SAN JOSE, Calif. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is clawing its way back slowly from cutbacks driven by the recession. But the office still needs to increase patent application fees to reduce its historic backlog, according to Congressional testimony by the office's newly appointed director, David Kappos.
User fees at the patent office "declined substantially" in fiscal year 2009 as companies filed fewer applications. The crunch carried over into the current fiscal year in which Kappos described the patent office as "operating on a barebones budget."
The patent office has been on a hiring spree in recent years, brining on as many as 1,000 new patent examiners a year to tackle a growing backlog of applications. Kappos said the office is beginning to see light at the end of a tunnel after months during which it froze hiring, limited overtime and postponed much-needed computer and network upgrades.
"After a complete halt in hiring for many months, the USPTO recently began to implement a limited and targeted hiring initiative designed to attract experienced former patent examiners and other experienced IP professionals," Kappos told the a U.S. House of representatives committee Wednesday (May 5).
"So far during FY 2010, we have lost 127 patent examiners and have only replaced nine," Kappos said. "In total for FY 2010, we project that nearly 300 examiners will leave USPTO and that we will be able to hire 250 examiners," he added.
"Examiners remain frustrated by inadequate and/or dysfunctional systems that slow the examination process," said Robert D. Budens, president of the Patent Office Professional Association in separate testimony.
"Efforts are underway to upgrade the USPTO network and improve or completely rewrite the automation tools in use at the agency," said Budens. "Unfortunately, work on these initiatives has been severely restricted by the recent funding problems at the USPTO and are several years away from completion," he added.
The patent office has seen a rebound in user fee collections in the first seven months of its current fiscal year due to "an improving economy and increased production that also may be attributable to managerial initiatives," Kappos said. "Our most recent estimate is that USPTO will collect between $146 and $232 million more than its appropriated amount in FY 2010," he added.
Despite the upturn, the patent office needs to increase fees to meet the ambitious goals in its proposed $2.322 billion budget for next year. Those goals include reducing the average time to first office action on the merits for patent applications to 10 months by 2014 and reducing total average wait time for patent applications to 20 months by 2015.
To meet those ends, Kappos said the office will need to hire 1,000 new patent examiners a year for the next two years. It expects to lose as many as half that number of examiners to attrition.
Separately, the patent office announced it will hold and Webcast two public roundtables on patent quality this month, one in Los Angeles May 10 and one in Alexandria, Virginia, on May 18. The patent office will take written comments on how it can improve patent quality until June 18.
In addition, the patent office plans to publish soon a monthly "dashboard" of statistics on wait times for patent actions, augmenting what has been an annual report. "We are committed to being fully transparent," said Kappos.
The quality of patents and the backlog of applications are two issues in the current debates over patent reform. Kappos spoke before the House Judiciary committee which has drafted a reform bill that has come under attack by two industry groups.