US Patent Office; Why the pats are pending
Had the sorcerer's apprentice cataloged and filed all the wizardry cascading from his out-of-control creativity, he might have wound up with just what Uncle Sam has today -- a United States Patent and Trademark Office of incredibly mushrooming magnitude.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
This extraordinary agency of the US Department of Commerce is the largest depository of patent and technical information in the world. Patent applications that were only a trickel when the nation began have become a tidal wave.
There are now 4.5 million US patents on file, 8 million cross-references (the same patent may relate to such diverse items as garden hoses and vacuum cleaners), 10 million foreign patents, and 1.5 million articles from the world's technical literature. It adds up to 24 million documents, all in one place. That's not all. Every week some 2,160 new US patent applications arrive, or about 112,300 a year. Approximately 65 percent of this total, or 73,000 patents , are issued annually.
Even the founding fathers, who firmly planted the American patent system in the Constitution, would probably have been staggered by such an avalanche of inventions.
Since 1790, when the Patent Office flung open its doors, it's been dutifully squirreling away every patent document springing from the country's creative genius. While the average patent runs eight pages, "jumbo patents" are thousands of pages long -- thicker than metropolitan telephone directories. And every one of these files is on paper!
Yet the Patent Office -- this reservoir of innovation -- still hasn't found a computer system to fit its needs. So it files and retrieves almost all its records by hand. Less than 1 percent of its patent information storage systems are computerized.
This causes a serious weakness in an otherwise admirable patent system: an inability to maintain the integrity of its files.
This makes it extremely difficult even for the Patent Office's corps of highly skilled patent examiners, let alone the bewildered public, to search the files and ensure with absolute certainty that an invention has not already been patented -- especially since the workload permits Patent Office examiners only 15 hours to conduct such a hunt.
With the soundness of a patent hinging on the effectiveness of searches, this problem is causing concern. Some patent attorneys bluntly warn there is now "a lack of confidence in the patent system."
What inventor wants to run the risk of gearing up to manufacture and market a clever gimmick if it turns out the patent will not protect it after all? Some giant corporation might invest hundreds of hours in searching the Patent Office files and come up with some early, long-forgotten patent that would render the little guy's claim invalid. The inventor could lose his shirt.
The inventor could fight it out in court, but lawsuits could drag on for years and cost thousands of dollars.
Only a small fraction of all US patents is ever challenged in court. That in itself is a measure of the respect they command. However, today half of those that are litigated are invalidated. Some patent attorneys say they figure that a 50- 50 chance of success is not a bad deal. But this makes a lot of people anxious.
The fact that last December Congress passed an omnibus patent reform bill indicates that the nation's lawmakers, too, want to make it easier for new ideas to break out into the open marketplace.
Here's how a patent search works: