PTO brings the U.S. patent system into the digital age

Project at a glance

Who: Patent and Trademark Office

Mission: Paperless filing and electronic management of patent applications

What was: Files of paper documents that were time-consuming to search and retrieve, and labor-intensive to manage

What is: Electronic filing, storage, retrieval and management with one of the world's largest transactional databases. The official patent document record now is a digital file.

Users: Thousands of applicants and patent attorneys, who still have the option of filing on paper or electronically. They can view the progress of their cases online. PTO administrators and examiners can access files quickly and view them at the same time.

Impact: All files now are handled electronically, and more than 10,000 applications have been filed electronically. About 14,000 digital certificates have been issued for online access to nonpublic patent records.

Duration: Selected applications arrived electronically in 2000. Electronic documents became the official record in 2003, and all patent examiners had desktop applications for online access to documents by this August.

Thanks to electronic filing of patent documents, Edward Kazenske measures PTO's storage needs in terabytes rather than pages.

Rick Steele

For its first 200 years, the Patent and Trademark Office's examiners shuffled millions of paper pages and sent mountains of them to warehouses.

'We employed large numbers of people just to manage paper,' said Edward Kazenske, deputy commissioner for patent planning and resources.

That was before PTO launched Patent eGov, an electronic application filing and management system. As of June 30 last year, paper no longer reigned at PTO.

'We were given clearance that the digital record would be the official file,' Kazenske said.

The shift became necessary in part because of the sheer volume of work. PTO issued the 6 millionth U.S. patent in 1999, and new submissions are increasing annually at double-digit percentage rates. Next year, PTO expects to receive about 340,000 applications, which also are growing more complex and larger.

PTO now measures its storage needs in terabytes rather than pages. An Image File Wrapper file system manages electronic documents, and examiners get immediate access through the Electronic Desktop Application Navigator, or eDAN, an interface that searches documents with subsecond response.

All there

'You never have a file you can't find,' Kazenske said.

Patent eGov is the cornerstone of the office's 21st Century Strategic Plan, which calls for replacing paper with end-to-end electronic management.

'This program is an integral part of our moving into the 21st century,' Kazenske said.

In July last year, when digital documents became official, applicants were given the option of filing electronically or on paper. PTO began rolling out the eDAN desktop application to examiners, eventually reaching 100 examiners per week. By August this year, all 3,600 examiners had the desktop tool, a month ahead of schedule.

There was no lack of work for the examiners, however, while they waited for eDAN. At any time as many as 500,000 patent applications are pending, and each examiner has a caseload of seven to 25 months' worth of applications.

'We knew they had enough work on their dockets' to keep them busy until everyone had eDAN, Kazenske said.

Image-based files

At the heart of Patent eGov is an Oracle Corp. database management system with up to 300T of network storage from EMC Corp. of Hopkinton, Mass. The image-based files are accessible by up to 1,000 concurrent users of a high-performance Unix search engine developed by PTO.

A survey last year by Winter Corp. of Waltham, Mass., ranked PTO's 5.4T database as the fifth largest transactional database in the world.

Although applicants still can file on paper if they choose, PTO converts all paper filings to digital images and manages them electronically.

A new suite of EMC products will strengthen e-records management: Symmetrix networked storage and data management software, ControlCenter for reporting storage allocations across the infrastructure, and TimeFinder to mirror production systems for failure recovery.

So far, more than 1,700 inventors and attorneys have filed more than 10,000 applications electronically. PTO tags the application contents with Extensible Markup Language tags and then checks whether all the required information is present.

'When you file on paper, you don't hear back that we have a complete application from you for 40 days,' Kazenske said.

In contrast, notification comes within hours for electronic filings, because the XML tags allow automated evaluation.

Much work remains to be done before an application reaches an examiner, however. It also must be checked to see whether national security review is required and which technical category applies.

'Right now, that takes many days before an examiner gets it,' Kazenske said.

Multiple administrators can access an electronic application at the same time so that preliminary processing happens in parallel, rather than serially as with paper. That also helps to speed the application on its way to an examiner.

Applicants can now track the progress of their cases online through a secure Web system.
'The only way you could access this information before was to come here to Arlington, Va., and sit down and look at it' on paper, Kazenske said.

Online access to files requires a digital certificate. In the last three years PTO has issued 14,000 certificates to applicants and attorneys.

About half the examiners now work in Arlington and the rest at PTO's new campus in Alexandria, Va., where the entire staff will eventually be located. An all-electronic environment could change that, however.

'It opens possibilities we are just studying,' Kazenske said. 'We are going to look at 10 or 15 people in a virtual examining environment.'

But there is no rush to move patent examiners out of PTO offices, although the agency has been a telework pioneer. It's not a question of location but of support services, Kazenske said. Examiners develop their expertise through training and contact with others in the patent community.

'We grow examiners,' Kazenske said.

Regardless of whether telecommuting ever becomes dominant at PTO, e-records will be an enabler for innovations no one can now imagine, Kazenske said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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