Innovator: John Owens is trying to make a modern U.S. Patent and Trademark Office


John B. Owen, II. (Illustration by Lennart Andressen)

When John B. Owens II joined the Patent and Trademark Office in 2008, the career move was a bit like traveling back in time. The software and systems used by the office to support patent and trademark examiners, as well as inventors apply for patents, was built upon decades-old equipment and systems. When he became the agency’s chief information officer in December of that same year, Owens began a top-to-bottom reboot in an effort to bring in technology that, in his words, “would enable innovation.” The passage of the America Invents Act in 2011 made those changes all the more necessary and urgent.

You worked at AOL for 13 years before joining the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. What made you decide on the career change?

■ The company wasn’t going the way I would like it to go. As I decided to leave, I was looking at different opportunities, and one of the ones that fascinated me was the Patent and Trademark Office. I had applied for many patents. I actually got one as primary inventor, and it took me six years to do it. That’s way too long.

Does your experience applying for patents inform decisions in your current role?

■ I came to the U.S. PTO because I believe in the patent system. I believe our founding fathers were right in protecting someone’s intellectual property. To protect that ... is paramount to the nation’s economy. To take six years [to patent] an algorithm or a piece of software, that’s just huge. It takes too long. I know Patents is working on that, and part of what we’re doing here in the Office of the Chief Information Officer is helping influence that.

The America Invents Act made several significant changes to the way patents are issued and protected in this country. Did it impact the agency’s technology needs or demands?

■ It caused hundreds and hundreds of changes. We have approximately 200 systems ... that are connected in many ways and, in some ways, not connected. When we look at the changes AIA wanted and the new systems AIA wanted, there was no way to rapidly develop and prototype those systems with the way we were doing work. Some of the first deliveries had to happen in a year.

What kind of technology was the office dealing with before your recent efforts to modernize?

■ A lot of the technology the PTO had was ancient. Some of it was started on mainframes as early as the 1970s. There was a plethora of very old hardware, and there wasn’t a concerted effort to modernize the environment and bring it up to modern standards when I came in in 2008. We built a modernization road map. It took five years, and we prepared one of the most modern infrastructures you can get.

The hard part is really redeveloping and rewriting from scratch, kind of re-envisioning as it were, business architecture and design. Reimagine what a modern patent or trademark examination system is. The real difference in this job is you can’t go out and buy a patent and trademark system. I tried. No one makes one.

One of the biggest shifts you’ve undertaken is moving toward “agile development.” What does that mean?

It’s a process of project management. Instead of thinking we’re going to start today and totally define something that four years or five years from now will be delivered and it will be right ... agile takes things in chunks. Agile accounts for a rapid change in direction. It accounts for not planning on things you don’t know. There are all kinds of technologies that go with that to bring us up to modern standards. What I’m talking about being done was being done [by industry] in the early 2000s.

The next goal you’re working toward is rapid deployment of new technology. Why is that important?

■ The newest thing we’re embracing over the last two years and have been working toward is rapid deployment. First you have to develop the software and make it what the customer wants, but then there was a bottleneck on delivering it to the public.

[With rapid deployment], you roll new software out a piece at a time. Architecturally, it’s difficult to manage, but the benefits are astounding. It’s how Facebook comes out with new features and Twitter comes out with new tweaks to bugs without having to take down the whole system.

At the U.S. PTO, at any minute we could have a change. The court could decide something and we have to change. All of these things cause us to have to change our systems, but the legacy systems aren’t apt to change. And in a modern environment, they have to change a lot.

What’s the end goal?

We need the best IT. If you kind of look at the U.S. PTO examiners’ widgets, the machinery they use to process them is IT, and that system has to work and work well. It has to be just as available as many of the more modern systems we expect, whether it be Twitter or Gmail or Amazon [Web] Services. When they go down, they make the front page of The Washington Post. Our systems are generally old and frail, so when they go down, they don’t make the front page. The goal is to get to a point where the U.S. PTO systems are so robust and strong ... that if our systems fail, we would make the front page of The Washington Post . Not that we would ever want to.

Will people outside the office, such as those applying for patents, see changes or benefits?

■They’re going to see an improvement on performance, on quality. They’re going to see a more modern system that’s easy to use and available 24 by 7 by 365. It’s going to be a real game changer. They’re going to see a consistent reduction in system outages and failures, so one day if it does happen it will make the front page of The Washington Post because it will be that rare.

Meet “Innovators,” a biweekly series showcasing interesting ideas from people around the Washington area who work in business, technology and policy. Know someone with an idea worth sharing? Tell us about them at steven.overly@washpost.com.

Steven Overly is a national reporter covering federal technology and energy policy with a focus on Capitol Hill. He previously covered the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital.
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