Monday, August 22, 2005

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office records allow nearly unlimited access to the Social Security numbers, credit card numbers and bank account numbers of hundreds of inventors who petition to reclaim their patent rights each year.

Inventors who are late to file maintenance fees due after four, eight and 12 years of patent ownership must explain the delay to the patent office and show why they should be allowed to keep their patent rights.

More than 1,000 inventors petition to reclaim their patent rights each year. Inventors typically provide the information to prove that hardship prevented them from paying their maintenance fees on time. The fees range from $450 for independent inventors to up to $3,800 for large companies.

The records, which are not required but frequently are submitted as supporting documentation, include divorce decrees, tax returns, records of psychological therapy, professional license suspensions, hospital bills, credit reports, telephone numbers and home addresses.

Richard Pierce, a Brea, Calif., resident who owns a patent on a device to help emergency responders administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation with flashing light signals, has his credit report listed in patent office records.

“Why would they need all of that information?” asked Mr. Pierce’s wife, Cathleen. “If you have a patent, the patent is to get the product to the general public. Why does the public need to know what we eat and breathe? I think it’s an invasion of the most intimate of privacy.”

Patent office officials acknowledge the risk of identity theft, although they are not aware of any problems, and said they are trying to find a solution.

“On the Internet, everything on file about a patent is there for anyone who is interested in finding out what’s going on,” said Richard Maulsby, public affairs director for the patent office.

The patent office does not keep track of identity theft.

“This is a fairly new issue,” Mr. Maulsby said.

Officials posted an advisory Aug. 10 on the agency’s Web site,, while they search for a better way to protect inventors. It warns patent owners and applicants to avoid disclosing personal information in records they submit to the office.

“Please remember that all patent application files are published and made available to the public 18 months from the filing date, unless a nonpublication request is made in the application,” the Web site advisory says.

The office also advises inventors at conferences, through its telephone operators and in trade publications.

It is developing recommendations to avoid identity theft and expects to finish them by mid-September.

“What we’ve done immediately is better communicate to our customers that there is a procedure available whereby they can request the information to be kept out of their file,” Mr. Maulsby said.

Inventors can exclude the financial information from their renewal petitions or indicate they do not want the information included in the patent office records.

Otherwise, the information can be accessed by anyone who knows the inventors’ names and numbers of their patents. It can be viewed at the patent office or by ordering it online through the patent office Web site.

David Brown, a Sun City Center, Fla., inventor who noticed the identity-theft vulnerability when he tried to recover rights to one of his two patents in 2003, accused the patent office of responding too slowly to the threat.

“You look in there and everything is there,” Mr. Brown said.

He filed a lawsuit in 2003 that was settled in November when the patent office agreed to publish Privacy Act statements on patent forms telling inventors their personal information could be disclosed in public records.

Mr. Brown said few inventors know about the option to request that their personal information be withheld from public records.

The patent office started posting documents from inventors on the Internet one year ago as part of a governmentwide “transparency” campaign to make public records accessible, Mr. Maulsby said.

“It’s good for our customers,” he said.

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