On Wednesday, April 27, 2016, the USPTO hosted a day-long conference around the one-year anniversary of its Enhanced Patent Quality Initiative. We were among the over 1,800 virtual attendees (in addition to over 400 participants at USPTO headquarters and in the satellite offices) and provide this brief summary of some of the highlights. A recording of the day is available here, and information on the launch of the Office’s Stakeholder Training on Examination Practice and Procedure (STEPP) program is here. The USPTO’s current request for comments on patent quality metrics, including the Master Review Form (MRF), is due May 24. Santa Clara Law research assistant Angela Habbibi is pulling together a summary of the USPTO’s request for comments on quality case studies here, and the hardworking students of the Berkeley Technology Law Journal have done the same, with respect to comments submitted to the USPTO from last year, here, and comments submitted to the Journal here.
USPTO Director Michelle Lee and Deputy Commissioner for Patent Quality Valencia Martin-Wallace opened the day by highlighting four inter-related components: 1) the clarity of the record pilot; 2) new quality metrics, as embodied in a new Master Review Form; 3) using post-grant outcomes to improve patent examination; and 4) improved prior art search, so as to accomplish “compact prosecution.” Subsequent speakers discussed each of these components in detail, generally with a focus on one or more of the following themes – clarity, consistency, accountability, and collaboration.
Clarity of Record Pilot
Robin Evans, Director of TC 2800, focused on the clarity of the record pilot, which started in March and will run for 6 months. The pilot includes approximately 130 randomly selected examiner participants, (all GS 11-15 with at least years of 2 years of experience) and 45 SPEs. The USPTO anticipates processing about 2000 applications through the pilot.
Examiners in the pilot will focus on enhancing documentation of claim interpretation (including functional/112(f) language), giving more precise reasons for allowance, doing pre-search interviews at the request of the examiner, and giving more detailed interview summaries. Examiners are also supposed to document the amount of time they spend improving clarity. Examination conducted in the pilot will be compared with that conducted by a control group composed of similar examiners.
Master Review Form, Consistency, and Data Collection and Analysis
According to Director Lee and Brian Hanlon, the Director of the Office of Patent Legal Administration, the pilot’s emphasis on record clarity is also embodied in the new 25-page Master Review Form for quality, which places equal weight on clarity and correctness. As Marty Rater, Chief Statistician of the Office of Patent Quality Assurance explained in the afternoon, the MRF is the Office’s response to a general perception that the quality composite that the Office has long relied upon needed to be replaced. While not all 25-pages would be used for any one application, having a single uniform form will enable previously siloed reviews, carried on (for example) at the TC, OPQA, and other levels, to draw from a common core of data and improve consistency across the agency. Stakeholders in the afternoon session provided feedback on how the MRF could be made clearer and shorter, so as to facilitate consistent reviews.
A look at the 135 quality case study topics submitted for consideration to the USPTO in response to a recent request highlights that consistency in the application of Sections 101, 103, and 112 is perhaps the greatest concern. Consistency has ramifications for compact prosecution and continuation practice as well. If an applicant is confident that her applications are consistently subjected to high-quality examination, she may find it easier to appeal or abandon on the basis of a final rejection, rather than continuing the case in hopes of a different outcome from a different examiner on the same patent application.
In line with the case study suggestions, the USPTO aims to address concerns about particular types of examiner rejections and consistency across technology groups within the patent corps. To that end, it will be conducting studies on the use of section 101 and 112(f) by examiners; on the correctness and clarity of motivation statements in obviousness rejections based on combining references; and enforcement of written description requirements in continuation applications.
The release by the Patent Office of large amounts of data in accordance with the Obama Administration’s decision to treat government data as a national asset of the American people has led to the burgeoning of patent data companies and innovation, with at least 135 companies relying on patent data, according to a count by one of us. But a question regarding data analysis by external sources prompted Valencia Martin-Wallace to note that these external sources produced results that didn’t always match the USPTO’s own analyses. Deputy Director Russ Slifer elaborated on this theme by noting that the USPTO wanted to be part of the community dialogue on data analysis and had recently put out a large amount of publicly available, freely analyzable data at https://developer.uspto.gov.
Use of Post-Grant Outcomes
Jack Harvey, the Acting Assistant Deputy Commissioner for Patent Operations, discussed several objectives with respect to a just-initiated pilot, expected to last 3-4 months, that will use of post-grant outcomes to enhance quality. First, in cases where patents petitioned before the PTAB have related applications pending, the examiner on the related applications will receive the petition. Second, and more broadly, data collected from post-grant proceedings will be used to improve examiner search strategy, both at the level of the individual examiner and also across the corps. It’s our understanding that such “feedback loops” have also been a feature of EPO practice: in which nullity proceedings involve the original patent examining team that granted the patent, which can then learn from the post-grant proceedings.
