Searching through US patent applications previously required a trip to the US Patent and Trademark Organization (USPTO) in Washington, DC, followed by a dig through mountains of files. Today, all it takes is an Internet connection
Until 1999, when Congress passed a law requiring patent applications to be made public within 18 months of filing, the applications were kept confidential until a patent was issued. Files containing all the applications made public since March 2001, when the 1999 law took effect, would make a pile 27 miles high and the papers would circle the equator, says Brigid Quinn, deputy director of the USPTO's Office of Public Affairs. The USPTO office had been talking about automating the patent review and publication system for about 20 years, she says. The Bush Administration made automating the patent application process by 2004 part of its five-year plan for the USPTO. "It was a goal with a timeline and it's a goal that was met," says Quinn.
The public has been able to check the status of an application online for about the past year, but could not access the application itself. What's different now is that anyone can take a look at the application, along with all references to prior art, which is past knowledge on the topic noted in the application and by patent examiners. "Scientists can get a really full picture of the state of the art in whatever technology they're interested in," Quinn said. "It will help them not pursue something that's already being pursued out there."
Public PAIR (patent application and information retrieval) is based on technology the USPTO developed to allow patents to be reviewed electronically. All of USPTO's 3,800 patent examiners are now using the system, known as Image File Wrapper, which allows several examiners to work on a patent simultaneously. Applicants themselves have been able to access the applications online for about a year by using a special password system.
Mark Myers, a visiting executive professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and co-chair of the National Research Council's Committee on Intellectual Property Rights in the Knowledge-Based Economy, says that the system has the potential to refine the development of new technology. "To the extent that online searching can help the inventor know the prior art, the system overall will benefit from that," says Myers. "Patent quality can improve if people have better information about prior art."
Currently 800,000 patent applications exist in the online system, with about 300,000 more being added each year, Quinn says.
- Anne Harding