PTO to put patent, trademark data online

The Commerce Department's Patent and Trademark Office plans to make 20 million pages of patent and trademark information available on the Internet for free in a move that will create one of the largest databases of its kind.

Under the plan, which was driven by Vice President Al Gore's reinventing government initiative and which is consistent with Commerce's goal of playing a strategic role in electronic commerce, PTO plans to make trademark data available to the public in August, said PTO Commissioner Bruce Lehman. Trademark images and patent text will be available in November.

As part of its statutory responsibilities, PTO spends about $25 million a year to make patent information available to the public. PTO distributes patent information through patent and trademark depository libraries, on paper, CD-ROM and, soon, the Internet.

"As new technology for information dissemination comes out, the PTO uses it," Lehman said. "We were one of the first federal agencies to automate [the process]. Our examiners internally have been using digital information retrieval now for at least 10 years. The reason we didn't put it on the Internet before is the investment and the technology issues [that are] involved."

Before PTO could place the patent and trademark database online, it first had to upgrade the workstations that are used by more than 2,000 patent examiners who review applications. "We had to upgrade our own examiners' ability to use this information," Lehman said. "Now that we've done that, we can serve the broader public."

PTO also had to isolate the Internet site to keep hackers from using it as an entry point into the agency's internal networks.

The full text of 2 million patents dating back to 1976 and the text and images of 800,000 trademarks and 300,000 pending registrations from the late 1800s to the present will be available. Meanwhile, patent images, which users will be able to print at low resolution for free, will be available in March 1999.

PTO already has placed online text and images associated with AIDS research-related patents as well as 20 years' worth of patent bibliographic data and abstracts from more than 2 million patents. Lehman said those two sites receive about 450,000 hits a month, and he expects the new site to be popular also.

For years, putting patent and trademark information on the Internet has been a subject of intense debate between public interests groups, which argue that public information should be made widely available on the Internet, and companies that purchase PTO data and repackage it to sell to other companies, such as researchers and law firms. Lehman said private companies should not be concerned because they add value to the data, while PTO does not.

But Steve Wolfson, president of MicroPatent, which resells patent and trademark data, said the company may lose some customers as a result of the PTO plan. "There may be some of our smaller users who take two or three patents a day or do a search a week that may decide to go directly to PTO," he said. "However, a lot of companies don't want users to go out on the Internet and would rather come to us. We offer [them] customization, technical support and a reliable system."

In addition, MicroPatent offers information on a worldwide basis and can customize reports and interfaces for users, Wolfson said.

Joseph McGlynn, president of Patent and Trademark Services Inc., which helps clients write patent and trademark applications, said the plan would benefit his company. "What I need are copies of patents real quick," McGlynn said. "If I could get those off the PTO database, it would save me some money."

McGlynn now pays a third party $5 for each copy of a patent plus phone service, and $25 each time he logs onto that third party's trademark database to conduct a search.

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