Saturday, February 5, 2011

Eight-Track Tape, Meet Three-Track Patent

A lot can happen in five years.  One could write a great novel - or two.  One could run around the world.  One could complete an MD degree, and begin saving lives.  One could get pregnant, have a baby, watch that baby learn to crawl, walk, talk, and read, and begin kindergarten.  Or, one could apply for, and receive a final determination about, a patent.  Enter the new "Three-Track" patent system being proposed by the United States Patent and Trademark Office ("USPTO").

Gary Locke, U.S. Secretary of Commerce, has described the Three-Track system as a strategy for shifting the speed of patent prosecution for higher quality patents from lentissimo to allegro:
“The Patent and Trademark Office plays a key role in promoting innovation and entrepreneurship,” Locke said. “This new system will bring the most valuable patents, as determined by inventors, to market faster and will help shrink the backlog by catering to the business needs of America’s innovators.”
The USPTO placed a notice of its prioritized "Track I" proposal in the Federal Register on February 4, 2011, describing this new fast track to patenting as follows:

Under Track I prioritized examination, an application would be accorded special status and placed on the examiner’s special docket throughout its entire course of prosecution before the examiner until a final disposition is reached in the application. The aggregate goal for handling applications under Track I prioritized examination would be to provide a final disposition within twelve months of prioritized status being granted.
The main elements of Track I would be (1) a very expensive examination fee of $4,800 (that is, almost five times more expensive than the filing, search, and examination fees currently paid by large entities (companies with more 500 employees), and almost ten times what small entities (with 500 or fewer employees) currently pay), (2) strict limits of 4 independent claims and 30 dependent claims per application, and (3) mandatory filing of patent applications using the USPTO's electronic filing system ("EFS-Web").

Track III would allow patent applicants request that docketing of an application be delayed, allowing the application to hibernate from prosecution for up to 30 months (corresponding to the Patent Cooperation Treaty ("PCT") deadline for taking a patent application national).  Unless a patent applicant specifically affirmatively opted for Track I or Track III, that applicant would be placed by default on Track II, the current patent prosecution pathway.

The USPTO has proposed that the Track I pathway would be limited to 10,000 patent applications during its first year, and the USPTO would hire "additional examiners above the number of planned hires...so that the non-prioritized applications would not be delayed due to resources being diverted to process the prioritized applications."  This may be somewhat optimistic given the U.S. Congress' penchant for diverting fees collected by the USPTO to other governmental purposes, and 10,000 expedited patent applications, yielding almost $50,000,000 in the first year of the program alone, would present an extremely tempting target in this dawning age of federal austerity.

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