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Everything's up to date but the US Patent Office

Lodged in the US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) in Washington are 55,365 patents on typewriters. And how do the patent examiners at the PTO write out their reports to inventors? In longhand.

''There is no (patent) office in the world that has handwritten documents except the great United States,'' says the recently appointed commissioner of the PTO, Gerald J. Mossinghoff, in a tone approaching disbelief.

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His example points up one of the ironies of the high-technology age in America: The 191-year-old PTO still runs on an 18th-century strategy. In a country where even news stories (like this one) are increasingly written on computer terminals, patent examiners still search by hand among 24 million documents in three buildings before issuing a single patent.

''The office is so badly in need of repair,'' says Richard Onanian of the Massachusetts-based Institute for Invention and Innovation, ''that the question is, 'How could the country let it get so bad?' ''

Repair, however, may be on the way - and not a moment too soon, say inventors , patent lawyers, and PTO officials contacted by the Monitor. In a nation whose future, many say, lies more in knowledge-intensive industries than in labor-intensive manufacturing, momentum is building for reform of the very institution designed to foster and protect much-needed ingenuity.

Mr. Mossinghoff, who describes himself as ''a career bureaucrat'' with previous experience at the PTO and the National Aeronautics and Space Administlration, wants to see the momentum build. At present, he says, documents ''are getting lost.'' He adds that the situation is ''right on the edge of being out of control.''

Addressing a small group of inventors and journalists recently at the Boston Public Library - on one of several visits to the nation's 37 ''patent depository libraries'' - he laid out his plans. Among them:

* Hire more than 500 new examiners. By 1987, he hopes to reduce the time during which a patent is pending to 18 months. The first step: whittle away a backlog of cases which stands at 200,000 and grew by 20,000 last year.

Adding staff, these days, is no easy task. Last September, President Reagan called for a further 12 percent cut in the federal bureaucracy. But the PTO, along with the B-1 bomber and the MX missile system, was exempted from the latest cuts - a recognition, in Mossinghoff's view, of the importance of the office to the future of the nation.

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* Begin to automate the office. Mead Data Central, designer of the legal search system LEXIS, will put 50,000 full-text patents into a computer early next year, so that patent examiners can test the efficacy of an electronic search system. Although the PTO has all its patents after 1971 on magentic tape , the costs of full-scale automation will be substantial. But once assembled, he says, the data would be available to people across the US through computer terminals in libraries.

* Raise fees. Mossinghoff wants the average fee for patents, established in 1965, raised from $85 to $300 - in line with fee schedules in other countries. Even that amount, he says, is less than the $415 which would have been in effect by 1984 if the earlier figure had been allowed to rise with inflation.

Such increases, however, promise to be controversial. Terry Krambeal, programs manager of the Innovation Service Center at the University of Wisconsin , says that independent inventors commonly spend $3,000 in attorney's fees. Increases from the PTO, she fears, are ''going to be pricing the independent inventor right out of the market.''

But Mossinghoff says that the PTO needs the increases to work efficiently. Many inventors agree. Even with new fees, he says, the office will recover only 58 percent of its costs.

Other reforms are also under way. A law passed last year allows the PTO to reexamine patents, rather than have all challenges battled out in court. Legislation now in conference committee would create a specialized court to hear patent cases. Another pending bill would establish a single patent policy throughout the federal government - replacing what Mossinghoff says are 26 policies now affecting government contractors.

And by March, Mossinghoff hopes to get rid of handwritten reports - partly to improve the public's perception of the PTO. ''If the patent system is viewed as weak,'' he says, ''it's not going to be used by executives as a basis for investment decisions.''

Nor will it protect its patent-holders. ''In some fields,'' says Ms. Krambeal , ''companies have said: 'We do not honor patents. If we want your patents we'll take them, and you'll have to fight us in the court.' ''

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