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Director's Forum: A Blog from USPTO's Leadership

Monday Jun 09, 2014

An Update on Sustainable Funding for the USPTO

Blog by Deputy Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Deputy Director of the USPTO Michelle K. Lee

I’d like to take some time today to follow up a recent guest blog about our FY 2015 budget by our Chief Financial Officer, Tony Scardino. That blog gave an overview of what the USPTO anticipates collecting in fees in FY 2015, what we plan to spend, our staffing levels, and what we intend to accomplish. It also provided a link to the full congressional budget submission

While this budget document provides great information, at 197 pages it can, admittedly, be a somewhat intimidating read. With that in mind, there is one set of numbers in particular that I think are worth noting and taking some time to discuss in the context of our new fee setting authority granted under the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (AIA).

In the “Sustainable Funding” section of the budget, you’ll find charts showing our patents and trademarks “operating reserve balance” (shown on pages 15 and 17, respectively). These operating reserves are a critical part of our sustainable funding model and an important component of our first fee setting in March 2013. The reserves are intended to allow the USPTO to avoid the operational starts and stops associated with the funding uncertainties faced by a fee-funded agency, as well as plan for long-term financial stability. A great example of the importance of these reserves came at the beginning of this fiscal year, when the Congress was not able to reach a budget agreement and a lapse in appropriations resulted in a 16-day shutdown of most of the federal government. Thanks to our operating reserves, the USPTO was able to stay open and continue examining patent and trademark applications during this time.

Our target has been to build an operating reserve of a minimum of three months for our patent operations and a four- to six-month reserve for our trademark operations. We’ve already reached this level in our Trademark business line, and that now has us in a position to be able to propose reducing certain trademark fees in FY 2015. 

As you’ll see on page 15, we’re projecting that our patent reserve balance will increase fairly steadily from the end of FY 2013 through FY 2019—eventually growing to $1.9 billion. While this future growth is based on a number of assumptions that could—and likely will—change, we have greater certainty about the reserve levels over the next year and a half. Based on the latest information available, we expect to be approaching a three month patent reserve balance amount by the end of the current fiscal year and will likely exceed it by the end of FY 2015.

A fair question to ask at this point—especially for those who recall the plans laid out in our 2013 fee-setting to grow the operating reserve to target levels by 2018—might be “Why is the reserve growing so quickly?” The faster than expected growth is due to several factors, including adjustments to many of the assumptions that drive our projections. For example, the economic environment and application filing growth, fee payment behavior after the fee schedule and first inventor to file implementation in March 2013, and patent production estimates have all been modified based on the information that is now available to us.

We recognize the significance of the change in our estimates and are paying close attention to the factors contributing to these changes as we gather more data to fine-tune our projections. Rest assured that the USPTO is aware of the issue and we have not forgotten the commitments we made to our stakeholders when we set our fees last year. We will soon be starting our biennial fee review, proceeding in the same transparent manner that we did in the first round of AIA fee-setting. We’ll be assessing our operating environment (e.g., economy, court decisions, and fee-paying behaviors), operating costs, our fee projections, target operating reserve level, and strategic priorities (including those in the USPTO 2014-2018 Strategic Plan) and agency needs. We will be working with our stakeholder community to gather their input.

We recognize the responsibility entrusted to us under the AIA, and we are hard at work to be good stewards of the agency, its resources, and your trust.

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