Guest Post from Professors Arti Rai and Colleen Chien.
“I know well the difficulty of drawing a line between the things which are worth to the public the embarrassment of an exclusive patent, and those which are not.“ – Thomas Jefferson, 1813
Santa Clara –Duke Law Patent Quality Conference: Patent Quality – It’s Time
At 1 pm today, USPTO Director Michelle Lee will be testifying before the House Judiciary Committee at a USPTO Oversight Hearing. The hearing will focus on questions of patent quality raised by two recent GAO reports (here and here) as well as the issue of examiner reporting of time raised by a report by the Department of Commerce’s Office of the Inspector General (here).
As we have discussed, the two of us are following closely the USPTO’s efforts to address issues of patent quality through its Enhanced Patent Quality Initiative (EPQI) – an urgent but also enduring challenge that one of our nation’s first patent examiners, Thomas Jefferson, struggled with. Our institutions, the Duke Law Center for Innovation Policy and the Santa Clara High Tech Law Institute, are also co-sponsoring two conferences on EPQI and other levers for improving patent quality.
On Friday, September 9, we held the first of these conferences at Santa Clara Law School. The conference brought together Deputy Commissioner for Patent Quality Valencia Martin-Wallace, Deputy Commissioner for Patents Andy Faile, former PTO Director David Kappos, EPO Director of Quality Support Alfred Spigarelli, GAO officials, industry representatives, and legal academics. Here we provide a brief summary of the event. Video and links to the presentations and related papers will be available here (a uncut version of the video is here). Several of the commentators will be publishing op-ed versions of their remarks with IPLaw360 from now until the December 13, 2016 conference, and the Berkeley Technology Law Journal has published short commentaries from a number of the speakers on their topics.
Valencia Martin-Wallace began by highlighting 6 aspects of the EPQI: case studies the USPTO is implementing in response to stakeholder requests; the Master Review Form (MRF), which is now being used as the exclusive review form by the Office of Patent Quality Assurance; other quality metrics; USPTO study of post-grant outcomes for purposes of improving ex ante patent examination, both in child applications of parents there are the subject of a post-grant review and more generally; a post-prosecution pilot; and a clarity of the record pilot.
Martin-Wallace’s comprehensive discussion of the MRF and quality metrics honed in on the difficult question of what quality means and how the PTO should measure it. According to the USPTO, the MRF’s focus on clarity and correctness of the examination is a key aspect of how the agency measures product quality. The agency is also very interested in process quality, by which it means a focus on reducing rework and ensuring consistency. The USPTO will also continue to monitor perceptions of quality through internal and external quality surveys. USPTO Case studies on 101 – the compliance of rejections with 35 U.S.C. 101 Official Guidance and the consistency of the application of 101 across art units/technology centers – will be issued on September 30 and December 9 respectively. They will be followed by case studies on other types of rejections.
Martin-Wallace’s presentation was followed by a panel discussion of claim clarity and examination consistency. Peter Menell discussed how claim clarity could be improved through a claim template [link] and the importance of putting all interactions with the examiner into the record. Charles Duan also highlighted the importance of a clear prosecution record, particularly for purposes of allowing courts to find claim scope disavowal. Jay Kesan focused on the lack of standardized claim language in software and suggested mechanisms for improving standardization. Finally, Xavier Jaravel of Stanford presented his research with Josh Feng of Harvard showing that NPEs tend to purchase patents granted by lenient examiners that are incremental and vaguely worded; they estimate that a one-standard deviation change in the “examiner effect” could lower the rate of litigation and NPE purchased patents by 50%.
The conference then turned to issue of examiner time allocation, and in particular ensuring adequate time for search. Deputy Commissioner for Patent Operations Andy Faile outlined the count system and the time that examiners are given to achieve each count. On the first round of examination, examiners receive 1.25 counts for the first office action; 0.25 counts for the final rejection in that round; 0.75 counts for an allowance disposal: and 0.5 counts for termination of the first round of examination (“abandonment”). The time allocated to achieve each count is a function of the area of technology – for example, while 16.6 hours are allocated per disposal in fishing lures, examiners are given almost double that, 27.7 hours per satellite communications disposal. It is also a function of GS-level of the examiner – as in the EPO, senior examiners at the USPTO are expected to produce more work than junior examiners.
Assistant GAO director Robert Marek next discussed highlights from the agency’s studies of patent quality and prior art search. These studies relied heavily on a survey that produced 2669 USPTO examiner respondents. The survey found that 70% of examiners reported having insufficient time to examine applications; the majority reported wanting more time for prior art search; and the majority also reported encountering vague and indefinite claims. Examiners also reported conducting only limited searches for non-patent literature (NPL). On the issue of search, the GAO recommends that the PTO develop guidance of what constitutes a good prior art search; identify key sources of NPL; monitor search quality; and assess the time examiners need for search. On claim clarity, GAO recommends the PTO consider requiring patent applicants to include term glossaries or claim charts.
