Patent overload hampers tech innovation

Much has been made of recent patent applications--such as one involving emoticons on cell phones--that seem a far cry from real breakthroughs like the lightbulb. And while many of the weakest patent applications are eventually rejected, some experts believe that an overworked and underfunded U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is issuing more and more patents that never should have passed their first review.

Increasingly, patents of dubious quality are ending up at the heart of legal disputes. And when those disputes turn ugly, the results can hurt everyone, making all of us pay more for technology products and wasting our time through increased inconvenience.

For example, as we went to press, a patent case between NTP and Research in Motion threatened to force 3.2 million BlackBerry users to find another wireless e-mail device. And patent disputes affecting Microsoft have necessitated changes to the way software updates over the Internet and added extra clicks to the process required to run ActiveX controls in a browser.

Even IBM, which receives far and away the most patents, acknowledges the problems. As a result of patent fights, consumers have to pay more for software and hardware--"and ultimately there are fewer products in the market because companies decide not to make [them]," says David Kappos, IBM's vice president and assistant general counsel for intellectual property.

Patent backlog

The patent office faces a perfect storm: According to USPTO commissioner John Doll, the greatest number of new patent applications are for business processes or computer hardware and software innovations. And the former is one of the most difficult types of patent to evaluate.

"We do not have the ability to examine all the new cases that are being filed, and that's especially true in the high-tech areas," Doll says. The USPTO started 2005 with a backlog of 500,000 new patent applications, and ended the year with a backlog of nearly 600,000.

Examiners are supposed to evaluate applications against "prior art"--similar, earlier inventions. But in areas like software, "it's impossible for everyone to have their hands on every relevant piece of art" in the given time, says Kappos.

Patent examiners have a set amount of time--an average of 20 to 30 hours for computer software and hardware--to review a patent, handling any appeals and updates from the applicants as well, before issuing a final approval or rejection, says Robert Budens, president of the Patent Office Professional Association that represents examiners.

That time frame, Budens says, has not changed since 1976, despite added procedural complexity and accelerating technological advancement. If examiners exceed the time limits, they lose their jobs.

"From an examiner's point of view," says Budens, "the quality [of patent examinations] is suffering" as a result.

Reform efforts

To help alleviate the patent backlog, the USPTO plans to hire 1000 new examiners every year for the next five years, training each examiner for eight months before they're put on the job.

IBM and the Open Source Development Labs are working on several reform initiatives, including a source-code database that examiners can search for examples of prior art. They also want outside experts and specialized software to provide early feedback to examiners on patent applications' quality and complexity.

Other long-term solutions under discussion include shifting more of the burden of proving that an invention is unique onto patent applicants.

But none of these solutions are a panacea, says patent attorney Peter Zura, who writes the 271 Patent Blog: "As long as modern patent examination has existed, there have always been, and always will be, bad patents."

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Andrew Brandt

PC World
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Stocking Stuffer

SmartLens - Clip on Phone Camera Lens Set of 3

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Aysha Strobbe

Microsoft Office 365/HP Spectre x360

Microsoft Office continues to make a student’s life that little bit easier by offering reliable, easy to use, time-saving functionality, while continuing to develop new features that further enhance what is already a formidable collection of applications

Michael Hargreaves

Microsoft Office 365/Dell XPS 15 2-in-1

I’d recommend a Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 and the new Windows 10 to anyone who needs to get serious work done (before you kick back on your couch with your favourite Netflix show.)

Maryellen Rose George

Brother PT-P750W

It’s useful for office tasks as well as pragmatic labelling of equipment and storage – just don’t get too excited and label everything in sight!

Cathy Giles

Brother MFC-L8900CDW

The Brother MFC-L8900CDW is an absolute stand out. I struggle to fault it.

Luke Hill

MSI GT75 TITAN

I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?