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he U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is facing a growing backlog of more than 700,000 patent applications. On average, it currently takes about 25 months after the filing of an application for examination to begin. Once examination begins, an additional 10-36 months may be necessary for an application to issue as a patent. In cases where an application must go through the appeals process within the USPTO, the process can take as long as 53 additional months.
The USPTO has initiated a number of pilot programs and other proposals that are geared toward reducing both the backlog and pendency of application processing. These include the following:
- First-Action Interview Pilot Program
- Ombudsman Pilot Program
- Green Technology Pilot Program
- Peer Review Pilot Program
- Patent Prosecution Highway Pilot Program
- Missing Parts Pilot Program
- Patent Application Backlog Reduction Stimulus Plan
- Proposal to Extend Terms of Provisional Applications
- Proposed Three-Track System
First-Action Interview Pilot ProgramThe First-Action Interview Pilot Program allows applicants to conduct an interview with examiners before a First Office Action is prepared (normally the beginning of examination). Initially launched in April 2008 and limited to computer-related inventions, the program was enhanced and extended to additional technologies in October 2009.
Under the enhanced program, an eligible applicant can file a request to participate in the program. Approval is at the discretion of the examiner; once approved, the examiner will conduct a prior art search and provide the applicant with a pre-interview communication, which is a condensed preview of objections or rejections proposed against the claims.
Within 30 days from the issue date of the pre-interview communication, the applicant must either choose not to have a first-action interview with the examiner or schedule the interview. If an interview is conducted and agreement is reached, the application will be allowed. If an agreement is not reached or an interview is not conducted, a First-Action Interview Office Action will be entered and the applicant will have a limited time to reply.
Ombudsman Pilot ProgramThe Ombudsman Pilot Program allows applicants experiencing problems during the processing of applications to contact an ombudsman representative "if the normal channels have not been successful." The ombudsman representative will call the applicant within one day for assistance in resolving the problem.
As stated in a USPTO press release, "The Ombudsman Pilot Program does not replace other existing resources available to patent applicants, attorneys or agents.... The ombudsman should only be contacted if an applicant, attorney or agent feels that examination has stalled and that their efforts to move their application forward through the normal channels (e.g., contacting the examiner or supervisory patent examiner) have not been effective."
Green Technology Pilot ProgramThe Green Technology Pilot Program allows applicants to accelerate the examination of unexamined applications that pertain to "green technologies." To participate in the program, an applicant must file a petition (no fee required) and substantiate that the invention pertains to environmental quality, energy conservation, development of renewable energy resources or greenhouse gas. If the applicant's petition is granted, the application will be accorded special status and advanced out of turn for examination.
Peer Review Pilot ProgramThe Peer Review Pilot Program involves the use of an Internet-based review process in which the public is allowed to review volunteered published patent applications and submit technical references and comments on what they believe to be the best prior art to consider during the examination. Patent examiners can then use (and supplement) the submitted prior art to evaluate patentability of an application during the examination process.
This program was initially limited to computer-related inventions when it launched in June 2007. It was expanded in October 2010 to include applications in biotechnology, bioinformatics, telecommunications and speech recognition.
Patent Prosecution Highway Pilot ProgramThe Patent Prosecution Highway (PPH) Pilot Program is based on the recognition that many large companies file corresponding patents in several countries simultaneously. The PPH program allows participating patent offices in different countries to benefit from work that was previously done by another country's patent office, with the goal of reducing examination workload.
Under the PPH program, when an applicant obtains a favorable examination in an office of first filing, they can request that the other participating countries accelerate the examination of the corresponding claims.