California inventors with limited resources to pay big-firm legal bills can look forward to the Oct. 23 launch of a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office-backed pro bono patent program.

The California Inventors Assistance Program, which was announced Monday, will give pro bono patenting help to individuals and businesses. The program stems from a mandate in the America Invents Act to establish regional pro bono centers for inventors and entrepreneurs. It follows similar programs in Minnesota, launched in June 2011, and Colorado, which started this past April.

The California project’s steering committee includes San Francisco-based California Lawyers for the Arts, Intel Corp. and Fenwick & West.

“It’s rare to have someone with a patent attorney kind of background to be able to provide pro bono services in their sweet spot,” said Fenwick intellectual property partner Stuart Meyer.

The program’s steering committee has been working on structural issues. One example is options for volunteer lawyers who are unable to make a multiyear commitment to see the patent application through to issuance, Meyer said. Another is building in enough flexibility so that volunteers can meet their individual firm’s pro bono guidelines and thresholds, he said.

“Patents traditionally have been a ‘game of kings’-type thing. It’s great to see efforts being made so smaller inventors can take advantage of the system,” Meyer said.

California Lawyers for the Arts, a nonprofit that provides arts arbitration and mediation, has been getting more and more inquires about patent issues, said Bob Pimm, the organization’s chief learning officer and director of legal services. “We’re a natural fit,” he said.

Pimm said 10 law firms besides Fenwick were officially involved so far. They are Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton; Lowenstein Sandler; McDermott Will & Emery; Nye, Peabody, Stirling, Hale & Miller.; O’Melveny & Myers; Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe; Perkins Coie; SNR Denton; Squire Sanders & Dempsey; and Weil, Gotshal & Manges.

Eight other companies besides Intel are involved, including The Clorox Co. and Microsoft Corp.

The programs give some pro se patent applicants another avenue, said John Calvert, acting associate commissioner for the PTO’s office of innovation development. That’s a good development, he said, because “working with a pro se applicant actually takes a lot more time for our examiners.” He added that such applicants also have a much higher rate of application abandonment.

About 1,100 to 1,200 pro se patent filers a year are from California, Calvert said.

Once California is off the ground, the PTO has set a quick pace for new rollouts. It hopes a similar Texas “will be ready to go around mid-November and New York City sometime in December,” Calvert said. And a Washington program is expected during the last two months of the year. “That’s five big ones this year.”

The goal is 10 more programs in 2013 and more in 2014 to fill in geographical gaps, Calvert said.

Meanwhile, in Minnesota, the LegalCORPS Inventor Assistance Program has matched 23 eligible applicants with volunteer patent lawyers, according to executive director Michael Vitt. The PTO has also issued patents to two clients in the program, he said.

In Colorado, the Pro Bono Patent Initiative officially got off the ground in August following the April soft launch, said Nina Wang, co-chairwoman of the Colorado steering committee for the program, known as ProBoPat. Wang is a partner in the Denver office of Faegre Baker Daniels.

At the last count ProBoPat had matched 10 people with volunteers, Wang said. “It really allows professionals to help smaller applicants navigate what can be a complicated patent system,” she said. “It’s almost a completely different language to go back and forth with the patent office.”

Sheri Qualters is a reporter with The National Law Journal, a Recorder affiliate.