- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 13, 2005

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has begun a hiring spree to reduce an expected backlog of 580,000 applications by the end of the year.

The federal agency, which issues patents for new technology and inventions, will hire close to 1,800 patent examiners over the next two years, increasing its current staff of 3,800 examiners by 47 percent, saidspokeswoman Brigid Quinn.

“We have to hire more people to keep up with the amount of applications that just grows and grows,” Ms. Quinn said.

Ms. Quinn blamed the backlog, which has grown considerably in the past few years, on an increased number of applications filed and on more of them being larger and more complex. The number of applications filed each year has nearly doubled in the past decade.

Last year, the patent office received 376,810 applications, up 6 percent from the 355,418 applications in 2003. About 50 percent of the requests are for technology such as semiconductors, computer hardware and software, and telecommunications, Ms. Quinn said.

The patent office processed 304,921 applications last year, 187,170 of which received approval for patent protection.

The agency has not had the resources in the past decade to hire enough patent examiners to lower the application ratio, Ms. Quinn said.

The hiring project is part of a five-year plan the patent office has implemented to cut down on the time businesses and inventors must wait for a patent. The average wait is about 2 years from the time a request is filed.

But patents for computer technology and biotechnology products are often more complicated and can take up to five years.

Businesses have to defend their products and ideas from being stolen during this time, and they lose several years from the patent’s 20-year life span.

The duration of a patent, which gives individuals or companies the exclusive right to sell, use, make or import their product, starts when the initial application is filed.

“Holding up patents by several years restrains development in the marketplace and is bad for the economy,” said Gregory J. Maier, a senior partner with Alexandria intellectual property law firm Oblon, Spivak, McClelland, Maier & Neustadt PC.

Mr. Maier, who represents clients such as Toshiba, Sony and L’Oreal, said the patent office’s efforts are a good first step but do not promise any quick improvement.

The situation probably will get worse before it gets better.

“It takes four to five years for new examiners to reach their peak productivity because their job is to delve through law and science and make complex decisions,” Ms. Quinn said.

Congress allowed the agency to increase its fees for the next two years to pay for the new examiners.

The higher fees, which began in January, are expected to bring an extra $400 million for the patent office, which has a $1.5 billion budget for fiscal 2005, which ends Sept. 30.

Small businesses, with 500 or fewer employees, are required to pay 50 percent of the filing and processing costs.

Ms. Quinn said U.S. patents, which on average cost $10,000 apiece, are cheaper than in Europe or Japan.

Biotechnology patents can cost much more, reaching up to $20,000 for the entire process, said Jim Sheridan, a partner and patent prosecution lawyer at Moser Patterson & Sheridan LLP in Palo Alto, Calif.

“It’s a big financial commitment,” Mr. Sheridan said, adding that his clients have to make sure competitors do not get an early patent on the same product.

“If that happens, [the clients] have to get a license or pay royalties, which does not help them make money. It’s one of the reasons people end up in lawsuits,” he said.

Although he waited four years and will spend $700 in issuing fees next week to get his second patent, Jere Glover said the process was worth the hassle.

“Small businesses really cannot license their technology or secure investors until the patent is issued,” said Mr. Glover, co-founder and managing director of Washington technology company Crown Systems LLC.

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