by Geoffrey James

Patent Office Puts Its Paperwork Online

Feb 15, 20033 mins

To win a patent takes originality. It takes persistence. And at a time when the Bush administration and Congress are pushing federal agencies to move many public services online, it still takes paper-pushing. Lots of paper-pushing, with inventors and their lawyers submitting many documents (and copying and mailing many more) to government examiners who determine whether the invention in question differs from what came before.

But this paper-shuffling system is about to change. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office announced in December the latest stage in its two-year, $40 million project to make accessible via the Web all the documents that accompany the patent applications process by Oct. 1, 2004. That step is the addition of a storage-attached network (SAN) to let the office manage the growing need for storing and retrieving many terabytes of documents and drawings, says CIO Doug Bourgeois. “We want to provide the technical and business capability for the entire process of establishing your intellectual property rights to be conducted online,” he says. A pilot project started in December.

The move online potentially saves time and money for inventors because it makes the document-based discussion with patent examiners easily accessible to people who can’t get to he Patent and Trademark Office in Arlington, Va. “Many patents can only be upheld when understood in the context of the administrative dialogue, which helps define the meaning of the terminology used in the application,” says attorney Bruce D. Sunstein of Bromberg & Sunstein in Boston.

The Patent and Trademark Office has tapped network storage vendor EMC to bring reliable access to a continent of documents relating to both patents and trademarks. We’re not talking about your typical file server farm here. The agency must cope with 30 million gigabytes of data, an amount that continues to rise steadily. Each year the agency receives 340,000 patent applications, some of which can run to millions of printed pages (typically patents require more documents than trademarks). Bourgeois says the USPTO has seen storage needs grow between 25 percent and 40 percent in each of the past five years.

The USPTO’s pact with EMC is interesting not just for its scale but for its pricing model. The government is paying only for the storage services it uses, Bourgeois says. The $45,000 per terabyte price tag includes storage equipment plus network switches and engineering services, he adds, all designed to help the agency “better manage its resources and achieve higher availability and better disaster recovery.”

There’s a lot on the line. Patents become public information in exchange for a 20-year monopoly on an invention. And as J. Timothy Sprehe, a records management consultant notes, “Patent records must be kept available for as long as the republic exists.”

A visit to shows there’s a lot online already. The Patent and Trademark Office has posted all its patent and trademark records from 1790 to the present (though many records were lost in an 1836 fire). On Jan. 7, 2003, for example, the United States issued 3,567 patents. The last one of the day, Patent No. 6,505,348, describes a set-top box able to provide programming data to several TVs, complete with connections to a viewer’s VCR. The patent documents credit a trio of inventors from StarSight Telecast of Fremont, Calif., and cite no fewer than 49 other patents as relevant to this invention (including seven cited by the patent examiner). From application date to patent award? About three and a half years. In that time, DVD players became just as cheap as VCRs.