Joff Wild

First it was the PPAC's latest annual report stating that the USPTO needed to take decisive action to cut pendency times. Now several former USPTO directors and commissioners have said the same thing.

Speaking at a roundtable event held on Capitol Hill and sponsored by the Computing Technology Industry Association, ex office Directors Gerald Mossinghoff and Bruce Lehman, as well as Nick Godici -the Commissioner for Patents between 2001 and 2005 - all criticised the office for not doing enough to tackle the mounting backlog, which Mossinghoff described as "horrendous". This echoes the PPAC report which called current waiting times "truly unacceptable". 

There is no doubt that "horrendous" and "unacceptable" are not hyperbolic descriptions - they are entirely fair. The USPTO will admit to a backlog of 7000,000, but if you count applicatins where at least some official action has been undertaken, then the overall number rises to well-above one million. It may well also be the case that the office should be doing more. The PPAC, for example, has recommended that it "firmly believes that conquering the pendency/backlog problem will not be achieved unless and until the Office makes a very public commitment to reducing average pendency across all applications to 24 months within the next 24 months". Mossinghoff believes that reduction targets, so that there are milestones to aim for and benchmark against four and eight years from now.

Both seem reasonable to me. But neither gets to the real nitty gritty. And that is just what can be done to eat into the backlog? If this were a uniquely American problem, then it would not be too tricky. You could just look at Europe or Japan, say, and see how they are managing to cope. But both the EPO and the JPO have major pendency problems, as does SIPO in China and countless other national IP offices.

However, there is one country that has managed to do something. Pendency times to a first office action in Korea are now an average of 10 months, which is down from around 22 months five years ago. According to the most recent annual report of the The Korean IP Office this has been managed by "by refining the examination process through Six Sigma management, by introducing at-home examinations, and by making other improvements". Among these other improvements, I understand is hiring more examiners, introducing performance-related pay and outsourcing prior art searches. A three-speed examination system, effectively allowing applicants to fast track their cases or to defer them, has also been recently introduced.

All of which is great. But I wonder whether people in the US would be comfortable with the specifics of what the Koreans have done. Would USPTO users stand for a three speed system, for example? How would USPTO unions react to the outsourcing of prior art searches? I can see cans of worms popping open all over the place. 

Patent pendency is clearly a huge issue and one that does need to be tackled. But I can't help feeling that if it were that easy to deal with, offices around the world would be making headway against backlogs now. Instead, there is only one that is. I am pretty sure that most patent offices and groups representing users already know about the Korean example.  However, what would be interesting is to found out who has looked at it with a view to emulating its achievements, and what conclusions they came to. In other words, it would be helpful to know why, if it can be done in Korea in a certain way, that same way cannot be exported to the US or anywhere else.