A massive backlog of patent applications persists at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), a problem that experts warn can dampen innovation, discourage investors, and make inventors vulnerable to theft and exploitation. The production quotas for patent examiners have not changed since 1976 and current employees say they have trouble assessing today’s complex patents in the allotted time. Beginning in the 1990s the number of applications boomed, with a record 495,095 submissions during 2008. The backlog of unresolved applications has grown apace, increasing by nearly 73 percent between fiscal years 2002 and 2007 to about 730,000. Turnover is also a problem. Between 2002 and 2006, one patent examiner quit for nearly every two examiners the office hired and 70 percent of the examiners who left had worked at the office for less than five years. On average, applicants wait 25 months for their first response and more than 30 months to receive a patent. The USPTO has “a number of initiatives underway” to address these problems, according to a patent office spokeswoman, including increased cooperation with the office’s counterparts in other countries and a program that guarantees a full review within 12 months to inventors who provided additional documentation.
The patent office plans to hire 1,200 additional people annually until 2013, but “hiring alone simply is not the answer to the growth of filings and complexity in the patent system,” Jon W. Dudas, an undersecretary at the Department of Commerce, told a House committee in February 2008. The office has also responded with bonuses, a new exercise facility, flexible work hours, telecommuting options, and special pay rates. Employees now cite these perks as major motivations for sticking with their jobs, but find they are still working overtime and using their vacation hours to keep up with the work load.