Thomas Frey: While few seem to have picked up on the massive expansion plans for the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, perhaps a more important issue is the location of this expansion. I would propose that Colorado be placed at the top of the list.

Legislation currently pending in the U.S. Senate (H.R.1561) will raise the fees for filing and processing patents, and will fund an expansion of the USPTO staff. Additional staff of 2,900 patent examiners is planned over the next five years. Proponents of the bill say the changes are long overdue, citing the current 2-year backlog of patents will turn into a 5-year wait if nothing is done.

Every new patent filed adds another layer of complexity to the job of the patent examiner. Today, examiners have to work their way through 50% more patents than examiners from 25 years ago. Even though searching through existing patents has become more automated, the sheer volume of patent filings increases job pressures, increasing the probability of mistakes.

Time spent on each patent at the USPTO depends on the patent and the area of technology. While review time currently averages around 8 hour per patent, some of the more complicated biotech patents require over 30 hours of attention.

American ingenuity is at an all-time high. To give you a sense of the volume, the patent office received 355,418 patent applications in fiscal 2003. During this same period of time it granted 189,587 patents. The backlog of patent applications is approximately 475,000 deep, and inventors who file a patent wait an average of 27 months for their application to be processed.

If passed in its current form, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Fee Modernization Act will raise fees by 20% to boost the agency’s budget by $300 million, bringing it to $1.5 billion for the fiscal year beginning in October. That money will be used to open the employment floodgates, adding an incremental portion of the 2,900 new examiners to the current workforce of 3,500 during each of the next five years.

Working with something of a millstone of ancient systems hanging around its neck, the patent office is struggling to update its own primitive technology. The office is still transitioning from its 200-year-old paper-based system to the digital online world. Even though over half of the applications are now filed electronically, the new digital filing system lacks critical search and document handling capabilities limiting overall efficiencies.

Currently, over 1,000 examiners telecommute, saving expensive office space. However, the USPTO, which is currently spread out over 18 separate buildings, is now being consolidated into a huge 2 million square foot complex in five linked buildings.

The 5-year plan also includes a move to outsource some of the agency’s workload to the private sector, starting with an 18-month pilot program before awarding any contracts. The only private companies that will be allowed to bid are U.S. companies using employees who are U.S. citizens to do the searches.

But the notion that the entire USPTO operation has to be based in the Washington, DC area is absurd. Coloradoans are the best educated in the country – number one in the nation for percentage of residents with a bachelor’s degree. Business Week ranked Denver sixth – tied with Chicago – in a 2002 ranking of cities in the U.S. where people say they would most like to live.

At the DaVinci Institute we have worked overtime to improve the caliber of Colorado’s inventive and revolutionary thinkers. With a number of innovative events happening in the coming months, we will more than prove that the level of talent and ingenuity in Colorado is second to none.

Please join us as we work to build support for bringing a division of the US Patent & Trademark Office to Colorado. Let us know if you’re interested in helping.

Thomas Frey is the Executive Director of the DaVinci Institute, a futurist think tank based in Louisville, Colorado. He can be reached at [email protected] or 303-666-4133.