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Technology at work

It's one of those information technology ironies: An individual files a document or report online to a government agency, but then the file is printed out and processed manually.

That has been the case at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. About 10,000 people apply online each month for a trademark, but the agency then prints the application to process it internally. USPTO even hired contractors to walk the paper applications to various offices, passing files to managers and examiners.

But the Trademark Information System, slated to be completed by November, would create an electronic working file, putting the entire process online. The project was initiated in fiscal 2002 and received a boost in fiscal 2003 of $5.8 million — five times the initial funding in 2002. The proposed 2004 budget would give the project another $3.2 million.

"We're tying the process together so it can occur in a completely electronic fashion," said Doug Bourgeois, USPTO's chief information officer. "When you do away with managing a paper file, you improve the quality of the customer service" because there will be less chance for human error, such as duplicating or losing the forms.

The system would bring application registration and examinations online, improving access by reviewers and the public. About half the applications are now filed online, and the department expects 80 percent to 85 percent to be filed online in the future. USPTO will convert the remaining paper forms into electronic forms.

The key is creating a system that's easy to use and has enough benefits for people who are more comfortable with paper forms to want to make the switch. Supporters of the system say it will take time for people to accept the new method.

Michael Heltzer, external relations manager for the International Trademark Association, a nonprofit organization that follows trademark public policy matters, said his group supports the move.

"We're encouraged by that," he said. "Electronic systems cut down on human error. It also cuts down on lost paper, which in previous years has been a problem at the agency."

Patents are a little more complicated, with more forms to fill out and more sensitive documents. Ninety percent of patent applications are in paper form, and USPTO is shooting for an electronic patent process by October 2004.

"Ultimately, it will eliminate the paper," said Robert Porter, acting division director for trademark electronic government systems division. "The intent of the office is to be electronic."

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