U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Makes Cyber Leap

Gretchen Gallen
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Often criticized for its outdated procedures and questionable oversight of the patent application process, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office made strides recently to move its system into the electronic age as part of its "21st Century Strategic Plan."

The PTO recently implemented two programs called the Public Patent Application Information Retrieval system and the Image File Wrapper that make researching patent information radically easier.

According to the PTO, the IFW system enables the patent office to use a paperless system in the application and search process for file wrappers, also known as the prosecution history of the patent. The PAIR system allows for the public viewing over the Internet of pending patent applications and the history of patents that have been granted by the PTO.

Prior to the PTO's update, the searchable public database provided information on all patents and outstanding applications, but according to the PTO, the new system can now retrieve additional information (the file wrapper) that was previously only available on hardcopy to the general public or to patent applicants and their attorneys via an encrypted link.

Obtaining the file wrapper on a patent used to take several weeks for shipment of the paperwork and could cost several hundred dollars. But with the new system, says the PTO, the process is free and no longer hampered by time constraints, which previously relied on at least an eighteen-month wait before the information on a patent application was made available.

The PTO has said that its intention behind using the PAIR system makes it easier for applicants and their attorneys to keep tabs on the application process and on competing patent applications. The new system is also expected to provide a significant aid to lawyers and judges in patent infringement litigation.

As it stands, the PTO is currently backlogged by two years and nearly 1,000 patent applications flood into the office on a daily basis, according to reports.

Patent officials are typically given between eight and 25 hours to read and understand each application, evaluate patent-ability, and write up conclusions.

As part of its strategic overhaul, the PTO also recently completed its move to a new location in Alexandria, Virginia, which it says will be concluded by the end of 2005. The new location will house more than 7,000 PTO employees in five buildings.

Other changes include adjusting the fees for a number of patent-related petitions, expanding the submissions that can be filed on a compact disc and eliminating the requirement for copies of U.S. patents or U.S. patent application publications cited in an information disclosure statement for all applications.