Monday, July 25, 2005

IS IT ALWAYS MONDAY MORNING AT THE USPTO? Shiny new headquarters in Alexandria, a 10-story atrium, and perks such as fitness and child-development centers don't seem to be enough nowadays to keep employees happy at the USPTO. Observers are noting that a troubling exodus of patent examiners from the agency is currently underway.

Some attribute the exodus to a culture of poor employee/ manager relations that a recent Government Accountability Office report highlights. Others say the problems are deeper and won't be fixed without restructuring the agency and the standards for awarding patents.

"I don't think I've ever seen a time when, in a concentrated two- or three-week period, I've heard about as many people either having left or planning to leave as I have now," said Ronald Stern, president of the Patent Office Professional Association, the union representing patent examiners.

Stern said that strained employee/manager relations at USPTO stem from managers who "don't respect the input and advice they get from their employees." A related cause is patent examiners' discontent with what they say are unreasonable production quotas that examiners must work overtime to meet. "This is a legal sweatshop here," Stern said. "The truth is we could do a better job with more time."

Jason Schultz, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who specializes in intellectual property issues, said the GAO report officially confirmed what he already knew about USPTO and its patent examiners.

"The incredible surge of patent applications, especially in the software and Internet business method arena, is just crushing them, and the management problems are rising to the surface with greater visibility for those reasons," Schultz said. Under current rules, "where anything under the sun is patentable, it puts an unbelievable amount of pressure on the patent office," he added.

The agency's recent automation projects have been helpful but have not eliminated the greater time demands associated with complex technical patents, Stern said. "Some of the software that has been developed is not the friendliest," he said. "Hopefully, that will be changed."

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