THE United States Patent Office is under fire for its $1 billion, decade-long computerization effort, which critics say fails to meet the competitive needs of American industry.
In July, the office will begin fully phasing in a new automated system. With the ease of a few key strokes, patent examiners can pick out, from among almost 6 million entries, those patents germane to a specific technology. The computer will then display not only the words, but also diagrams, pictures, and formulas that help explain a technology.
But critics complain this powerful new computer system is not being harnessed to provide US industry with information about the latest technological developments.
In exchange for the exclusive right to market an invention for 17 years, an inventor agrees to disclose details about the product so others can build on the discovery. Many in the field suggest that this is the patent office's most important task.
"At least 50 percent of the technological content of an invention is made public only in a patent," says Stephen Noe, supervising patent attorney at Caterpillar Inc. "It simply will not appear in any trade journal."
In this regard, "the Japanese are way ahead of us," says Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona, who chairs the Judiciary Subcommittee on Patents, Copyrights, and Trademarks.
The Japanese government's computer network allows researchers around that country to view entire patent filings on a desktop computer - much as any US patent examiner will soon be able to do.
By contrast, US researchers have to conduct "a fumble search," Mr. Noe explains. They have to "fumble through 30 million documents" rather than get needed information through a one-step computer network.
Limited computer assistance is available through such private on-line computer services as Nexis and Dialog or at special libraries around the country. But researchers using these facilities may only search for words. They must still seek cross-references in order to see the pictures, diagrams, and formulas at "the heart of many inventions," says Michael Blommer, executive director of the American Intellectual Property Law Association.
"It's a nuisance," says Auzville Jackson, a consultant from Richmond, Va., who conducted a survey for the Industrial Research Institute on how US firms use patent searches in their research and development efforts.
"In cases you feel it is important enough, you may use the present more cumbersome [search] technique," he says. "However, if [searches] were easier, you would use them more frequently."
Patent officials agree that US industry would benefit from easier computer access. A 1990 patent office analysis estimated that by making computer access to complete patents easier, research and development efforts at US firms could become more efficient - with "savings approaching $1 billion per year."
As an interim measure, the patent office is setting up a couple of work stations at the patent office's headquarters in Arlington, Va., this summer so researchers will have access to the same advanced computer search facilities as patent office staff.
But critics of the patent office say the move is insufficient.
"The idea of taking hundreds of engineers and flying them back and forth [to Washington] is ... not really very practical," Noe says. "If it is not readily available, people won't use it."
Patent office officials explain that they are hampered by fiscal constraints.
"The Japanese have already spent three times as much as we plan to spend," says associate commissioner Thomas Giammo. "It is not surprising that they have leapfrogged us."
Many in the patent field are trying to nudge the Clinton administration to support easier computer access to the patent office's collections.
"If you told me that Al Gore had gotten behind this and it was going to fly through Congress tomorrow, I'd say it would be ready in just two years," Mr. Giammo says.
But traditionally, "administrations don't understand the importance of the patent office" to the nation's competitiveness, says Senator DeConcini.
President Clinton only named a patent commissioner in late April. DeConcini says Commissioner-designate Bruce Lehman wants to facilitate the competitive needs of US industry.