PTO chief unveils plan to overhaul patent reviews

The head of the Patent and Trademark Office on Monday unveiled a blueprint for reforming the agency by fostering more international cooperation and overhauling internal processes for reviewing patents for new inventions.

"Today the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is under siege," PTO Director James Rogan said. With an expected 348,000 patent applications this year, atop a backlog of some 408,000 applications, he said drastic changes are needed to ensure the system remains competent in protecting the intellectual property so vital to the economy.

Through the agency's "21st-Century Strategic Plan," Rogan hopes over the next five years to reduce patent pendency, or the time it takes to issue patents, from the projected 25 months to 18 months.

Procedural changes outlined in the plan include negotiating international agreements to create a seamless, universal electronic patent-filing system, curtailing the duties of patent examiners to their "core government functions," and outsourcing the searches for "prior art" that must be conducted before the PTO can issue a new patent.

Rogan wants to overhaul the "one-size-fits-all" patent examination process into a four-track system to sharply decrease the time and resources necessary to search for prior art. Under the blueprint, those searches could be performed under a Patent Cooperation Treaty, where any international patent office party to the treaty could conduct the search.

Searches also could be competitively contracted to private search firms or agency partners, in addition to continuing the current in-house system. Those changes could enhance the quality of operations while reducing the search time from 12.3 months to 5.8 months by 2008, Rogan said.

That aspect of the overhaul plan triggered criticism. "Putting control of the official search in the hands of the applicant is like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse," said Ronald Stern, president of the Patent Office Professional Association. "If applicants want shoddy searches, they can shop for a firm with a reputation for producing the careless results they want."

The PTO also is seeking legislation to revise the fees it charges to issue patents. All patent applicants currently pay application, issuance and maintenance fees. Rogan wants to reduce the application fee and incorporate a new "examination" fee.

"What we are trying to do is not have examinations for people that don't want them or need them, and allow applicants to defer examinations," he said, adding that the goal is to enable examiners to forgo examinations of products that may never go to market and give applicants more choice.

The agency also aims to increase the fee for filing paper patent applications, following a similarly proposed move for trademarks. Those proposals are predicated on an aggressive move toward e-government and the elimination of paperwork. The PTO aims to have all trademark applications filed electronically by Oct. 1, 2003, and all patent applications by Oct. 1, 2004.

The PTO already has begun internal reforms, including training its staff and expanding the "second pair of eyes" review of products in the semiconductor, telecommunications and biotechnology sectors.

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