Thursday, September 22, 2005


NAPA RECOMMENDS USPTO OVERHAUL: Following up from June's GAO report on USPTO problems, the National Academy of Public Administration issued a 298 page report making dozens of recommendations for fixing management and workforce problems at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which is increasingly criticized for the quality of its work and a mounting backlog of patent applications.

One of the most significant proposals was that lawmakers make the agency a wholly owned government corporation subject to congressional oversight, like the U.S. Postal Service.

USPTO managers were also criticized for neglecting to follow through with actions that, although common in industry, would have required them to negotiate with the agency's powerful patent examiners union, the Patent Office Professional Association. Currently, management's self-reliant, can-do attitude has resulted in them ignoring many recent management innovations that others have used to transform public agencies and businesses, according to the report. The panel members found that even supervisory patent examiners (SPE) often retain an "anti-management mind-set" even after being selected for promotion.

Of course, one of the greatest problems is the high attrition rates, especially among newly hired patent examiners. In fiscal 2004, the average attrition rate was 10.1 percent for patent examiners who review applications for computer architecture and information security software.
The NAPA panel blamed the lack of significant management innovations at the agency for high employee turnover, noting that the incentive system used to reward patent examiners essentially hasn't changed since 1976. And due to the high turnover, only 45 percent of patent examiners have been on the job for more than five years. Agency officials say an examiner needs five to seven years on the job to become proficient. The panel found that USPTO lacks an adequate number of seasoned patent examiners to operate efficiently.

European and Japanese patent agencies have traditionally avoided these attrition problems but it is also a fact that examiners in those agencies have fewer applications to process and more time to spend on each one. One side-effect of this is that applicants often have to wait longer for examination.

I noticed that the EFF added some commentary to the report that is misleading at best. As this blog mentioned before, there is a false perception being promoted, particularly by the anti-software patent people, that examiners are under pressure "to issue as many patents as possible to as many businesses as possible." I have yet to see any evidence of this, and I certainly have not heard anything from my USPTO contacts indicating that such a policy exists.

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