PTO ends one fast-track approval program, extends another

Friday - 12/23/2011, 5:29am EST

Jared Serbu, reporter, Federal News Radio

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As it prepares to implement a sweeping reform of the legal system governing U.S. intellectual property rights, the Patent and Trademark Office has decided to scuttle one of its interim fast-track solutions to patent approval and temporarily extend another.

One of the goals of a huge patent reform bill President Barack Obama signed in September was to eliminate the USPTO's backlog of applications. But in the meantime, the agency has been experimenting with pilot programs designed to achieve the same purpose.

The Patent Application Backlog Reduction Stimulus Plan, originally intended to encourage patent applicants to abandon some of their patent applications in exchange for expedited consideration of others, will end on Dec. 31, USPTO officials said.

Teresa Stanek Rea, deputy director, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)

"We were optimistic that this was going to be of benefit to our user community and be of benefit to us in terms of reducing the backlog," said Teresa Stanek Rea, USPTO's deputy director in an interview with Federal News Radio. "Unfortunately, it was not exceedingly popular. As of a few days ago, we had only received 209 total petitions. Our user community was not as enamored with this as they were with some of our other programs."

By contrast, USPTO's Green Technology pilot program exceeded the agency's expectations. Under that framework, patent applicants are allowed to enter an expedited approval process as long as their inventions deal with improvements to environmental quality, energy conservation, the development of renewable energy resources or greenhouse gas emission reductions.

The agency now plans to extend the program, originally set to expire at the end of 2011, through March 21, 2012.

But the end of the pilots will not mean an end to USPTO's goal of speeding up patent approvals, Rea said. Prior to Congress' enactment of the patent reform bill earlier this year, the America Invents Act approvals took an average of 30-40 months.

"What we're going to do is segue our green technology pilot program into our new accelerated examination program," Rea said. "That's Track One of our three-track program. We're going to tell our applicants that within one year or less we will review their applications, and we will have the entire patent process complete within one year."

The patent reform measure also makes USPTO one of the few federal agencies that's looking to expand its workforce at the moment. Rea said the agency intends to hire up to 1,500 new patent examiners in fiscal year 2012 and possibly the same amount in fiscal 2013.

"All of our patent examiners have some kind of science training or background," she said. "Most of our examiners are engineers, but we're also looking for biochemists and biologists, and each one of those examiners offer considerable value to the USPTO."

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