Over the past year or so ever more patent data has been made publicly available thanks to Google. In collaboration with the USPTO Google is scraping information from the USPTO servers, transferring the many image files into searchable text documents. The availability of this information has allowed companies like Reed Technologies to offer interesting and useful patent analytics. For example, the Patent Advisor™ product, which is powered by PatentCore, allows users to find rejection, allowance, RCE and appeals information relating to individual Art Units and individual examiners. Armed with this information better prosecution strategies can be developed, saving time and money in the long run.
As I have dove into the Patent Advisor statistics I jumped to those Art Units charged with so-called business method patents in class 705. This has lead me to write several articles critical of one Art Unit in particular for having an extremely low allowance rate, with many of those allowances ordered by the Board. For example, see Allowance Rates for Art Units Examining Business Methods.
But what is a business method? That is the very question that dogged the United States Supreme Court in Bilski. In fact, a definition of “business method” has proven to be as illusive as a unicorn or Bigfoot. The goal of those who care to try and define “business methods” is almost universally so that they become non-allowable subject matter. But with every definition there comes the realization that some of what seems like it should be swept up in the definition remains on the outside and some things that really ought not to be considered “offensive” business methods are swept up in the definition. The trouble is that methods have been patentable since 1790 in the United States and on some level virtually every method could be characterized as a method of doing business, or more generally a method that facilitates one or another business goal.
UPDATED: Jan. 22, 2013 at 11:43am (see comment #2)
USPTO Director David Kappos speaking a White House event on April 11, 2012.
Today President Barack Obama publicly started his second term in Office with a celebration in Washington, DC, marked by his second inaugural address to the Nation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that President Obama will mark his second inauguration quite the way that President Abraham Lincoln did with a grand ball held at the United States Patent Office in the model room, but today is a very special day in America. We transfer power without a shot fired, which can’t be said for a great many places in the world. Soon we will turn from celebration back to partisan politics, if that hasn’t happened already.
One of the things that President Obama will be faced with in his second term, which I understand he was not expecting to have to deal with, is selecting a new leader for the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
On November 26, 2012, news broke that David Kappos, Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, would be stepping down and leaving the agency effective the end of January 2013. In fact, Director Kappos’ last day as Director will be January 31, 2013. At that time the mantle of leadership will pass to soon-to-be Acting Director Teresa Rea.
One of the criticisms of the PatentCore database in the past was that the database was not a complete representation of the case files at the USPTO and gave a false impression. I never personally found that persuasive given that even when the database first became public there were approximately 1.5 million application files within the database. Still, many patent examiners scoffed at the notion that this data was accurate.
If I were a patent examiner that hadn’t issued patents for years I wouldn’t want anyone to know that either. Similarly, if I were a Supervisory Patent Examiner (SPE) in an Art Unit that routinely only issued patents after a long drawn out appeal process that resulted in the Board overturning the rejections I wouldn’t want the public to know about that either. Sadly, this type of gaming exists at the Patent Office. There are examiners who only rarely issue patents and Art Units that openly tell patent attorneys that they don’t issue patents unless ordered to do so by the Board. Knowing that this happens, which is supported by hard data, makes it impossible to tolerate the anti-patent zealots who routinely opine about just how easy it is to get a software or business method patent issued. Really? You have to be kidding!
David Kappos is Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and the Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office. He assumed that role within the Obama Administration when he took over the USPTO in August of 2009, nearly 32 months ago. Upon arrival Director Kappos found a largely dysfunctional Patent Office, which had really become the “No Patent For You” Office owing to the philosophical and ideological beliefs of the prior Administration. This lead to the development of a massive backlog of un-examined patent applications and played no small part in the severity of the economic collapse and the sluggish rebound. We have a technology based economy and start-up companies that are the backbone of our economy struggled without patents to attract capital investment, expand and hire.
