Patent Office Weighs Ways To Cut Growing Backlog

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 1, 2009

In a move designed to improve employee morale and to 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 incentives that examiners earn.

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.

The office has grappled with workload and morale issues for years. More than 6,300 patent examiners completed just under 450,000 patent applications in 2008, a daunting workload that leaves little time for thorough reviews, critics say. The high number of applications means that applicants often wait more than three years before winning approval.

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

Patent examiners are paid using a modified GS schedule and earn more money through productivity incentives. Examiners earn incentive credits at various stages of the patent application process. The proposal would award more credits earlier in the process and allow 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.

Agency employees who are dues-paying members of the Patent Office Professional Association are expected to approve the proposal after meeting with agency and union officials in the next two weeks.

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