Amid ‘trolls’ and backlog, USPTO unveils patent quality initiative

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia. (Alan Kotok/Flickr)

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The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office debuted a new effort Wednesday to focus on bolstering the quality of patents it issues.

Under the Enhanced Patent Quality Initiative, the patent office said it would concentrate on improving its work products, patent quality measurements and customer service. The agency scheduled a patent quality summit March 25 and 26 at USPTO headquarters as part of the program and is soliciting the public to submit ideas for how it could get better.

“Our Enhanced Patent Quality Initiative is ambitious. But it is essential as the USPTO continues to support ambitious innovations and economic growth,” Deputy Director Michelle Lee said in a blog post about the program on the patent office’s website.

In recent years, the patent office has been dogged by a large backlog of applications. And while the agency has made headway, it still faces 605,000 pending applications.

Also, lawmakers and tech giants have grown increasingly concerned about so-called patent trolls, a derogatory term for firms that engage in frivolous intellectual property lawsuits. Indeed, Lee faced questions on application backlog and patent trolls during her recent confirmation hearings — the president had nominated her to take the top job at the agency — before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

According to a pre-publication version of an upcoming Federal Register post on the initiative, these issues make improving patent quality that much more critical.

“The confluence of these events make it the optimal time for the USPTO to pursue this enhanced quality initiative,” said the post, slated to publish Thursday

In the posting, the office pointed to a number of projects it had already undertaken to improve patent quality, including a few IT initiatives. In particular, it highlighted the development of Patents End-to-End, a software to streamline the patent examination process. The system is currently in the pilot stage, and the office’s recent budget justification said it aims to deploy Patents End-to-End by fiscal year 2016.

The posting also discussed the office’s efforts to use crowdsourcing during the patent examination process to uncover prior art relevant to the application.

Wednesday’s release was expected. Lee had teased at some of these initiatives during a Q-and-A last month at Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, D.C. She also announced the office had appointed USPTO staffer Valencia Martin Wallace to serve as deputy commissioner for patent quality, a newly created position.

“For too long, due to uncertain and limited financial resources, USPTO has had to make do with less,” she said at the event. But after the American Innovation Act of 2011 allowed USPTO to set its own fees, she said the agency is in a better position to invest in ways to reform.

The Application Developers Alliance issued a statement lauding the new initiative, but it still called on Congress to put forth legislation to further protect patent holders.

“PTO’s patent quality improvement program, coupled with the recent appointment of a Deputy Commissioner for Patent’ Quality, is an excellent effort to end the historic problem of poor quality patents being issued,” said Jon Potter, the group’s president. Poor quality patents are the weapons that enable patent trolls to extort businesses. They cost our economy billions.”

He added, “Pre-approval quality efforts do not, however diminish the need for comprehensive patent reform legislation.”

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Commerce Department, Departments, Michelle Lee, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)
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