Patent office cites progress in breaking application logjam

Agency's year-end numbers indicate it exceeded some of its targets.

The Patent and Trademark Office for the first time in fiscal 2008 met all of its objectives under the Government Performance and Results Act, a 1993 law designed to improve federal project management by requiring agencies to set goals, measure results, and report progress, the agency's chief told CongressDaily last week.

"For a long time, PTO was hitting below 50 percent of its goals," PTO Director Jon Dudas said. "If you have a high performing organization, it gives you more clarity in terms of focusing on where to change the system."

The PTO's year-end numbers indicate the office met and in some cases exceeded its targets for patent pendency, production, and quality.

Dudas, appointed to head the agency in July 2004, has made streamlining the organization's work a priority as pressure to address the growing backlog of patent applications has increased in Congress. This time last year, more than 760,000 applications were waiting to be reviewed, and the average time it took to address those filings ranged from 25 months to more than 32 months.

The delays were a focus of an oversight hearing by a House subcommittee in February. At the hearing, House Judiciary Courts, the Internet, and Intellectual Property Subcommittee Chairman Howard Berman, D-Calif., said a patent's value is tied to the creator's ability to exclude others from using the invention and the time it takes examiners to act "cuts into the time the inventor has to make commercial use of the invention."

Subcommittee ranking member Howard Coble, R-N.C., said the backlog is a perennial challenge for the office that needs to be fixed. While the logjam exists, some progress has been made, PTO officials said. Patent production increased by 14 percent over fiscal 2007 with examiners tackling 448,003 applications, the highest number in history. The quality of patents coming out of the PTO is also at a high point and the agency's error rate is the lowest ever, Dudas said.

In fiscal 2008, more than 1,700 patent applications were submitted through an accelerated examination program, 173 percent more than in the initiative's introductory year of fiscal 2007. A 12-month or less pendency rate was maintained for each application reviewed under the pilot program, with an average time to final action or allowance of 186 days, according to agency statistics. To qualify, applicants must file electronically; conduct a search of "prior art" and submit all prior art that is close to their invention; include only 20 claims; and agree to an interview with an examiner, among other prerequisites.

The PTO continued to lead in the telework arena, with about 54 percent of its employees eligible to participate. Dudas said telework participants typically get 10 percent more work done, receive higher bonuses and report being happier with their jobs.

Pressure for further enhancements to the PTO and U.S. patent system as a whole is expected in the new Congress, and President-elect Obama's choice for an intellectual property expert to head the agency has prompted considerable chatter. Names circulating include Q. Todd Dickinson, who ran the PTO under former President Clinton; Eli Lilly general counsel Robert Armitage; 3M IP counsel Gary Griswold; patent attorneys Ray Millien and James Pooley; and law professors Mark Lemley of Stanford and Arti Rai of Duke, a classmate of Obama's at Harvard Law School. Some possible picks were on the front lines of the congressional patent reform battle this year, which could be a disadvantage, said former PTO official Stephen Pinkos, who works with Millien. "It's going to be tough to pick someone who is clearly on one side or another of that debate."