Patent office plan to beat its backlog elicits cool response

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Concern is growing among university and industry officials that proposed reforms at the US Patent and Trademark Office will not solve the office's problems — and may even degrade the quality of the patents it issues.

In response to a request by Congress, James Rogan, the patent office's director, has developed a five-year plan to clear the office's patent backlog. The strategy includes increasing fees, and farming out patent searches — which track down existing patents and other information relevant to an application — to private contractors.

But critics say that the problems could be better addressed if Congress stopped diverting the office's existing fee income to other projects — since 1992, Congress has siphoned off $672 million in patent fees — and allowed it to hire the examiners it needs.

“I'm encouraged by the patent office's recognition of its problems,” says James Stoffel, chief technical officer at Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York. “But I'm frightened by these first steps.” He and other industry leaders are concerned at the plan's reliance on untested outside contractors.

Last year, Congress told the office to produce a plan to tackle the existing backlog of 400,000 patent applications and to cut the average of two years it takes to issue a patent. On 27 August, Jon Dudas, deputy director of the patent office, briefed a National Academy of Sciences meeting on the plan. It includes hiring 3,000 more examiners by 2008, although the office previously estimated that it actually needs 5,500 more. The office also wants to raise its fees by up to 67% next year.

Charles Garris, a mechanical engineer at George Washington University in Washington DC and a registered patent agent, says that the answer is to hire more examiners. “The rate-determining step of any process is the slowest element,” Garris says. “In this process, it's the very time-consuming step of reading and understanding the applications.”

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Powell, K. Patent office plan to beat its backlog elicits cool response. Nature 419, 100 (2002) doi:10.1038/419100a

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