Improved Search and Training
According to Maria Holtmann, Director of International Programs, the goal of improved search will also be pursued through a pilot, to be begun later this year, that will “jumpstart” search by providing automated pre-examination search results. Ongoing pilots are currently providing examiners with JPO and KIPO search reports prior to the first office action. And the Global Dossier now provides examiners and the public with “one-stop access” to dossiers of all related applications in the IP5.
We were happy to hear that access to comprehensive prior art sources – including non-patent sources – earlier in the examination process is seen as a major patent quality lever. Work by one of us suggests that European Patent Office search reports cite non-patent literature sources more than USPTO examiners rely upon on them in their own examination, but a number of existing and future initiatives could close this gap. As Donald Hajec, Assistant Deputy Commissioner for Patent Operations, described, the USPTO is promoting greater awareness of non-patent technical sources, through the STIC, crowdsourcing of NPL, and technical training by outside scientists through the PETTP program, for example. And in line with numerous commentators who have emphasized the importance of Section 112 in policing quality, Hajec stressed the extensive training examiners, particularly those in electrical/mechanical and computer/software art units, have received on Section 112(a) (written description and enablement), 112(b) definiteness, and 112(f).
During the last set of panels, moderated by Deputy Director Russ Slifer, participants from companies and law firms acknowledged the responsibility for patent quality that stakeholders share with the USPTO. The participants on the panel provided their sense of 1) what initiatives of the USPTO initiatives are working for stakeholders and what needs improvement, 2) the wide variability in the business uses of patents based on company size and industry, and 3) what stakeholders could do, on their own or in conjunction with Examiners, to improve the quality of submitted applications and patent prosecution.
In particular, props were given to Track One, which Bill Bunker of Knobbe commented that certain clients (not small entities) use exclusively, with a much more efficient outcome. He also described the First Action Interview Program as a good early opportunity to achieve a meeting of the minds. Other panelists applauded the USPTO for focusing on patent quality, a topic that they thought had significant economic consequences and was imperative to the functioning and perception of the patent system. However, Laura Sheridan of Google observed that the voluntary nature of certain initiatives like the glossary pilot program limited their impact, and that mandatory enforcement would likely be more effective at raising quality uniformly across applications.
An interesting question is whether or not all patents “need” to be of the highest quality, given the diverse business uses of patents by different types of companies and industries. SAS files patents primarily for defensive reasons, commented Tim Wilson, and needs to have reliable patents for negotiations. In contrast, according to Bill Nydegger of Workman Nydeggerr commented, startups are often just trying to validate their technology and get an issued patent, rather than thinking about it being tested in court or negotiations. Biopharma patents often prove their value in the last five years of a patent’s life, with written description and utility requirements providing the most important filters, Kevin Noonan of MBHB commented.
For both the USPTO and prosecutors, the challenge of increasing quality in the face of flat budgets and price pressure is quite real, although perhaps less of an issue in the biopharma sector. In that vein, several ways to do more with less were discussed. In response to a question from Deputy Director Slifer, panelists discussed how they could continue to ensure that patent prosecutors were actually pursuing a strategy that serves the business use – whether that be to cover one’s own product or that of a competitor. Although getting an issued patent is often the goal of the prosecutor, if its scope is diminished to such a degree that it doesn’t make business sense, cutting off prosecution earlier may be the right approach. In addition, greater collaboration between examiners and applicants earlier in the process could streamline the process. Examiners would probably appreciate applicant summaries of the subject matter. Though applicants are loath to put material into the record, examiners could perhaps get a demonstration of the technology before examination and search began, enabling a substantive discussion of the prior art early in the process.
One question that deserves more attention, in our opinion, is whether the USPTO could provide “model applications” or patents to facilitate public understanding of what a “quality” application looks like from the standpoint of the USPTO. Shared responsibility comes from shared understanding. The newly devised STEPP program, to educate law-firm and in-house practitioners on how Patent Examiners review applications, starting in July, as well as the Symposium overall, are important steps in achieving shared understanding, and we join the patent community in applauding USPTO efforts.
To further these efforts, our institutions, Santa Clara and Duke Law Schools, will be hosting two conferences on USPTO initiatives and other levers for improving patent quality later this year. The conferences will be held in Santa Clara and also in the DC area and will focus on empirical evaluation of patent quality levers. We will provide more information on these forthcoming conferences shortly.