This is the computer system from hell.

The Patent and Trademark Office public search room in Crystal City, like most libraries, is a subdued place where the diligence of several hundred daily users is critical to many companies and inventors pursuing innovation and laying claim to something new.

The quiet there has been broken by the recent arrival of a new computer system, which is used to search the Patent Office's 6 million patents to see whether an idea is really new and worthy of a pedigree from the government. Both patent examiners and public users say the new setup, supplied by several companies, is a failure that doesn't retrieve information, read commands correctly, or even function at times.

"We think it's a stinko system," said Ronald Stern, president of the Patent Office Professional Association, the union representing about 3,000 examiners. "We have serious problems."

"It's an anemic retrieval software," said Emory Damron, who was working in the search room. Adds a former examiner sitting a few terminals away: "How will you be able to testify to the validity [of a patent] when you know there are errors in the system?"

The new system they are grousing about is the Web-based Examiner Search Tool, or WEST. Examiners have a fancier retrieval system called the Examiners Automated Search Tool, or EAST. These replace the Automated Patent Searching System, or APS, which was taken out of commission Oct. 9.

PTO officials said much of the unhappiness has occurred because a key part of the new system was delivered late, leaving only two months for the old system to run side by side with it. If examiners had had a fallback, many of the problems they now face would have been worked out in the meantime.

Nevertheless, the joke among users is that WEST stands for "Waste of Examiners' Search Time" or "Worthless Examiners' Search Tool." An advertisement for training on the WEST system posted by an elevator has scrawled across it "Please sign up for worst training" and then "Why bother?"

Outside users of the Patent Office library are an assortment of lawyers, patent agents, former examiners and others. They are hired by companies, inventors and patent applicants to wade through the 33 million paper documents that the PTO stores in a 65,000-square-foot room. They spend hours, days, months doing patent research, and much of their work is now done on computers.

They uniformly said the new system has so many bugs that the Patent Office, which is part of the Commerce Department, isn't charging the customary $40 an hour to use it. "We seem to be beta testers," said Elliott Greenwald, a professional patent searcher who does work for companies interested in patent information. "Any work done with the new WEST system is in doubt."

Greenwald demonstrated by entering "Procter & Gamble" one way into the system. The response was that the multibillion-dollar conglomerate owns a mere 19 patents. Entered another way, the total was 4,587. Another user said the system was so cumbersome that he had spent the whole day on the same 20-word search. One query that took approximately 12 seconds on the old system took more than seven minutes to be resolved by WEST.

Patent Office officials said they are not completely happy with the results so far but said they are making fixes that will increase ease of use and speed of the $7 million system. The pluses of the new system, they said, are that it costs much less to operate than the old one and is Y2K-compliant. Officials added that the system has unlimited search capacity and has a bigger database than its predecessor.

"We've had a few bumps in the road, and we are addressing them," said Nicholas Godici, PTO deputy assistant commissioner for patent process services. "Part of this is knowing the system and how it works. We've found it [the problem] is in the query methodology."

To help examiners over the bumps, he said supervisors are giving them more time to review applications and flexible work hours so they can use the system on off-peak hours when it seems to perform better.

Stern said problems with EAST and WEST would affect the productivity of examiners "big time." He said the likely outcome is that examiners will reduce the quality of their work rather than sacrifice efficiency.

Examiners are so fed up that they sent a petition to Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, complaining that the PTO's "handling of our automated search systems has been inadequate and grossly negligent."

"The new system is replete with operational bugs and faults, and appears even if it was bug-free is actually a step backward in search system capability. Searches using the new system take longer to perform, produce fewer results than the systems that they replaced, and thus prevent us from doing our jobs," the examiners' letter said.

Public users such as Greenwald and others who have decades of patent experience have asked Q. Todd Dickinson, commissioner of patents and trademarks, to have a hearing so they can air their complaints.

Their letter, which also went to members of Congress this week, said that they "are being presented with an information retrieval system with debilitating flaws: not only is the system frequently incapable of performing even simple word searches, the results are often woefully incomplete and even inaccurate."

James F. Cottone, a patent agent, wrote in a missive to Dickinson and several members of Congress: "How bad is WEST? In my over 40 years of designing, evaluating and using high-tech electronic systems as a senior systems engineer, the WEST system is easily the most stupid system I've ever seen."

So much for the "Quiet Please" entreaty in the public search room.