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Workflow Changes at Patent and Trademark Office

By Ed O'Keefe

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office headquarters in Alexandria.

In a move designed to improve morale and help reduce a growing backlog, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office proposed changes Wednesday to its way of determining how long a patent examiner has to complete a patent examination and the incentive credits that examiners earn for each stage of the process.

The modifications, which must be approved by agency employees in the coming weeks, would be the first major change to the agency's "count system" since 1976.

USPTO has grappled with workload and morale issues for years. More than 6,300 patent examiners completed roughly 450,000 patent applications in 2008, a daunting workload that leaves little time for thorough reviews, sympathetic critics have said in the past. Even so, applicants often wait more than three years before their submissions get considered. (Read all about the patent application process here.)

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and USPTO Director David Kappos bluntly discussed low morale and the backlog at Kappos's swearing-in ceremony in mid-August.

"Put simply, it takes too long for inventions and new ideas to get intellectual property protection," Locke said then.

In a statement, Kappos said Tuesday that Locke "directed us to adopt an ambitious agenda to reduce patent pendency, and that’s what we’re doing. We’ve worked closely with labor representatives to propose a long-overdue transformation of the count system. We hope to move expeditiously toward adoption of these changes that will benefit examiners, the agency and the [intellectual property] community as a whole.”

Though reducing the backlog is a big concern and goal, the new proposals will do more to address attrition and retention concerns, agency and union officials said.

Patent examiners are paid using a modified GS schedule, and they earn more money through an incentives awards package based on productivity. Examiners earn credits at various stages of the patent application process. The proposal awards more credits earlier in the process and allows examiners to interview applicants before reviewing the entire application. That long-sought option should help shorten the process by allowing the applicant and examiner to discuss details earlier in the process, said Deputy Commissioner for Patent Operations Peggy Focarino.

"If we can get to the heart of the matter earlier in the prosecutions, it’ll reduce the backlog," she said in an interview.

Agency officials and leaders of the Patent Office Professional Association spent more than a month developing the proposal, the first time management and labor have comprehensively tackled the issue.

"This I think went beyond what we’d normally do in a negotiation. We realized that if we were going to tackle this, we were going to need the decision-makers in the room," said POPA President Robert Budens. "I’ve argued for years and complained for quite awhile that we haven’t attacked the problem for 33 years. Now that we look back on it, maybe we understand why, because it’s been a lot of work."

Dues-paying PAPO members will vote on the proposal in the next two weeks after meeting with agency and union officials. Budens predicted easy passage.

"When examiners look at the package as a whole when they look at it, this will make their lives better, immediately as well as in the long-term. It’s going to affect their lives in a positive way," Budens said.

The new changes would include quarterly reviews, Focarino said.

"When you try to change a system as complex as this and have a better system that we’re proposing, we’ll have measures in place to check things."

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By Ed O'Keefe  | September 30, 2009; 5:15 PM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments, Workplace Issues  
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