ibhu Mohanty walks over to a large, oddly designed wooden cabinet and pulls out a narrow drawer called a "shoe." He thumbs through the papers inside, patents in a given field, and says, "At any one time, 15 to 20 percent of the patents…were missing." A primary patent examiner specializing in textiles equipment, Mohanty also is a mechanical engineer and an attorney. He is the final judge on whether a patent should or should not be issued. He used to spend quite a bit of time walking from his office to the shoes, where he would search for prior patent information. Sometimes he would find what he was looking for, sometimes not.
Now, Mohanty can sit at his computer and bring up years' worth of previous patent documents. As an example, he quickly pulls up an image of a Halloween mask designed to stick to the face. "Patents are very incremental," he says. This is why prior patent information is so important. And while examiners like Mohanty now can do online searches, for the time being they still must move patent applications through a paper-based process.
Mohanty, walking downstairs at PTO headquarters in suburban Washington to a storeroom piled high with boxes full of paper documentation, says he looks forward to the day when the patent application process truly is paperless. "It would be much better for everybody," he says. "The applicants want results as soon as possible. And if everything is on my computer, life gets a lot easier."
When PTO has fully transformed its patent review process, most patent applications will come in via the Web. The re-maining paper holdouts will be digitized immediately upon receipt, thereby eliminating paper trails before they can start. PTO envisions its 3,000 patent examiners working on their computers, searching for electronic documents and reviewing all new applications online. When a fully digital process has been implemented, PTO will issue digital copies of patents.
PTO's effort to create a paperless environment dates back to 1980. "The idea has been around for years," says Wesley Gewehr, PTO's deputy chief information officer for systems modernization. "But the technology wasn't." In fact, PTO has had to wait for many of its ideas to come to fruition because the technologies that were available did not meet its vision.
PTO began digitizing patent documents in the mid-1980s. Yet its patent examiners did not have their own dedicated computers until a decade later. Even then, the complete suite of digitized data was not available online in a fully searchable version until spring 1999. Still, PTO has tried to take advantage of technology advancements when feasible. The advent of the Web, improvements in PTO's desktop architecture, and advances in e-business applications and secure file transmission have made PTO's vision of a paperless patent application process by 2007 a real possibility.
PTO took a significant step toward that goal last year, when it launched two Electronic Business Centers on its Web site (www.uspto.gov). "The Electronic Business Centers are the interfaces with the public," says Ronald Hack, PTO's acting CIO. "We needed to have something that would function as our face to our customers."
The trademark side of PTO's operation already is well on its way to becoming paperless. PTO now receives 17 percent of all trademark applications online through the Trademark Electronic Business Center. PTO officials expect that figure to rise to 95 percent within two to three years. "We are virtually paperless on the trademark side right now," Hack says.
The Trademark Electronic Business Center and the new processes surrounding it were simpler to create and install because the trademark process does not have the stringent security requirements the patent process does, says Robert Porter, director of PTO's Office of Systems Devel-opment and Mainten-ance."Going paperless is going to be a change in the patent side's culture," Hack says. "They are going to be working with more modern technologies."
With the patent system, the main challenge is eliminating paper from a process that is firmly based on the receipt, routing and review of paper documents. The modernization managers say they must be careful when applying e-business technology and strategies not to hamper patent examiners, who must meet demanding quotas every hour. Mohanty calls it "a pure production system."
PTO is working not only to eliminate paper, but to transform the entire process of patent application and review. The Patent Electronic Business Center is just the first step in eliminating the overwhelming crush of paper on examiners' desks-PTO gets 250,000 patent applications per year, and issues 169,000 patents.
The typical patent application fills a thick folder, but some can take on mammoth proportions. A recent biotechnology patent application filled 17 boxes. It takes an average of 19 months to process an application.
Gewehr says hello to one person after another as he walks through the sprawling PTO headquarters. He seems to know everyone here. He is intimately familiar with the details of each stage of the patent process, from the receipt of patent applications to their digital imaging through examination and beyond.
When PTO enabled inventors to apply for patents online in October 2000, it set off on a journey whose end will change the way the agency does business.
PTO receives hundreds of patent applications per day, filling its inbound processing center with the red, white and blue of Priority Mail wrappers. The filing date of an application is important, because it serves as a point of comparison both for patents that have already been granted and applications that will come in the future. In the processing center, patent applications are put into yellow folders and affixed with bar codes for tracking in the Office of Initial Patent Examination. This office also processes application fees. The applications are scanned into the computer system in the Docu-ment Preparation Office, a room awash with carts filled with the yellow folders. All of PTO's computers are now equipped with bar-code scanners enabling workflow tracking. In the future, any paper that comes into PTO will stop in this room. The files will become electronic and stay that way through the new process. PTO has implemented a mechanism known as public key infrastructure (PKI) for secure file transfer and access approval. With such a system, which relies on the issuance of a digital certificate, an information age identifier, inventors or their proxies can file patent applications online at the Patent Electronic Business Center. Each digital certificate is specific to an inventor and is meant to ensure his or her identity. More than 2,000 certificates have been issued. The patent site also has authoring tools and software for combining text and images. The new system enables PTO to maintain the confidentiality of patent applications in cyberspace. "We are using PKI to assure privacy, to assure people that they can file without their records being intercepted," Hack says. "PKI wasn't practical even five years ago."
Because the new system creates an electronic record of the work that has been done on individual patent applications, electronic filers can track the status of their applications online. "This enables registered applicants to come in electronically and find their patent's status and its history," Gewehr says.
Thomas Koontz, director of the Office of Initial Patent Examination, admits that PTO has not built all the systems needed to support full electronic processing of patent applications. For all the promise the online application system holds, PTO still must print out electronic applications when they are received and place them in the trusty yellow folders that transport every patent through the process. For now, e-filing is just another entry point into PTO's paper process. "E-processing is where we want to go," Koontz says. "But this is an important first step. It gets the customers used to doing e-filing."
"The front door is electronic," Gewehr says. "But we still have to change the electronic application to paper. That's where the internal systems come into play. That's what we are working on now. It will be a three- to four-year effort."
Structure for Success
Gewehr and Hack are proceeding methodically on that effort. In the process, they have had to ensure that the technologies they implement are matched with the agency's mission and meet the needs of patent examiners. Indeed, as PTO has moved toward its paperless strategy, it has treated both inventors and patent examiners as important sets of customers. This means its internal processes will be intimately linked with its external face.
"We work to support the business areas and provide technologies to enable them to carry out their missions," Hack says. "We have a strategic IT plan and meet with the business areas every other month to go over all the milestones in the plan and go over the commitments to them."
Gewehr and Hack have won support from the very top and from various user groups. "We have a director who decided to champion electronic filing," Gewehr says. "The patent community has been pushing for this. There is strong management support from the top wanting this to get done." Both Gewehr and Hack are quick to say that their effort is not e-gov for e-gov's sake. "Our program certainly fits the umbrella concept of e-gov," Hack says. "But there has got to be a business reason to implement these e-business technologies."
"A combination of forces have converged and moved us in this direction," Gewehr says. "We knew we really needed to start to do something about the paper. We figured that the front end was as good a place to start as any and that's our strategy," Gewehr says.
PTO now faces the challenge of making good on its promise of transforming the agency by bringing patent examination to the desktop. It already receives data from its Web site and even collects funds there. However, Gewehr and Hack are both seeking to ensure that PTO's processes actually change, and the e-filing system does not become a great big, remote-controlled typewriter.