Patent office positioning for e-gov

Budget calls for hiring of 950 more examiners and will help USPTO move toward electronic operations

President Bush's budget request for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office — one of the biggest "winners" in the administration's fiscal 2003 proposal — relies on a "one-time surcharge" made up of fee increases to meet a set of ambitious performance targets, according to the agency's director.

Under the proposal, USPTO would receive $239 million more than it received in fiscal 2002, or the equivalent of all the fees the self-funded agency normally receives and an additional $45 million generated by the surcharge, said James Rogan, the director of USPTO, at a press briefing Feb. 5. Another $162 million expected to be generated by the surcharge is earmarked for homeland security efforts.

The 21-percent funding increase, which is the largest the agency has ever received, would go toward hiring 950 more patent examiners and reducing the wait for patent application approvals, Rogan said.

The lag between filing an application and the issuance of a patent or trademark now runs almost 25 months, and "everybody realizes it's in the economic interest of the country to reduce this wait," he said.

Last year, USPTO received more than 350,000 patent and 300,000 trademark applications, but it issued only about half that number of patents and one-third that number of trademarks. Many applications are now filed on CD-ROM with millions of pages of supporting material, Rogan said.

The hiring of so many new patent examiners will force "a monumental cultural change" in the agency, but it also will help USPTO move more quickly toward the goal of making trademark application review operations fully electronic by 2004 and keep the agency "on track for e-government," Rogan said.

USPTO already is one of the more IT-conscious agencies in the federal government. For example, the agency began experimenting with telecommuting in the 1990s, long before the idea became popular among federal managers. And in June 2001, the agency hired as its new chief information officer Doug Bourgeois, a former FedEx Corp. executive who managed the company's customer service technology.

Rogan acknowledged the difficulties of integrating so many new employees into the workforce. New patent examiners must undergo seven years of training before they are allowed to sign off on patents with a supervisor's approval, he said.

Still, the new emphasis on electronic patent reviews and other e-government efforts are "an incredible exercise in recognizing the value of technology," he said.

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