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In light of the government shutdown, let's explore some USPTO metrics

The USPTO has asserted on their web site that the government shutdown will not affect their operations, at least not yet.  I thought this was an appropriate time to look at the supply and throughput numbers a bit given that it is possible they will be forced to reduce staffing temporarily (and certainly it is unlikely that they can effectively ramp up).  By the way, here is what they said:

 

During the general government shutdown that began October 1, 2013, the United States Patent and Trademark Office will remain open, using prior year reserve fee collections to operate as usual for approximately four weeks. We continue to assess our fee collections compared to our operating requirements to determine how long we will be able to operate in this capacity during a general government shutdown. We will provide an update as more definitive information becomes available.

Should we exhaust these reserve funds before the general government shutdown comes to an end, USPTO would shut down at that time, although a very small staff would continue to work to accept new applications and maintain IT infrastructure, among other functions. (Should it become necessary for USPTO to shut down, details of the agency’s plan for an orderly shutdown are available on page 78 of the United States Department of Commerce’s shutdown plan, available here.)

 

One topic of great interest to me is the economic impact (positive or deleterious) of the performance of the various patenting authorities.  And since FPO headquarters is a short drive from the USPTO main offices, it is certainly an office we are intimately familiar with.  Research on patent office and examiner performance is fertile ground for exploration on many, many dimensions; for today I will simply look at production, supply, and backlog.

Taken from their own reporting for 2012 and their current patent dashboard, the patent office has the following statistics:

- Current Backlog:          591,665

- 2012 new apps:           576,763

- Current examiners:          7,778

Using data we have analyzed from PAIR, an examiner on average can effectively process about 50 applications per year (incidentally if you assume ~1800 productive hours/50, that works out to an average of 36 hours/app).

So, with 7,778 examiners, the USPTO can reasonably expect to process 7,778 x 50 apps = 388,900/year (so roughly around 390k)

First of all, you probably notice this is significantly lower than the new incoming apps from 2012 (which is a number that is still growing annually - in 2002 this was just over 350k).

However, these numbers are not congruent with the USPTO's own metrics for production - they show a Fiscal Year production of over 517k, which would put a potential shortfall at closer to 60k/year.  Giving the USPTO the benefit of the doubt, I will assume that our PAIR analysis for this purpose is flawed because the data is exclusive to what is public and perhaps suffers from some sampling error or other anomalies.  Either way, there are some interesting numeric dynamics going on, because apparently their backlog is decreasing while it doesn't look mathematically possible given the numbers.

Incidentally, assuming the 517k figure it accurate and their number of examiners is accurate (and all full-time), this implies that they on average can process well over 60/year - assuming 1,800 productive hours (vacation and meetings, training), that means less than a total of 30 hours for each patent app for the entire end-to-end process - other research on the matter seems to back this up, with numbers lower than 30.  Put another way, a process that takes less than 30 hours actual examiner work on average takes on average over 18 months to "first action" and almost 30 months on average to full disposition.  Obviously this is not completely fair as the process post first action is not necessarily uncomplex, but it is a stunning metric nonetheless.

More worrying is the effect on quality and timeliness of processing of such a huge (and potentially growing) backlog - in an age where technology changes rapidly and innovation is key to enterprise and national economic well-being, I imagine that more than one smart PhD student is modeling what the effects of this are on our economy.  It is certain that by delaying so many of the benefits of the patent system from not being fully realized for years, there is a huge amount of uncertainty and latent information lying dormant (e.g., imagine a system where patents were processed in 3-6 months - people around the world would have information about new technological innovation (and could build on it), months or even years sooner than today).