The morning concluded with a panel discussion of prior art search and time. Colleen Chien discussed the findings of a recently released study that suggests that the EPO is much more likely to cite NPL in its search reports than PTO examiners are to rely upon NPL in their examination, despite that the PTO’s examiners are more likely to receive NPL, through IDS’. The paper argues that that the greater amount of time that EPO examiners spend on search (8-12 hours per app, vs. 4-5 hours at the PTO), contributes to this difference. However, the PTAB, which intensely reviews challenged patents, appears to cite NPL even more than EPO examiners do. Michael Frakes and Melissa Wasserman then summarized their empirical research on 1.4 million utility patent applications initiated after March 2001 and disposed of by July 2012. Their research suggests that tightening of examiner time constraints as they move up GS-levels appears to lead to more grants, less examiner citation of prior art, and fewer time-intensive non-obviousness rejections. Their analysis, which follows examiners as they rise up GS-levels within art units, capitalizes on the essentially random assignment of applications within an art unit and employs an examiner fixed-effect design. Moderator Karen Wong called the After Final Consideration Pilot 2.0 one of the PTO’s best inventions, and Steven Reid and others noted that the Post-Prosecution Pilot (P3) examination was also a valuable option for achieving resolution without the need for a full request for continued examination (RCE).
Jay Kesan and Colleen Chien kicked off the afternoon with a discussion of the differences between EPO and USPTO processes (the former bifurcates search and examination, doesn’t allow for continuations (but does tolerate divisionals), and charges higher fees, earlier), perceptions of the two institutions (based on a recent survey of ~650 practitioners), and outcomes. Drawing upon matched pair analysis, Kesan’s research suggests that on average EPO patents have fewer claims, and the claims are longer and have greater pendency. Chien’s paper suggests that the lower EPO allowance rate isn’t driven by a higher rejection rate but more applicant withdrawals.
EPO Patent Quality Director Alfred Spigarelli’s presentation was titled: “Patent Quality: Get it Right the First Time.” He emphasized the human resources component of the patent quality equation, from the hiring standards the EPO applies (e.g. examiners must be able to actively work in three languages), to the training each EPO examiner receives, to the low turnover rate. Search is viewed as the cornerstone of the patent examination process, with 60% of time dedicated to search.
On the panel that followed (“Once and Done” and Differentiating Between Patents), Laura Sheridan outlined a proposal to increase quality and predictability by introducing greater finality into the patent application process. Under Sheridan’s proposal, examination would terminate after a predetermined maximum number of office actions, and the application would be then adjudicated by a panel. Steven Yelderman discussed the dynamic effects on RCE practice of recent changes to fees as well as mechanisms by which post-grant review could feed information back into initial patent examination. Sandy Swain discussed steps that could be taken by applicants now, without any policy changes, stressing the importance of open communication and clear documentation. Alan Marco presented a study in progress of litigated patents, suggesting that small entities are more likely to litigate and finding that (with the exception of continuations) applicant characteristics are more likely to be predictive of litigation than examination characteristics.
Studies have shown that delays in patent examination are detrimental to startup firms. For these firms, long pendency could be considered a sign of poor examination quality. Building on this work, Arti Rai discussed her ongoing research on accelerated examination through the Track 1 program. She finds that the program is in fact disproportionately used by small and micro entities. However, the top filers in the program are large entities, and she is studying whether their applications show signs of poor quality. Josh Makower, an investor, inventor, and entrepreneur in the biotechnology and medical device industry, said that all his startups used TrackOne, underscoring the importance of patents to them. According to Oskar Liivak’s interpretation, 35 USC 115 makes it a felony for a patent applicant to claim more broadly than the actual invention. Brian Love noted that the EPQI had two important gaps – already granted patents and the flexing of the USPTO’s fee-setting authority. He recommended raising maintenance fees to cull low-value, low-quality patents and decreasing PTAB fees. Love’s proposals generated vigorous discussion.
Dave Kappos provided the final keynote of the day, noting that patent quality has been a focus for as long as we’ve had a patent commissioner. He noted that many efforts he oversaw during his administration to increase quality – giving examiner 2.5 more hours of time, redesigning the IT system, creating the Edison Scholar program, ensuring Examiner received training from industry experts, and many more. What didn’t work, he noted, was working with the AIPLA to devise a set of quality indicia for applicant filings that all agreed upon and that could be applied to applications. What he would work on, were he still in office, would include Track 3 (some version of deferred examination) and allocation of more time, not across the board, but as appropriate.
How will we know if the EPQI has been successful in two years? When this question was posed to them, closing panelists Faile, Martin-Wallace, and PTO Silicon Valley Director John Cabeca mentioned a few milestones: greater transparency and engagement of all members of the patent community, creative rethinking of the count system, more time for certain applications, and the leveraging of state of the art examination processes and resources.
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Arti Rai is the Elvin R. Latty Professor of Law at Duke Law School and co-Director, Duke Law Center for Innovation Policy. Colleen Chien is Associate Professor of Law at Santa Clara University School of Law.