US Patent Office; Why the pats are pending
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The idea for a new kind of rocking chairs hits you. You want to hurry up and protect it with a patent. The question you have to answer is: Is your widget really a new idea or are you reinventing the wheel?Skip to next paragraph
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So off to your public library. A number of them in the US are repositories for Patent Office files. There you will find every US patent ever issued -- all neatly arranged in chronological order by patent number. No. 1 may relate to safety pins. No. 2 to chemistry. No. 3 to electronics, etc. The rocking chairs are in there somewhere rocking, but can you get them out without flipping through 4.5 million patents? You can try.
You turn to the "class lists" issued by the Patent Office, which list patent numbers by subject. Under class 297 (chairs and seats) are 800 rocking chair patents broken down into 22 subclasses: collapsible, convertible, platform, etc. If you have the endurance, you plow through the 4.5 million patents and pull out all 800 to see if any of them predate your inspiration. That's one way to search -- the hard way. As a search tool, professional searchers regard the local library as "totally useless." It takes so long to use that it is too expensive.
The other way (which also is not cheap) is to go to Washington and cross the Potomac to Arlington, Va., where a cluster of glass office towers called Crystal City sprang up during the 1960s next to the Washington National Airport.
The Patent Office's cavernous public search room is so large it fills the entire first floor of two buildings. In the center section that connects the two buildings are tables where the public can study patents they have found in the files. The rest of the area is crowded with row after row of library-like stacks full of shelves jammed with US patents and their millions of cross-references.
Upstairs, Patent Office examiners have their own separate, even more mammoth file scattered through 19 floors of the two buildings. This collection includes not only US but also foreign patents and technical literature.
These buildings are the only place where US patents are filed according to the sophisticated classification system, which has no less than 107,000 classes and subclasses. A standing joke is that tea mixers and cement mixers share the same classification. But in general, the classification manual is helpful, guiding you to the very spot where all 800 patents on rocking chairs are filed together. If these are on the shelves in their "shoes" -- little trays that hold a bunch of them -- you pull them all out, take them to a table, and zip through them to determine whether you are the inventor you think you are.
But if rocking chairs are a hot item -- like solar energy devices are today -- you will not be the only party interested in that file. There may be as many as 500 other seekers in the search room that day, pulling patents out, refiling them -- a librarian's nightmare. The very file you want may be in use. Worse still, it may be missing.
Though it's forbidden to remove patents from the search room, it is unrealistic to assume that with all those hands roaming at will in this paper jungle, there will not be some patents missing -- misfiled, surreptitiously borrowed, or filched. It is estimated that at any given moment between 5 and 30 percent of the documents are missing. The more active the file, the greater the pilferage. Theft has become so serious that the Patent Office now has an alarm system. To date it has proved only partly successful.
If your idea proves in fact to be a dazzling flash of light, you would then apply for a patent. Only after a Patent Office examiner makes his independent search will a patent be issued. That process, which the office thinks should take no more than 18 months, now takes 22 -- nearly two years.