The United States Patent and Trademark Office is faced with a growing patent backlog and antiquated tools for examination.
Patent examination is a complex process involving extensive searches for existing patented inventions and the authoring of legal documents asserting (or denying) an application's uniqueness as an invention. Patent examiners are highly trained engineers with expertise in the subject area to which they are assigned. Unfortunately, the tools these examiners use for their investigations are an accumulation of disparate legacy software applications developed over the last 20 years. To make matters worse, these applications were not developed with any user interface consistency or thought toward maximizing efficiency. This results in a slow, error-prone process that diverts attention from the most important element of their job – making decisions on patentability. The process is so slow that the current patent backlog is nearing 700,000 applications, with only 6,800 examiners to evaluate them. Average time to grant a patent now sits at around 33 months from first submittal.
The individuals evaluating patentability of the newest cutting edge technology are doing so with 20-year-old software applications and processes that can't keep up with the pace of innovation.
Research has shown that information workers are most productive when the tools they use are so streamlined that they can get into a state of "flow" – a level of mental efficiency that allows full cognitive focus on the task, with minimal disruption from tools (such as error dialogs or hunting for obscure commands). Considering the number of patent applications submitted per week in the United States (approximately 5,000), patent examiners simply don't have the time to spend dealing with legacy systems. Their ability to enter a highly efficient work/thought mode for patent investigation is critical to manage such a high number of new applications. In turn, more efficient patent processing will reduce the extreme costs (both financial and competitive) for entities seeking to protect intellectual property quickly and beat competitors to market.
In order to help USPTO solve these problems, ATS is deploying a multi-faceted approach aimed at modernizing patent processing systems and keeping them compatible for future scalability.
Most importantly, ATS and partner Design for Context are building the new examination toolkit with user needs first. All interface designs are based on extensive examiner interviews and prototyping to evaluate the level of learnability, efficiency, and memorability. All application functionality, even the database modeling, is driven by front-end user needs.
The tools examiners currently use consist of numerous standalone desktop applications. ATS is moving these tools into dynamic web applications with a unified interface. This will provide the ability to move data between tools seamlessly and take advantage of server-side processes to remember tasks, correlate data elements, and pre-fill data where needed – all of which were previously paper-based processes. A web-based environment also dramatically reduces deployment and maintenance costs for the Office of CIO.
A distributed, service-oriented architecture is utilized on the backend, in order to enable high scalability and interoperability of systems. This will allow new subsystems to be implemented as needed and connected to existing components using standards-based interfaces. The architecture also allows additional servers to be brought online easily, expanding the user and data load capacity seamlessly.
ATS engineers are experts at agile software development processes, and the USPTO has decided to use this approach for the development of the patent examiner toolkit. This leads to much lower cycle time, resulting in quicker feedback from users. The end result is a system that can be changed more readily to suit new information, such as additional data sources, without needing to re-architect the entire system using a months-long process. New directions and requirements from the client can be absorbed with minimal pain, and ATS can deliver the right development units at the right time.