PTO director promises better review of patent applications

The quest of the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) for more rapid evaluation of patent applications will not lead the PTO to rubber-stamp applications, Director James Rogan said on Monday.

"Our job is not just to issue patents but to reject patents," Rogan told members of the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA). "That is just as important a function."

Under the "21st-Century Strategic Plan" that he announced earlier this month, Rogan hopes over the next five years to reduce patent pendency, or the time it takes to issue patents, from a projected 25 months to 18 months. He is pursuing modernization because PTO expects 348,000 patent applications this year, atop a backlog of 408,000.

But Rogan said that "pendency takes a back seat to quality" and that he is "prepared to sacrifice" pendency if he could help ensure that patent applications undergo a more thorough vetting process. Rogan made the comments in response to a question from CCIA President Ed Black about measures that could be done to curb questionable patents, including many "business method" patents that have proven controversial within the technology industry.

"Because we take our cue from the courts and Congress," Rogan said, "we don't have the luxury" to decide the standards for what constitutes acceptable patents. He said PTO has boosted the number of examiners in the business-method arena from 12 to 150, and that the percentage of successful applications has fallen from nearly 70 percent to about 45 percent.

The initiative to put a "second set of eyes" on business-method patents has proven so successful, he said, that he hopes to expand it into all high-tech and biotech patents. But in spite of his willingness to sacrifice pendency, he said that also can be lowered by facilitating electronic filing and by contracting out the ability for PTO to search for evidence of previous inventions-two key elements of Rogan's strategic plan.

Rogan said he had reached an agreement with the European patent office to co-maintain the software it uses in its electronic filing system. Such e-applications constitute 30 percent of European applications, compared with only 2 percent in America.

Rogan hopes to extend the agreement to the Japanese patent office, thereby covering 85 percent of all worldwide patent applications. He also said the greater cooperation would not mean that the United States is adopting the European and Japanese "first-to-file" system-as opposed to awarding American patents to the first inventor.

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