SAN JOSE, Calif. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office needs to be overhauled if it is to come to grips with rising backlogs and a perception of declining patent quality, according to a report the U.S. Chamber of Commerce sent to President-elect Barack Obama. The report available online calls for sweeping changes in the leadership and structure of the patent office.
"Prevailing perceptions within the patent community are that the quality of patents issued is declining at a precipitous rate," the 30-page report said. "The U.S. economy simply cannot prosper without a viable patent system."
The report notes that from 1988 to 2008 the backlog at the patent office has grown from 268,000 to 750,000 applications. Waiting time for action on an application has stretched from 20 to 32 months over the same period.
Meanwhile, the patent office now employs more than 9,000 people, many of them with less than five years experience examining patents. From 2002 through 2006 the office lost one examiner for every new hire, the report said.
In an interview after the release of its latest annual report, a veteran patent office executive said the USPTO has taken many steps to deal with the issues but still does not know when it can catch up with the workload.
Among its top recommendations, the new report calls for turning the agency into a government-run corporate entity so it can have the freedom to set new, higher fee levels. It also calls for President-elect Obama to appoint new leaders to the agency with experience litigating patents and running large organizations with conflicting user groups.
The report said the agency needs to establish a new and improved metric for patent quality, taking feedback from its user community.
Conducting patent exams before and after prior art searches could also improve quality, the report suggested. That could require the patent office to open regional and even virtual offices. Today the vast majority of patent examiners work in the agency's Washington D.C. offices.
The report also called for expanding a pilot program where patents are given an online peer review as a way to handle the flood of applications. It also said patent examiners should be given more training and career paths that lead to obtaining a law degree.
A spokeswoman for the patent office said, "We appreciate the interest in the USPTO and we look forward to reviewing the recommendations included in the report."
The report was drafted by a ten-person panel of intellectual property lawyers—several with experience working at the patent office. The goal of the report was "to inform and stimulate discussion among new policymakers, innovators, the business community, and stakeholders," they said.
Authors included Herbert C. Wamsley, the executive director of the Intellectual Property Owners Association, and Nicholas P. Godici who served as the commissioner for patents from 2000 to March 2005.
"By reforming the USPTO, President-elect Obama can help support workers in America's innovative industries and unleash a new era of IP-driven job creation and economic growth," said Brad Huther, senior advisor of the U.S. Chamber's Global Intellectual Property Center that drafted the report.
The Chamber said America's IP-intensive industries employ nearly 18 million workers, account for more than $5 trillion of the U.S. GDP, and represent 40% of U.S. economic growth.