US Patent Office; Why the pats are pending
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Last year recorded a welcome leap to 112,315 applications. And thus far into 1981, this higher rate is continuing. The Patent Office views the jump as significant.Skip to next paragraph
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Patent attorneys all over the country long for the Patent Office search files to be computerized and put "on line." Instead of journeying to Washington, they could conduct their searches in their own offices via computer. This would create an always complete, hands-off, reliable filing system in Crystal City.
Nevertheless, patent attorneys say the office's examiners are doing "a heroid job under the circumstances." When attorneys get stuck and can't find what they need, they sometimes appeal to examiners, who point to a drawer and say, "Look there."
"Examiners are just phenomenal!" exclaims George A. Herbster, a patent attorney with the Boston firm of Ceasari & McKenna, who for years has worked to stir interest in computerizing the agency's files.
Bar members see the Patent Office as underfunded and short-handed. In 1974 there were 1,200 examiners. Now, because of budget cuts, there are fewer than 850. Mr. Herbster, who nevertheless commends the office's classification system , points out that it "automatically excludes a vast amount of information from a searcher." If he is hunting a patent that was not deemed important enough to be classified, he realizes that "I'm never going to find it unless some night I have a terrific dream that says, 'Go look there.'"
So why hasn't the Patent Office a long time ago called up some data-processing firm and told it to come on over and computerize the place?
It isn't that easy. For one thing, cost estimates -- just wild guesses at this point -- range from $45 million to $400 million.
Beyond that, a workable computer system is based on a well-defined terminology: You have to define something the same way every time you refer to it. It's fairly easy to define a chemical concept, but there might be many ways to define a mechanical or electrical concept or device (most patents fall into one of these three braod categories). A computer will only cough up a patent if the searcher describes it exactly as it is in the computer's files.
And if a computer spits out 500 documents in unclassified form, the manual searcher may not be any better off than he is now with two able hands and one good head.
As far back as the mid-1950s, the office began tinkering with automated retrieval systems on an experimental basis. At one time, the Patent Office has as many as 30 systems on trial simultaneously. None panned out as well as was hoped. Only two have survived.
During all the years this experimentation has been going on, computer technology has been making giant strides, brightening hopes for some ideal solution. At present the office is looking into the use of microfilm.
Even if the green light flashed, the question is, who should install the system? The Patent Office or private industry?
Naturally, many companies in the private sector are eager for the job. Several companies already offer computerized patent search systems.
Attorney Kenneth E. Madsen, chairman of the ABA's information retrieval committee, points out that under legislation signed Dec. 12 the Patent Office has two years to study the problem and report back with a plan for computerization if its evaluation warrants it. One issue to be decided is whether the full text of a patent or simply a brief abstract should be placed in the computer's memory to best aid the searchers.
Meanwhile, let's see, where did we refile those 800 patents on rocking chairs?