Packet Rat: Pat solution to PTO's systems headache

Michael Bechetti

The Rat was among the least surprised by the Patent and Trademark Office's announcement that its computer systems are not, to say the least, fault-tolerant. Neither internal nor external customers can trust PTO's automated systems, the agency confessed.

'Well, at least they're honest,' the Rat reflected, remembering his sojourn in the early 1990s at PTO's production facility among the Crystal City towers of Arlington, Va. At the time, the contractor-run production of copies of patent filings was an IT disaster just waiting for someone to trip over an extension cord.

Employees running print jobs had to wear filter masks to keep out the laser toner floating in the air. The tangle of cables that juiced the production workstations, combined with Crystal City's notorious power quality problems, constituted a risk manager's nightmare.

'The specifics of PTO's problems have changed, but the generalities remain the same,' the cyberrodent lectured his wife over morning coffee. 'Thomas Jefferson is probably spinning over this, if the whole Digital Millennium Copyright Act hasn't already gotten to him.'

'Well, what would happen if they did have a catastrophic failure?' Mrs. Rat wondered. 'Would it be such a bad thing? Maybe it would give them a chance to straighten some things out'like the way they handle frivolous applications.'

Mrs. Rat was still stewing over a 7-year-old kid getting a patent on swinging sideways on a swing. 'Our kids have plenty of prior art,' she grumbled.

After all, she argued, if there were a total system failure, PTO couldn't keep churning out the 3,000 patents per week it currently approves. It would have to resort to manual review, which might mean a bit more reluctance to give bogus claims the stamp of approval.

With intellectual property at the heart of nearly every high-profile IT policy and legislation, there's a disproportionate burden on PTO and the Copyright Office to deal with registering all the hot new ideas out there, even after the demise of the dot-coms that filed them.

So the Rat has a modest proposal. If PTO can't get legislative relief, it can do what every bureaucrat does with work that piles up too high: Lose it. There are plenty of places for work to go'into the bit bucket from a hard-drive crash, under the file drawer or behind a desk, or off to the Col. Oliver North School of Document Management.

If Microsoft Corp. can't reach an antitrust settlement, what if its patents and copyrights on Windows code suddenly no longer existed because of a mysterious database glitch?

In that event, the Rat suspects the PTO's system problems would suddenly receive the congressional attention and funding they deserve and then some.

'Oh, I think I'll patent that idea,' the whiskered one told his wife. 'I'll call it 'Process for Altering a Legislative Process, Patent Pending.' '

The Packet Rat once managed networks but now spends his time ferreting out bad packets in cyberspace. E-mail him at [email protected].

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