Ballard Spahr attorney Charley Brown with awards his firm has won from Georgia Lawyers for the Arts. (Courtesy photo)

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has named Georgia PATENTS its No. 1 pro bono patent program in the country for the number of lawyers and patent agents it fielded who helped low-income inventors with patent applications.

Georgia Lawyers for the Arts, which manages Georgia PATENTS, in turn named Ballard Spahr its Law Firm of the Year for the third year in a row—ever since the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) launched the pro bono patent program.

The USPTO rolled out the pro bono patent program in 2015, partnering with local groups in each of the 50 states, including Georgia Lawyers for the Arts, to form Georgia PATENTS. The program screens and refers Georgia inventors who can’t afford a lawyer to patent lawyers in the appropriate discipline.

To be eligible, an individual’s household income must be less than three times the poverty level ($33,510 for one person). Nonprofits with budgets of less than $1 million and small businesses with four or fewer members who meet income requirements also may apply.

Last year, according to the USPTO, 85 volunteer patent lawyers and agents donated 50 or more hours of time through the national program to help inventors with their patent applications. Eighteen of them—more than 20 percent—did the work through Georgia PATENTS.

Of the 18 Georgia volunteers, fully half were intellectual property lawyers at Ballard Spahr, including Charley Brown, its Atlanta pro bono partner, who won a special individual recognition from the USPTO last year for the hours he has donated through the program.

Brown said he’s worked on about a dozen patent applications through Georgia PATENTS, including ones where he’s supervised associates. A patent application can take anywhere from 20 to 40 hours to prepare, he said, depending on the technology involved and how developed the invention is.

Other firms with lawyers and patent agents racking up 50 or more pro bono hours on patent applications were: Alston & Bird, Eversheds Sutherland, Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, Smith Gambrell & Russell and Thomas Horstemeyer. Individual practitioners were Mary An Merchant, the GC of Poly-Med Inc.; John Sweet of Southeastern IP Consulting; and Nora Tocups, who has her own firm in Decatur.

Georgia PATENTS has been popular at Ballard Spahr’s Atlanta office because it’s a way patent prosecutors can do pro bono, Brown said. “We have a lot of patent prosecutors here, and, typically, they are very technical people. They may not feel comfortable getting involved in a landlord-tenant dispute. This program is a great way for them to participate in pro bono doing something they feel comfortable doing.”

Ballard’s local office has a heavy concentration of IP lawyers because the Philadelphia-based firm entered Atlanta in 2008 by acquiring local IP firm Needle & Rosenberg.

One patent that Brown worked on last year, supervising associate Jonas Jarbholm, was for a new type of sunglasses that attach to eyeglasses.

Instead of sun-protective lenses that clip on over eyeglass lenses, inventor Melanie Bailey designed an actual sunglass frame that attaches over the spectacles’ entire frame. That creates a more fashion-forward look, Brown said, that can be customized with, for example, leopard-print sunglass frames.

Bailey won a patent for her invention, No. US 9,851,587 B2, last December. “It sailed through the patent office,” Brown said.

For paying clients, Brown handles a lot of complex telecom patents that address issues such as encoding video and delivering movies to customers’ set-top boxes more quickly. “It’s a lot of data analytics,” he said. “It’s not the kind of stuff I talk about at cocktail parties.”