USPTO goes digital

The office responsible for patenting technology is coming into the 21st century. Officials at the Commerce Department's U.S. Patent and Trademark Office recently began publishing patent examiners' decisions on the Web for all prospective inventors to see, as part of a new system called Public Patent Application Information Retrieval, or PAIR.

Additionally, the centuries-old, cumbersome, paper-based patent application process is now almost entirely digital. PAIR is part of USPTO officials' overall goal to file and process patent applications electronically, speeding up what some critics said was an inefficient agency.

For more than 200 years, USPTO has kept paper records of applications and patents. These documents, referred to as file wrappers, are a history of the correspondence among innovators and patent examiners. In some cases, it can take up to a month to retrieve this information, and businesses charge between $300 and $700 to obtain the files.

Now, the image file wrappers of published applications are available online 18 months after they are filed and accessible to the public for free.

Public PAIR, a Web portal for viewing and printing PDF files, could rescue the plagued patent application process. Currently, the patent backlog is about 400,000 because of an increase in filings and a shortage of staff.

"We're saving in the multiple millions.... We can hire more patent examiners with the savings," said Nick Godici, USPTO commissioner of patents.

In the future, all applications will not only be retrieved electronically, but also filed electronically. They will be protected using public-key infrastructure technology.

Some see other signs that USPTO is undergoing positive change.

The National Intellectual Property Researchers Association, an organization of patent searchers, settled a suit against USPTO seeking to ensure that paper files remain available for research. The agency will keep paper copies of plant and foreign patents for the time being and all trademarks through at least 2006.

"It's been a sea change," said Robert Weir, the association's president, adding that new USPTO Director Jon Dudas appears more active, hands-on and customer service-oriented than his predecessor, James Rogan.

But others are skeptical of USPTO's effectiveness. Dan Ravicher, executive director of the patent reform group Public Patent Foundation, cautiously praised Public PAIR but said current practices leave much to be desired.

He said USPTO officials approve too many patents after they are initially rejected, resulting in an enormous backlog. Although there is a 35 percent rate of final abandonment, persistent applicants can always file a continuation application, filing applications until they wear down the examiners. Ravicher also discredits examiners' incentives. Quantity is one of three factors, including quality and timeliness, that determine their bonuses.

"Administratively, they're doing better," he said. "Substantively, they're not."

Attorneys see Public PAIR as a boon, saving their clients thousands of dollars a year. Before, Ross Dannenberg, an intellectual property attorney at Banner & Witcoff Ltd. and an inventor, would have a paralegal retrieve the appropriate papers for a charge of $100 to $200 plus a 20-cent fee per page. "I paid someone else to do it, or we'd call a third party. ... [Now], I can get the image file wrapper of a published application or new issued patent in real time for next to nothing."

Sternstein is a freelance writer in Potomac, Md.

USPTO timeline

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has a long history. Here are some of the organization's important moments:

1790 — The first U.S. patent is granted.

1871 — The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office first provides copies of patents to the public.

1990s — An online patent search database is developed for USPTO examiners.

1998 — All patents are searchable on the USPTO Web site.

Nov. 29, 2000 — The USPTO begins publishing patent applications online, 18 months after their filing dates.

June 30, 2003 — The USPTO scans patent applications, filing receipts and amendments electronically, in what is called an image file wrapper.

As of July 31, 2004 — Image file wrappers are available to the public online, as part of the Public Patent Application Information Retrieval system. Documentation for nearly 6.8 million patents is available on the USPTO Web site.

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