Seal of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
Seal of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office - 
Listen To The Story


Jeremy Hobson: The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has a growing backlog of applications for new patents. Nearly 800,000 are in the queue. So the office developed new rules to streamline the process. They're scheduled to take effect Thursday, but a lawsuit is threatening to prevent those changes from happening. Jeremy Hobson reports.

Jeremy Hobson: The point of the rule changes would be to simplify applications that can be thousands of pages long. That would save examiners time.

And the changes would also limit the number of times rejected applications can be refiled. Right now, there is no limit.

Margaret Peterlin: And so people would be looking at the same exact file for the sixteenth time.

That's the Patent Office's deputy director, Margaret Peterlin. She says one change would cap the number of an invention's features that an applicant can claim as unique. This would effect pharmaceutical companies that have complicated inventions and often apply for patents early in the invention process.

John Desmarais is an attorney with GlaxoSmithKline. The company sued to block the changes.

John Desmarais: They shouldn't be harming the public by creating disincentives for big pharmaceutical companies to invent and protect their inventions.

Desmarais says the changes would lead to cuts in research and development. He says if the Patent Office can't handle the demand, it should hire more examiners.

The office already hires 1,200 a year, but keeping examiners in their jobs is tough, given the nature of the work.

Robert Budens: Day in, day out, unrelenting stress.

Robert Budens is president of the examiners union. He's been a biotech examiner for the last 17 years.

Budens: If we could retain the people we hire, then we could turn that corner on the backlog. Examiners need more time. We need to have the time and the resources to be able to do the job right the first time.

Buden's claims are re-enforced by a recent report, which found that for every two patent examiners the agency hired, one left.

But Margaret Peterlin says hiring and retention alone won't fix the problem. She says the rules' changes are vital to decreasing the paperwork.

Peterlin: It's not one lever that you're trying to switch here -- there are many elements of it where you are always looking at constant improvement, constant design changes.

But for examiners and companies with a vested interest, the jury is still out.

In Washington, I'm Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace.

“I think the best compliment I can give is not to say how much your programs have taught me (a ton), but how much Marketplace has motivated me to go out and teach myself.” – Michael in Arlington, VA

As a nonprofit news organization, what matters to us is the same thing that matters to you: being a source for trustworthy, independent news that makes people smarter about business and the economy. So if Marketplace has helped you understand the economy better, make more informed financial decisions or just encouraged you to think differently, we’re asking you to give a little something back.

Become a Marketplace Investor today – in whatever amount is right for you – and keep public service journalism strong. We’re grateful for your support.

Follow Jeremy Hobson at @jeremyhobson