Remarks by Director Michelle K. Lee at Patent Community Symposium

USPTO Director Michelle K. Lee

April 27, 2016, 9:10 a.m.

Patent Community Symposium

Before and After: How Is Enhanced Patent Quality Making a Difference

Thank you, Valencia, and good morning, everyone! Welcome to the Patent Community Symposium. We have a full agenda planned for the day, and I’m so glad you’re here to be a part of it.  I also want to welcome those who are participating from one of our regional offices in Detroit, Dallas, Denver, and San Jose. It is a joy to bring our stakeholders together from coast-to-coast, exactly as we envisioned that our regional offices would be able to do for us. Last year, we hosted the Patent Quality Summit to kick-off our Enhanced Quality Patent Initiative, and we wanted to walk you through some of the changes – large and small – that we have made over the past year. 

In effecting a permanent organizational and culture shift toward patent quality, we have committed this agency to ambitious goals of reducing our backlog, ensuring transparency, empowering our employees, and collaborating with our stakeholders. This last goal has always been especially important to me, which is why one of the earliest messages I took on the road, from one end of the country to the other, and to many different groups of stakeholders, was the need to build a better patent system together. As a longtime patent practitioner in the private sector, I understood the key insights that customers of the patent system could bring to bear on making it better. If you have a science or engineering background, you know that a closed system is one that doesn't exchange any matter or information with its surroundings, and isn't subject to any force whose source is external to the system. An open system, however, is one in which feedback is continuously exchanged with its surrounding environment. That feedback is analyzed and changes are made as needed to achieve the system’s goals. In a sense our patent system in this country was, for much of its early history, more closed than not; changed only by a few major acts of legislation over the first couple of centuries.

But thanks to a lot of changes in recent years, including the America Invents Act, it’s a system that is more open than ever been before. And it’s been my goal since taking over as head of the agency to open it even further. This began with a dedicated staff here at USPTO. We cannot embrace change in our IP system without close collaboration with our dedicated corps of patent examiners–one of the most highly educated and talented workforces you will find anywhere in the federal government. Next, we considered all ideas, big and small, from within our agency, in developing new ways to improve patent quality since the summit here last year. And we have worked to arm our patent examiners with the resources, tools, and training they need to foster enhanced patent quality. Organizationally, we established a specific division within the Patents division to focus exclusively on patent quality. And we promoted Valencia Martin-Wallace to lead it, as the first Deputy Commissioner of Patent Quality in our agency’s history. In doing this, we wanted to ensure that someone was in place to guide the various new patent quality initiatives coming down the pike, and to ensure that our agency’s emphasis on patent quality continued well into the future. This organizational change can be visualized in the slide as well as the tent cards on the tables throughout the room. 

Consider just a few examples, which have visualizations to accompany them: First, we established a pilot program to address clarity of the record, where examiners assess best practices to achieve record clarity—whether by putting interpretations of key claim terms on the record, by more completely recording an interview summary, or by documenting reasons for allowance. This is very important to us. When examiners make patentability determinations, it’s critical that their decisions are both correct and clearly articulated on record so the property boundaries around an invention are well defined and can be easily understood. Historically, the agency focused on correctness and clarity, but we did not necessarily place equal emphasis on both. Moving forward, our goal is to ensure that a prosecution record reflects the examiner’s ultimate patentability decision along with reasons for rejecting or allowing an application. And most importantly, in the coming months we will be sharing the best practices identified in the Clarity of Record pilot with the entire examining corps—to keep the feedback in that open system flowing and driving further improvements.

We also have a new process involving the art brought forward during AIA trial proceedings. In those proceedings, third parties can challenge the validity of an issued patent as lacking novelty or on obviousness grounds based on prior art.  Our goal is to harness the art raised during these Board proceedings to enhance examination of a related application—so our examiners can reach more expeditious decisions on patentability.  Additionally, in opening the flow of information from the PTAB to our examining corps, we may be able to identify examination best practices or deficiencies in certain areas that we can propagate or correct through additional examiner training.  

Third, we have developed some new quality control measures that we believe will make a big difference. Any business that produces a product conducts routine quality control checks to monitor the quality of the product. The USPTO is no different.  But, in the past, we did not have a standardized way of conducting these checks.  Nor did we focus to the same degree on correctness of a patentability decision and clarity of the record.  Further, we did not capture our review results in a single database, making it very difficult to identify trouble spots. Today, as a result of our Quality Initiative, we have resolved these deficiencies. Every reviewer will now use the same form when evaluating an examiner’s final work product, and that form places equal weight on correctness and clarity. What’s more, every reviewer will enter their evaluation information into a single database so we can mine the data and identify trends and outliers. This will be extremely helpful in further iterations of our quality improvements.

Finally, to assist examiners in finding the best references swiftly, we’re planning to conduct automated pre-searches using IT tools. We’re already taking advantage of work-sharing relationships with foreign patent offices to obtain the art identified by their examiners in counterpart applications for our examiners.  Using both approaches, our examiners, the haystack available across the globe. Securing the most relevant prior art as early during the examination cycle as possible is critical for an examiner to make a correct and efficient patentability determination and accomplish compact prosecution.  These are just some highlights of the initiatives you will learn about today. 

I want to thank you – those here at the USPTO campus and watching via webcast – for the valuable input we received through Federal Register Notices, public roundtables, webinars, and more. In the best open-system fashion, has truly been a team effort. But it is also just a first step in a longer journey.Because in a country like ours that is founded on and committed to innovation, it will be our job at this agency to ensure that patent quality and our larger patent system keeps up with the rapid pace of American innovation. There has never been a time in history when patents were more important than they are now, which is why our conversations here today – and at future patent quality summits and symposiums – is so important. Yesterday was World IP Day. I had the opportunity to mark that occasion both here at the USPTO building as well as on Capitol Hill. Both events highlighted our nation’s key leadership role in safeguarding IP rights. That reminder only underscores the important work being done here today to build a world-class patent quality system for American entrepreneurs and innovators. We owe our nation’s and our world’s innovators no less. Thank you, best wishes to you all for a productive symposium.

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