PTO banks on info tech to hasten patent process

The Patent and Trademark Office is making progress on a number of information technology projects designed to speed up and improve the patent examination process, agency officials told Congress earlier this month.

Bruce Lehman, assistant secretary of the Commerce Department and commissioner of patents and trademarks, recently testified before a hearing of the House Science Committee's Subcommittee on Technology that the changes will allow PTO to operate more efficiently.

"Patenting involves deciding whether an invention has existed before. We need skilled people to know [what] technology is out there in the world. Just keeping up with the information is difficult, but we're on top of that," Lehman said. "And that's what this process re-engineering is all about."

Lehman said new computer systems, prototypes of which are now being tested, will make the jobs of examiners faster and easier and are central to the effort. For example, a Patent Image Capture System will allow PTO to scan and capture a permanent record of an application faster. Another system tests the use of electronic receipt, processing, bi-directional communications and examination of applications. And 800 patent examiners will get upgraded PCs and new patent tools by the end of next year.

However, Rep. Constance Morella (R-Md.) expressed concern that the focus on a faster turnaround time will affect the "quality of work performed," given that patent examiners may not have adequate time to conduct a full search on a patent.

Lehman assured her that more time will be taken to examine more complex applications, while less complex applications will take less time.

Examiners, he added, are being provided the appropriate tools to help them do their jobs well.

But Rep. Robert Walker (R-Pa.), chairman of the Science Committee, expressed concern that patent workers' unions are opposed to the changes.

"There was a problem in the past with automation," Walker said. "Unions haven't responded positively to that."

Lehman responded that many workers "are opposed to every change to modernize the Patent Office. But the danger of not doing the technology upgrade is the collapse of the patent system."

However, union representatives said charges that employees are against the modernization effort is wrong.

"We love technology," one examiner said after the hearing. "We want a computer on our desk. But there is no support for users. No one has asked us, 'Do you like this?' or 'What can we do to improve the system?' " Some examiners come to work to find a new PC on their desk that they haven't been trained to use, the examiner added.

Meanwhile, industry representatives said their main concerns are reducing the cost of filing a patent and speeding up the time it takes to receive one, especially now that many technological inventions are outdated in a year's time.

"Electronic filings of patents and electronic publication of patents would be very important for someone like me," said Mike Gruchalla, engineering specialist, Allied Signal Aerospace, Kirkland Operations. "Internet access where we could do a keyword search would be great."

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