SAN JOSE, Calif. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office recently received an application seeking a patent for what was claimed to be a better way to stand in line while waiting to use an airplane toilet.
Jon Dudas, director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, said the example may be extreme, but it illustrates the declining quality of U.S. patent applications his agency has seen since 2000 as more applicants attempt to game the system.
Speaking at an IP symposium here on Wednesday (April 16), Dudas said the quantity of applications for U.S. patents is skyrocketing--more than 500,000 applications are expected this year alone--but quality is suffering as corporations and individuals increasingly seek to turn intellectual property into a legal asset rather than a means to technology innovation.
U.S. PTO Director John Dudas
"We've seen a problem with quality," Dudas said, adding that U.S. patent approvals have slipped from a high of 72 percent of all applications to the current level of about 42 percent. While part of the decline likely results from better patent examiners, Dudas questioned whether the current system is "making it too easy for people who want to file poor [patent] applications?"
The patent office estimates that corporations are doubling the number of patent applications they file each year. Dudas said he suspects one reason is that some companies are using the U.S. patent system to "close out" competitors in the race to innovate. Indeed, experts estimate that intellectual property now accounts for as much as 70 percent of a corporation's assets compared to 30 percent a decade ago.
As Congress debates whether and how to reform the U.S. patent system, Dudas said policy makers are seeking the best way to ensure that the patent system rewards innovators while making it harder to game the system. The agency is trying to determine "what is the right set of rules for innovation," the patent chief said
Patent reform legislation pending in the Senate has been slowed by opposition coming mainly from the pharmaceutical industry. One fear, Dudas said, is that reform proposals may have the unintended consequence of "over-correcting" the current system. Instead, Dudas said, patent reform should promote higher quality patent applications and faster decisions about whether or not a patent will be issued.
The U.S. patent office has been hiring new patent examiners at a steady clip. Of the 2,400 new examiners hired over the last two years, many have engineering backgrounds. The agency has also implemented fast-track reviews of patent applications designed to reduce examinations to as little as 12 months. It is also working with Japanese counterparts to slash the time needed to win patent approval in both the U.S. and Japan from the current 86 months to as little as 15 months.
For international patent protection, applicants must currently file five separate applications in four different languages. Dudas said he doesn't see a global patent system emerging any time soon.