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

Tuesday Jan 22, 2013

Using a Data-Driven Approach for Quality Improvements

Blog by Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the USPTO David Kappos

I write frequently about patent quality. Quality increases certainty and strengthens the whole innovation ecosystem. Improving patent quality was a key element in building bipartisan support for the America Invents Act, which we are diligently implementing. Our patents team at USPTO met both quality and production targets last year, and today, I’d like to showcase their efforts in seeking continuous improvement in the quality and efficiency of patent examination.

The USPTO is a data-rich agency. The patents team monitors over 90 measures for Quality Index Reporting (QIR). The QIR data helps us spot trends, understand unique technological challenges that impact quality and/or efficiency, and provide management information that can be used to identify areas for improvement. The QIR data allows us to do some remarkable work in improving quality. This past year alone, front line managers used them to give specific training to examiners in restriction practice, art specific training, and compact prosecution to name just a few.

Based on stakeholder feedback, the management team focused on three technology centers in our Patents organization, and I would like to share the approach they took, the results they have achieved, and the course they continue to follow. The specific groups we focused on were the pharmaceutical composition area of TC 1600, the business methods area of TC 3600, and the medical device areas of TC 3700.

In TC 1600, deeper dives into the data revealed instances of significant variance between examiners in allowance rates. The Technology Center initiated open discussions between examiners and supervisors to identify root causes for this variance. Through these discussions, opportunities for improvement surfaced including more concentrated efforts to identify allowable subject matter and negotiate allowances, and more consistent treatment of secondary considerations of obviousness. An action plan was developed, including an external outreach component utilizing the Biotechnology Customer Partnership (BCP), an awareness campaign, and both individual and group training sessions. It is important to note that no particular allowance rate was prescribed in any way, and managers clarified that the purpose of the training was to help facilitate the allowance of allowable subject matter, as well as the clear rejection of claims and subject matter that is not allowable.

In the business methods area of TC 3600, a concern was expressed that examination practices were not consistent with the principles of compact prosecution, citing instances of multiple non-final rejections, reopening of prosecution after final rejections, and more reversals at the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) compared to other art areas. Concerns were also expressed that examiners were unduly strict in allowing claims in this area. After a careful look at the data, we discovered these concerns were not well founded.

In particular, data for fiscal year (FY) 2012 show that only 2.4 percent of the total actions in the business methods area were second or subsequent non-final actions. The data also show that only 2.2 percent of final rejections made in FY12 in this area were reopened, compared to 2.8 percent across the entire patent corps. As far as the performance at the PTAB, the business methods area had an affirmed and affirmed-in-part rate of 70 percent compared to a corps average rate of 64 percent.

So the data showed that compliant prosecutions as well as affirmance rates at the PTAB are actually above corps averages, suggesting that those applications with allowable subject matter are being allowed. And those that should be rejected are being rejected. This indeed provided an opportunity for the applicable stakeholders to improve their understanding of the facts, and perhaps reconsider their own activities.

To further advance our efforts toward continuous improvement, and to ensure both consistency and correctness at the individual case level, we held “town hall” meetings with applicable examination staff and management, pinpointing where we could benefit from additional training. Roundtable discussions and a business method partnership meeting enabled us to obtain input from external stakeholders. All this is continuing to help TC 3600 ensure correct examination decisions across the board.

Finally, the third area, medical devices, made a targeted outreach effort; first to stakeholders at an April 2011 conference at Stanford University, followed by initiation of a medical device partnership designed to open lines of communication and improve stakeholder responsiveness. Initial results from our actions are encouraging and the team looks forward to identifying new areas for improvement. 

Across these three TCs, a key component in our action plan was the proactive and judicious use of USPTO data, coupled with participation by internal and external stakeholders. Mutual understanding of the challenges faced by the innovation community, and those faced by the patent examination corps, will make the system more robust to handle sector-specific technological challenges in a way that improves stewardship of the IP system as a whole.

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