There is still a massive backlog of patent applications, but things are undeniably turning around. There are certainly some pockets of resistance within the USPTO, See Business Methods by the Numbers, but the Patent Office is by-and-large open for business. The USPTO has returned to the historical philosophy that patent examiners should work cooperatively with patent applicants to identify allowable subject matter and issue patents on what is allowable, not just focusing on rejection after rejection after rejection.
While there are quite a few positive changes, with more in the works, Track One is by far the most successful policy initiative that has come to bear during the Kappos Administration. The only problem with Track One is that more applicants are not using it! What are you waiting for? A look at the numbers shows that Track One is a huge success and ought to be employed far more than it has been.
You may have heard of them, but as a rule I think it is safe to say that most patent attorneys and patent agents have never seen one, at least not in certain technology areas. They are called “first action allowances” and this happens when you file a patent application and the patent examiner does not reject any claims and instead finds that your submission is in order and allowable without amendment.
In some technical areas, such as class 705 – business method patents for example, first action allowances likely seem like the patent equivalent of a unicorn. Perhaps an even better analogy would be to Bigfoot! There are rumors of sightings but no hard proof to know that they exist for certain, or at least not proof that would stand up to true scientific scrutiny.
As a general rule patent examiners will always find something to reject, and, in fact, there is growing evidence to support the anecdotal stories about certain Art Units and Supervisory Patent Examiners simply refusing to ever issue a patent unless the applicant appeals. See Denial of Due Process. Obviously, such a refusal to award patents is troubling and evidence of an enormous problem facing the Patent Office. The data capable of being obtained by PatentCore is voluminous and eye-opening. I have no doubt that it will eventually lead to significant changes and the eradication of patent examiners who refuse to issue patents.
If you have been in the patent industry for any length of time and you represent individuals or small entities, you have almost certainly heard complaints about the perception that corporate giants are treated differently at the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Until recently determining whether there was any merit behind the often mumbled whispers alleging disparate treatment was exceptionally difficult. With the recent unveiling of PatentCore, however, it is easy to collect all kinds of information about Patent Examiners and Art Units.
Although not a part of their basic offering, PatentCore also provides detailed analysis of assignee portfolios, including issued patents, pending applications and abandoned files. So what do you suppose those numbers show? It does seem clear that the allowance rate for large corporations is much higher than the average allowance rate for all patent applications. But does that suggest some nefarious bias? Not so fast my friends!
Last week I wrote an article titled Business Methods by the Numbers, which took a look at the allowance rates for a variety of Art Units assigned to examine patents in class 705, the primary class where business methods and financial data processing inventions are classified in the United States. The article has raised a few eyebrows and has caused some to question whether there is disparate treatment among Art Units at the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
The fact that there is disparate treatment between and among various Art Units and patent examiners shouldn’t catch anyone by surprise. Everyone in the industry knows that some patent examiners feel they work for the Patent Granting Authority while others work for the Patent Rejection Office. Notwithstanding, there are some who are excusing what can only be characterized as truly alarming statistics as having something to do with the various types of patent applications assigned to each Art Unit. Allow me to call that out for what it is – hogwash! Class 705, including the applications handled by Art Unit 3689, is dominated by a who’s who of the largest technology and financial companies in the world. These companies hire some of the best attorneys in the world, they well understand how to write a patent application to articulate allowable subject matter and yet these large, well-funded companies represented by some of the best and brightest legal minds are incapable of obtaining a patent? If you believe that I have a bridge I want to sell you!
Class matters. Technology class, that is. In some of the more rapidly growing areas of our economy, like Social Networking and Mobile Phone Apps, it looks like you can almost double patent allowance rate by making sure your patent application is classified in the more technological patent office art units. For entrepreneurs, a faster allowance rate and earlier acquisition of patents can directly translate into better fund raising, more secure commercialization and more profitable licensing. For large corporations, it means substantially reduced patent costs. And with some forethought you can probably influence which class your application is placed in while at the same time creating a more comprehensive patent application.