September's featured article
USPTO Year in Review – and a Look Forward
It has been just over one year since I was sworn in as director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office and I’d like to use the opportunity to take stock of where we are, and also to let you know about things we are working on for the coming fiscal year to address our goals of reducing the patent backlog, improving quality and providing more assistance to the independent inventor community.
For independent inventors, having a patent opens the door to critical funding that can move innovation from the drawing board to the marketplace. The creation of new jobs fuels our economy and keeps the United States in a worldwide leadership role in the development of new technologies that can benefit everyone. The USPTO is strongly committed to the independent inventor community and we are working at all levels to provide assistance to independent inventors during their patent prosecution.
During the past year, I have participated in six public roundtables for independent inventors. It has been a great opportunity for me to learn about the issues facing the independent inventor community. One idea that came from these meetings is the proposed revision in “Missing Parts” practice which, as proposed, would effectively provide a 12-month extension to the 12-month provisional patent application period.
We have also sought ways to streamline the application process for applicants and to offer many different modes of assistance. For example, we launched the Ombudsman Pilot Program to provide direct assistance in handling application processing problems when the normal channels have not provided satisfactory results. Ombudsmen are in place throughout the USPTO’s Technology Centers. Pro se applicants, attorneys or agents can now access and use the Ombudsman Pilot Program via the USPTO website, www.uspto.gov. The Technology Center Ombudsman will contact you by telephone within one business day to obtain specifics regarding the problem you are having processing your application. The ombudsman will work with the appropriate office staff to address your concerns and get your application back on track.
Communicating vital information that applicants need to successfully obtain a patent is also a major element of our support to independent inventors. The Inventor’s Eye newsletter was started earlier this year for the express purpose of providing you with news and information about our programs and services such as the Patent and Trademark Depository Libraries (PTDL) featured in this issue.
We also hold an annual Independent Inventor Conference here at our Alexandria, Va., headquarters. This year’s conference is scheduled for November 4 and 5, and features guest speakers and experts in the field of intellectual property. It is a great opportunity for independent inventors to network and learn about intellectual property rights.
Other new communication channels opened this year include my “Director’s Forum” blog which can be accessed on our website, www.uspto.gov. Just recently, we’ve begun sending the director’s blog out via Google Feedburner so anyone can subscribe. We’ve implemented “Feedback Channels” to solicit public input on new and proposed initiatives and we’ve received a lot of useful feedback. We have established a Facebook page to engage with the public and the intellectual property community directly and provide real-time information about our programs and services.
Of course, all of our education and outreach mentioned above must be backed by an efficient patent system. Our challenge of reducing the backlog and pendency must be met so that all applicants can be guaranteed a high quality, timely patent. Last year, the USPTO had a backlog of more than 750,000 patent applications. As of this writing, we have reduced the backlog to under 720,000 applications, which is remarkable if you consider that filings are up four percent this year and the size of our workforce has decreased.
Here are some of the specific actions we have taken to help reduce the backlog.
Encouraging Compact Prosecution
Compact prosecution involves finding the core issues with patent applications and resolving them as early in the examination process as possible. One way to encourage such practice is to conduct interviews between applicants and examiners.
Interviews have increased significantly in 2010, in part due to our First Action Interview Pilot Program which allows participants to conduct an interview with the examiner after reviewing the results of a prior art search. For applicants generally—and especially for independent inventors—an interview can make all the difference in whether the inventor is successful in receiving a patent. So we’re doing everything we can to encourage interviews between applicants and examiners.
Hiring more examiners
We are also working to increase the size of our patent examiner corps. We’ve launched a targeted hiring program to focus on recruiting experienced former examiners and intellectual property (IP) professionals who can get up to speed examining patent applications with a minimal amount of training time.
Upgrading our IT Systems
Another critical project involves upgrading our information technology (IT) systems. We have already started the process to move our Trademarks IT infrastructure into a “cloud” computing environment, which will improve the stability, availability and performance of the systems that support trademark examination and public access to USPTO Trademarks information. On the Patents side, we’re building a new patent examination IT system from end to end. This project involves reengineering the pre-exam, workflow, examination, and publication processes.
We have also implemented or proposed several applicant-driven patent acceleration programs in the past year. These include the Green Technology Pilot Program, Project Exchange (which we initially piloted with independent inventors before expanding to all applicants), and our Three-Track proposal, which would allow applicants to control the speed at which their applications are examined including to receive 12-month processing on applicant’s request.
We have also diligently advanced international work-sharing initiatives, as we believe work-sharing is an important tool to speed the processing of patent applications filed in multiple jurisdictions. We recently published a chart describing our many work-sharing initiatives that I hope will be a useful resource for our applicants.
And of course, we are continuing to provide excellent quality examination on the trademark side of our operation. While the USPTO has consistently met Trademarks’ first and final action quality targets, Trademarks has established a new measure that focuses on the comprehensive excellence of the entire office action. The USPTO sought input from stakeholders in determining how to define excellence including by having various IP bar groups review and discuss the quality of trademarks office actions.
It has been a busy year here at the USPTO and the coming year will be just as busy. The entire team at the USPTO is committed to making improvements across the board to give America’s inventors the opportunity to thrive in a global economy. Thanks to the hard work of our employees and the support of our stakeholders, we are making solid headway.