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US patent system braced for a shake-up

Still handing out daft patents, though

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The US patent system is set for a thorough review, according to reports, with the aim of improving the quality of patents awarded, and thus reducing the number of patent lawsuits.

The New York Times says the Bush administration wants better information from applicants, and is considering opening patent applications to public scrutiny.

Both the Senate and the House have proposed legislating changes to the patent system this year as concerns mount over the quality of the system.

The review has been prompted by concerns that rather than encouraging innovation, the patent system has let in so many poor patents and become so clogged with litigation that it is now starting to hinder entrepreneurs.

(To illustrate just how so many poor quality patents might have been granted, consider this: in 2000, 72 per cent of all applications were approved. In the first quarter of 2007, after the USPTO hired 1,200 more patent examiners, this figure fell to 49 per cent).

In particular, it wants to shift much of the prior art research burden to the applicant and tighten up the legal requirements on the amount and quality of supporting information that must accompany an application.

Jon Dudas, director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, says applicants currently have a lot of discretion in how much information they provide to explain why their invention qualifies for patent protection.

At present, he says, applications are made with widely varying amounts of information, ranging from "almost nothing" to what he describes as "malicious compliance"; an overload of paperwork for patent examiners to sift through. He argues that applicants should have to do a thorough search of journals and related patents, and then justify the application in the context of decent background information.

Speaking of the higher bureaucratic hurdle applicants must now jump, Dudas says: "If everything is done right at the front end, we'll have to worry a lot less about litigation later."

Smaller, independent inventors should still be able to have the USPTO do this searching for them, he adds, noting that there is no desire to discourage or disadvantage smaller inventors.

Meanwhile, TechDirt reports that the same office has given its seal of approval to another strand of Amazon's infamous "one-click" patent. Although the original patent is up for re-examinationan, the USPTO has granted Amazon a patent on "a method and system for placing a purchase order via a communications network". This, readers will be delighted to hear, includes claims for following up an order by contacting the customer by phone or email. ®

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