It is clear that acting USPTO director John Doll has ideas for improving the patent system and that he is prepared to move the ball forward while he has the floor. Next on the order of business -- deferred examination. On February 12, 2009, the USPTO will hold a preliminary discussion on the potential for expanding the deferred examination system. Requests to participate should be sent to Robert Bahr (firstname.lastname@example.org). You may send comments to AC6comments@uspto.gov. Although attendance is open to the public, you must be pre-approved to 'participate.'
The PTO currently has an "optional deferred examination procedure" that allows deferral of examination for up to three years from the priority date after a petition and payment of a fee. According to the PTO, this procedure has been used "fewer than two hundred" times since it was created in 2000. 37 C.F.R. 1.103(d). In other countries, deferred examination is much more popular. In those countries, the applicant can delay payment of some examination fees during the deferral period. However, seems unlikely that the delay in paying fees (saving a couple hundred dollars) would explain the difference in popularity of the systems. An alternative explanation may be inertia. In Japan, for instance, the applicant must take some action to end the deferral period; while in the US, the applicant must take some action to start the deferral period. These different energy barriers might explain some of the difference in the use of deferral. The best explanation might stem from the backlog of US patent applications which prevents most cases from being examined in the first three years. Under the current system, a deferral in the US does nothing to slow the examination process if the examination backlog is already more than three years.
Deferred prosecution does have some possible negative issues. These negatives include the potential for submarining and shifting claim scope to encompass market changes. These problems could largely be limited through early publication of deferred applications as well as continued enforcement of the written description and enablement requirements. In addition, the patent term should continue to run during the deferral period.
There are two main benefits of deferred examination: (1) delaying spending fees could have a great cost savings if the delay allows companies to figure out that a significant number of applications are no longer worth pursuing; (2) non-deferred cases should move more quickly through the system.
In a 2008 letter to Congress, then PTO director Jon Dudas suggested three possible additions to the US system: (1) a 14-month extendible period for responding to a notice of missing parts; (2) a tiered payment structure that allows the "examination fee" to be paid later; and (3) allow applicants to claim priority to a provisional application for up to five years.