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New Boss Moves to Change Sluggish Patent Office

New Boss Moves to Change Sluggish Patent Office

Ed O'Keefe | The Washington Post via YellowBrix

October 20, 2009

You know things are bad at a government agency when a Cabinet secretary says as much while swearing in the new boss. It happened at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in August, when Commerce Secretary Gary Locke showed up to swear in the new director, David Kappos, and told the rank-and-file that the agency’s backlog had a negative impact on the country’s economic competitiveness.

Even Kappos’s official biography mentions the agency’s woes, noting that the PTO has a backlog of more than 770,000 patent applications, “long waiting periods for patent review, information technology systems that are regarded as outdated and an application process in need of reform.”

Kappos arrived at the patent office as a former customer of the agency. He previously served as vice president and assistant general counsel for intellectual property at IBM, managing the company’s patent and trademark portfolios. He’s earned early credit from colleagues, union leaders and agency veterans for quickly addressing several issues of concern.

The most pressing matter is the length of time it takes the agency to approve — or deny — a patent application. It takes more than three years in many cases to get a final answer.

“Imagine in the commercial world any service provider where if you sent the service provider money and a request for service and they said, ‘Thanks, we’ll get back to you in three years.’ You’d say that’s insane, unacceptable,” Kappos said in a recent interview.

Beyond the lag time, observers agree that the agency is in dire need of modernization and a morale boost. The economic downturn also means fewer inventors and corporations are paying patent application fees, which is the agency’s only funding source.

But the PTO took an encouraging step Friday, when patent examiners approved changes that help determine how long they have to complete patent examinations and the incentives they earn. Kappos got the ball rolling shortly after he arrived by getting agency officials and union representatives into a room to draft changes to the “count system” for the first time in more than 30 years.

“I locked the door and said, ‘I want a new system that does no harm to our employees, that gives examiners more time to do their work, that incentivizes parts of the process early in the process,’ " he said. Kappos also promised to meet with negotiators every week while they worked on the changes and mandated an Oct. 1 deadline. Then, he said, he walked out of the room.

“It’s Management 101, it’s how it works in the real world and that’s what I’m doing here at the U.S. PTO,” he said.

“This, I think, went beyond what we’d normally do in a negotiation,” said Robert Budens, president of the Patent Office Professional Association, which represents patent examiners.

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