At the GeekWire Summit on Wednesday, former Swype CEO Mike McSherry received the loudest applause of the day when he strongly suggested that the best way to fix the mobile industry would be to abolish the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Obviously, when you have the entrepreneurs and innovators who are supposed to be benefiting from the agency calling for its destruction, there’s a big problem.
David Kappos, who was appointed director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2009, has certainly heard those criticisms before. But in a wide-ranging talk Friday at the University of Washington’s Center for Commercialization in Seattle, Kappos laid out in very blunt terms what he’s been doing over the past three years to fix the patent quagmire.
“I came to the government wanting to accomplish a few things,” said Kappos, the former vice president and assistant general counsel for intellectual property at IBM. “And one of the things I wanted to accomplish was to improve the quality of the patent process in the USPTO, deal with the big backlog … and turn the agency around in the way the IP community feels about it and the way America feels about it and the way it feels about itself. Because you can’t have a successful enterprise if you have an enterprise that is down and has got no self-respect.”
Kappos admits that the patent office still has a long way to go. “I think it is fair to say that we are making some progress. I also think it is fair to say that there’s a lot more to do,” he said.
But the office is making strides through recent reforms such as the America Invents Act — legislation signed by President Obama last September that Kappos called the biggest overhaul of the patent office since 1836 when Senator John Ruggles instituted sweeping changes. Kappos said the America Invents Act is like “an intricate Swiss watch.” And it is his duty to make sure that it functions properly.
“This is indeed a big change, and daunting in all of the moving parts and all of the things that it is remaking about our patent system in the U.S.,” said Kappos, encouraging those interested in the reforms to comment on the rule changes. “Not only are we listening, we are totally prepared to change the approach we are using upon getting cogent feedback from our intellectual property community.”
Meanwhile, Kappos said that staffers at the USPTO continue to cut through the backlog of patent applications, which when he arrived stood at roughly 770,000. As of today, he said it has now dropped to under 650,000 outstanding applications.
“We have been whittling away every day. It is like coming into the office with this gigantic flywheel, and every day you got to move it a little more, and we are on our way,” said Kappos, adding that he’d like to have it trimmed to about 330,000 applications in the next three years. That would ensure about 50 to 70 active cases per examiner.
The USPTO also is reducing the amount of time it takes to grant patents, with Kappos citing one recent example of an examiner who issued a patent in 37 days under the office’s fast-track program. Known as “Track One,” the program is designed to process patents in less than a year, compared to the average of nearly three years.
“We actually granted a patent from original filing date to out the door in 37 days under track one. Oh, my god,” boasted Kappos. “When that happened, I insisted on going personally to congratulate the examiner in his office. You should have seen the look on this guy’s face when I walked in the door. It was like sweepstakes time.”
The average processing time for Track One patents — which cost $4,000 to file — is now at about 111 days. “It is actually remarkable, and remarkably positive that Track One so far is extra fast, extra efficient, and very high grant rate, consistent with very high quality standards.”
Kappos said that the “appeals backlog” remains a big problem. But he said within a few months they hope to start brining that number of outstanding appeals down. The office also is attempting to make itself more accessible to inventors, putting in place a pro bono program that helps inventors file patents if they don’t have the means to do so.
“The United States has a policy of ‘no invention left behind.’ And what I mean by that is that there should be no inventor in our country who because she or he lacks access to the funding for legal resources is forced to try to do heart surgery on themselves, which is essentially what you do if you try to file you own patent application,” said Kappos.
In other remarks, Kappos addressed the USPTO’s recent effort to set up satellite offices across the country. A new satellite is already on track to launch in Detroit this summer, and Seattle is making a bid for one of the other two locations that are up for grabs. Kappos said that he’s received 54 proposals from various communities, and expects to make a decision some time in April or May.
“I find myself now in the unfortunate position of feeling like I am going to make two friends, and 52 enemies,” Kappos said to laughs. He added that the Detroit patent office is being established in the former brewery of Stroh’s beer, adding that “alcohol sort of helps.” (Maybe they can go to the old Rainier Beer Brewery).
University of Washington officials, including president Michael Young and vice provost Linden Rhoads, were on hand to make their pitch for the new patent office.
“We hope this is the first of many visits to Washington, which is what we call the good Washington,” said Young. “As you establish your new office here, we want you to know that we have beautiful places to hike and we’d warmly welcome you and we have some good sites in mind.”
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