendency period expires in order to preserve any benefit from the provisional-application filing.

The section on utility patent applications describes a different approach:

First, Claim Your Idea using LegalZoom’s Patent Pending Service. Before you commit to filing your patent, you can receive immediate “patent pending” status for your invention along with key materials and services needed to prepare your patent application.

Next, File Your Patent using an Attorney Service Package. An attorney will reference your LegalZoom materials and work with you directly to draft and file your patent application. You’ll enjoy expert patent attorney services and consultation for a fraction of the typical cost.

billoreillyheadshot.jpegI’m not sure how you get immediate “patent pending” status for your invention before you even “commit to filing your patent.”  Using the words “patent pending,” or any word importing that an application for patent has been made, when no application for patent has been made, or if made, is not pending, is subject to penalties under 35 U.S.C. 292.   I’m also not sure it’s really a big selling point that it is endorsed by Bill O’Reilly but I’ll leave that to others.

The Patent Pending Service does include a “Provisional Application for Patent,” a comprehensive (their word, not mine) search for prior patents and a preliminary review and assessment by a patent attorney.  See caveats on provisional filings above. The bottom line is simple:  if the disclosure in the provisional is not adequate to support the invention, no priority date will be obtained.

Then again, the site does have lots of disclaimers like:

Furthermore, the legal information on this site is not legal advice and is not guaranteed to be correct, complete or up-to-date. Because the law changes rapidly, LegalZoom cannot guarantee that all the information on the site is completely current. The law is different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and is also subject to interpretation by different courts. The law is a personal matter, and no general information or legal tool like the kind LegalZoom provides can fit every circumstance. Therefore, if you need legal advice for your specific problem, or if your specific problem is too complex to be addressed by our tools, you should consult a licensed attorney in your area.

Interesting.  So, I guess you can’t assume anything they do for you is correct.  I’m not endorsing or recommending for or against anything here, I’m just offering that this site does exist.  I will tell you that our firm often does more legal work for people that don’t ask for advice ahead of time than do.  That is, we do more work after a client has already forged ahead and gotten into trouble than if they had asked for guidance beforehand.  I offer this tidbit without fear of losing lots of business — very few people will take the recommendation of seeking advice early and often.

The most shocking part of the LegalZoom site is the note that “Patent attorneys typically charge $600/hour.”  [Special note to readers, if you are paying $600/hour for patent drafting, please contact me immediately.  I know no one who charges that much.]

LegalZoom claims to have helped over 400,000 satisfied customers take care of common legal matters and that their documents contain “advanced provisions not found in simple “do-it-yourself” kits or manuals.” At least they offer a 100% Satisfaction Guarantee so that if you are not satisfied with the services for any reason, they will correct the situation or provide a refund, your choice.

It’s a minefield of legal dangers out there so tread carefully.

See also: Some Caveat Emptor for Provisional Applications

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  1. “But, of course, this begs the question: if they’re not giving you legal advice, what is it you’re getting for your money?”

    Um. “Begs the question” refers to “question-begging”–i.e., a circular (logically illegitimate) argument. A lot of people lately use it to mean “this brings up the question of” or something like this.

  2. Stephan,

    You’re correct. It raises the question.

    Mea culpa (or whatever term would fit here).


  3. Please, read the site thoroughly before bashing someone coming up with a new and innovative way to file patents. You stated that LZ offers 3 patents — provisional, utility and design. Then you describe their “utility provisional patent application.” Which one are you referring to, utility or provisional?

    Actually, what you are describing is their full utility patent, and it looks like they’re working with an actual law firm on that one. The process is in two steps. First, you first file a provisional application — hence, you get “patent pending” status, in a completely legal way — and then you work with a law firm to file the full utility patent. Seems smart to me, because during the second step, the law firm can reference the provisional application and work more efficiently.

    Sure, there are reasons to be wary of provisional applications. But if you want to be protected while “testing the waters” and before committing to maybe $5,000 – $10,000 for a full-blown utility patent, it’s certainly a smart option.

  4. Adam,

    I apologize for the confusion. I ran out of time and didn’t fully make my comments clear, as you describe. Also, the term “utility provisional patent application” was a typo — it’s “utility patent application.”

    Otherwise, I agree with you completely that filing a provisional patent application can be the best route in certain circumstances. It can save a lot of time and money while preserving patent rights. My fear is that most people will not understand when it makes sense or not.

    More importantly, I am concerned that some may file a provisional patent that is lacking some required element and will find out at some later date that they do not have an effective filing (priority) date so that any intervening events — publications, sales, offers for sale, etc. — will then act to irretrievably lose their rights.

    I am currently working with an inventor who filed a provisional in 2004 and then a utility (regular) application in 2005, claiming priority back to the provisional. Unfortunately, when he filed the provisional, he did not adequately describe all the elements of the invention and the examiner refused the priority date. Because he published an article between those dates, he permanently lost any foreign filing rights.

    I’m not bashing anyone, I’m merely pointing out that many, many things can go wrong without proper advice. In the end, the absolute goal is to obtain a patent that is both (1) a valid and enforceable and (2) infringed by competitors. A patent that is either invalid or valid but so narrow as to not be infringed is completely useless.


  5. […] But Setrue seems to also be in competition with those same professional services providers by offering expert patent searching, patent opinions and even provisional patent filings (as we’ve mentioned with other providers using this model, we’re not sure everyone would understand all the trade-offs of provisional applications). […]