“Believe it or not, in our patent office — now, this is embarrassing — this is an institution responsible for protecting and promoting innovation — our patent office receives more than 80 percent of patent applications electronically, then manually prints them out, scans them, and enters them into an outdated case management system. This is one of the reasons why the average processing time for a patent is roughly three years. Imminently solvable; hasn’t been solved yet.”
— President Barack Obama, Forum on Modernizing Government, White House, January 14, 2010
While growing tides of patent reform may be starting to roll in through congress, one of the biggest problems facing the state of patents in America has yet to be addressed: the efficiency of the US Patent and Trademark Office.
As it currently stands, the USPTO is in a state of tremendous disorder. It has a backlog of over 1.2 million patent applications. That is up from a backlog of 770,000 applications in the middle of 2009. This growth has been unprecedented, and sadly the USPTO has been unable to keep pace with this exploding growth.
The efficiency of this government agency has long been a joke of attorneys, due in part to the technological gaps that the President noted above, but also due to a long and continuing tradition of underfunding and understaffing. In mid-June of last year, the USPTO had in its employment 6,285 patent examiners. This staff can only process about 450,000 applications each year, which has made it impossible to handle the growling load of patents sitting in their back yard.
The Patent office itself aims for an 18-month turn around for each of the applications it receives, yet the average processing time currently is estimated to be around 3.5 years, with more complex applications taking even longer. At this rate, the USPTO is only going to sink deeper and deeper into a hole of patent filing backlogs without a ladder to climb out.
So what needs to be done?
Congress seems more worried about the lawsuits surrounding patent filings, acknowledged by the current patent reform bill in the works that notably lacks any solutions to this backlog of gross inefficiency. I feel that while their intentions are good, they have their priorities in the wrong place. Right now, we, as a nation, are trying to pull ourselves out of the financial sinkhole of 2008, and we’re actually getting there, slowly but surely. In the grand plan for economic improvement, much attention has been given to the encouragement of small-business growth and how to best achieve that. The fact is, many small businesses rely heavily upon their ability to secure patent rights for new and exciting ideas before deciding to bring their ideas to the market. While the legal battles around patent violations may have gotten a little ridiculous, and congress should step in, these battles affect the few, while small business growth effects the nation.
Those 1.2 million backlogged patents provide an incredible amount of wealth for the American economy and these small business. It is foreseeable then that by processing these applications more efficiently, the economy as a whole may feel a boost from small business finally securing patents for their exciting innovations. Companies will begin. Jobs will be created. Markets will re-expand.
Thus, I believe that the focus of patent reform right now needs to drive towards improved efficiency and funding. It needs a larger staff and resource system that can support the demand being placed on the system. It needs the tools to make the processing of applications not only digital, but also easy to submit, maintain, and find. It needs to become a component of the bureaucratic American government that is no longer a laughing stock of nation. Congress needs to help the USPTO get back on its feet, evolve into the digital age, and help America recover and thrive once more.