Thoughts on Patent Office Transparency

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It’s fascinating that so many people are offering suggestions for implementing President Obama’s memorandum on government transparency for various agencies.  We can’t possibly evaluate all the ideas we see but we’ll pass a few of them along to help give the ideas some air.

Patently-O Blog , billed as the nation’s leading patent law blog, has six “easy” suggestions for improving transparency at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO). Dennis Crouch, University of Missouri law professor and the blog’s author, uses the word “easy” since all his suggestions involve taking information that is already exists at the PTO and making it accessible to the public. Plus,, opening up the PTO by following these steps should be “a quick and easy way for career office officials to quickly win favor with the new Obama administration.”

Here is a brief synopsis of Crouch’s suggestions: 1. Make petitions decisions available. Individuals can challenge decisions by patent examiners and PTO officers. The results of these challenges are hard to find. For instance, the PTO has not posted any of its decisions on its Web site in four years. They should start publishing all petitions decisions as they are released in one convenient location on the PTO site.

2. Make the PTO’s information retrieval system on patent applications searchable online, accurate and easy to use. Crouch writes that this must change, and offers work with PTO to help create a system that works. He adds that he favors “a system that embraces the possibility that individuals and companies will take-hold of the data stream and use it in creative ways.”

3. Publish the standard metrics used by PTO executives to measure the process flow and quality.

4. Allow search engines to crawl through the PTO web-servers. “Remember,” Crouch writes, “the touchstone of publication is whether it is accessible to the public.” He adds that many documents on the PTO site are “worthless” because they are too difficult to find.

5. Use PDF format to allow download of patents and patent applications in their “Standard” form.

6. Openly respond and post all responses to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests on the PTO Web site. Currently, the PTO’s site is not searchable and they don’t place FOIA documents there.

Hopefully, the PTO will throw these ideas in the hopper when it starts to think about how it will comply with President Obama’s Memorandum.

As far as federal bureaucracies go, this agency has shown signs of “getting it.”.  USTPO’s Peer to Patent Program , already offers a terrific model of collaborative government. Peer to Patent is the first social software project directly linked to decision making by the federal government. It uses crowd sourcing of patent applications to combat huge backlogs and the resulting time waste.

Update: This just in from someone who knows the Patent office from the inside: Any “software/computer” related  issues are subject to budget constraints.  As for petitions, it’s a bit more complicated than just posting them.. they are so cumbersome and most are simple fee problems, wrong address etc.. Someone would have to decide which petitions are worth posting and which are trivial or maybe personal. You are talking about hundreds, if not thousands of petitions per day.

Good points all. We have to remember that while technology can make government more efficient that there are costs in gettin from here to there. And there are human costs in sorting the necessary information from the trival.

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  • I had the opportunity to talk with the patent commissioner, John Doll, as well as some of the top legal counsel for the PTO about this topic in 2005 and learned that there was strong support for increased transparency within the organization. However, their position at that time was that private sector interests would block open access initiatives. Organizations like Thompson and Elsiver were making tremendous sums providing access to this data and were exerting pressure on the USPTO to prevent increased access through free interfaces.

    My questioning at that time related primarily to search interfaces on patent and application data – I’m not sure if the same economic argument applies to wrapper data generated during the decision making process. In recent months this data has actually become less accessible via the PTO, reportedly for technical reasons. But to my knowledge this data is not available through any private sector provider.

    Regardless, I’m glad to see that Doll is now serving as acting director for the PTO and as the Under Secretary of Commerce for IP. I’ve appreciated his candor and consideration of these issues in the past and hope that he will continue to advocate for increased transparency and data access under the new administration.