Mike Brunker: If necessity is the mother of invention, Americans sure are a needy lot. No matter how many breakthrough technologies, time-saving gadgets or gee-whiz gewgaws we hatch, it seems our craving for creation can never be satisfied.

As a new century hits its stride, the race to give birth to the next “big idea” shows no signs of slowing, with tens of thousands of would-be Edisons pushing themselves mercilessly to get their product or idea before the public, the ultimate arbiter of an invention’s utility.

Many are laboring in corporate R&D labs, operating in creative teams and exploring advances in fields that didn’t even exist a decade ago. But a surprising number of those pursuing better mousetraps and other existence-easing contrivances are still garage and bedroom tinkerers.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which is uniquely positioned to gauge our powerful urge to innovate, registered 355,418 patent applications in fiscal 2003. It granted 189,587 patents in the same period to previously filed inventions that were judged to be “new, useful and not obvious” – the standard by which such intellectual property protections are granted.

An avalanche of patent applications
Both figures have more than doubled over the past 15 years, and contribute to an average wait of a little more than two years from the time of submission of a patent application to the final decision on whether a patent will be issued, said Nick Godisi, commissioner for patents.

Sheer numbers aren’t the only reason the agency’s 3,500 patent examiners are buried under a backlog. In the golden age of technology, many patent applications have become incredibly complex and require extensive investigation to determine if they are, in fact, unique.

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