SAN JOSE, Calif. – The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is on track to chip away a small chunk of its historic backlog this year, but the agency still faces huge challenges, according to its new director.
The patent office had a backlog of about 750,000 unprocessed applications when David J. Kappos became director of the agency in August 2009. It aims to have less than 700,000 by the end of the year.
"We are in striking distance of doing it, and it would be the first significant decline in about a decade," said Kappos in a conference call with press reviewing his first 13 months in the post. "I think it's fair to say we've made some progress, but our challenges are substantial, and we have a lot more work to do," he said.
The 6.7 percent decline would come during a year that has seen a four percent rise in new applications. Total pendency, the time it takes to process an application, sits at 35.4 months, unchanged since Kappos joined.
Engineers say they are frustrated by the unpredictability of the agency which can take three to eight years to process an application. Kappos said the backlog and pendency problems are "the most pressing challenges" of the agency.
The patent office launched an online dashboard this week that will provide a monthly snapshot of the agency's performance. It shows the office has more than 6,000 examiners that still face a backlog of 728,000 applications.
Kappos ticked off a laundry list of initiatives he has taken in his first 13 months. They include revamping the way the office measures performance of its patent examiners and their first-line managers. The agency also is revising the patent examiner's manual adding a new facility to provide online comments on the process.
Among other new initiatives, the office kicked off a pilot program to accelerate processing of patents related to climate change. Earlier this year, Kappos proposed creating a three–track patent system, a plan that drew some controversy during a public comment phase and is now being revised.
Kappos has also launched a program to update the agency's computer systems, long criticized for requiring examiners to use multiple systems to handle prior art searches.
"The Holy Grail of searching is sometimes called a unified or federated search," said Kappos. "That’s a long range goal but a hard problem to solve, so we'll handle that in steps," he said.
The first big changes will merge into one system some but not all of the databases examiners need to access. It will come sometime in 2012, he said.
A former chief appeals judge has called for giving the patent office a billion dollars in stimulus funds to upgrade its computers and hire more examiners. Meanwhile the agency requested a modest increase to $2.322 billion in its annual budget for fiscal year 2011. President Obama is said to have requested "some substantial increases" in his proposed budget for 2012.