WASHINGTON -- There's an awful lot pending at the patent office these days.
A record backlog at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has left inventors waiting two years and more for approvals, delaying the arrival of new goods on the market.
James A. Rogan, who heads the office, has warned Congress that the backlog of applications could soar to over a million by 2008 -- more than twice today's level -- unless he can increase the fees inventors pay by about 15 percent. The average patent will soon take as long as four years, he said.
The wait is about 24 months now.
"My guess is that somewhere in that (backlog) there are life-enhancing, productivity-increasing, job-producing items, technologies ... that we'd be better having today than waiting for," said Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif.
Berman is the ranking minority member of the subcommittee in the House of Representatives that deals with intellectual property.
Patent officials blame the delays on more applications and longer reviews for increasingly complex inventions, particularly in biotechnology and computer-related technologies.
"The effect varies from business to business," said Brigid Quinn, a patent office spokeswoman. "For some, like electronics, quick turnover is important. In others, it doesn't matter so much."
Individual inventors -- now a minority -- can file an application for $375, but later fees bring the total to more than $4,000. Big firms pay nearly twice as much, usually with big additional costs for legal and other outside advice.
Money from the fee increase would be for improved quality checks, greater use of electronics in processing applications and the hiring of 2,900 examiners over the next five years. The agency now has 3,500, about 200 of whom it loses every year by resignation and retirement.
Examiners, all of whom have science or engineering degrees, determine whether the invention offers anything new. About two-thirds of all applications are approved, though not always on the first try. Close to half go to foreigners.
Lisa Lloyd, president of the United Inventors Association of Rochester, N.Y., said the longer it takes to get a patent, the longer an inventor must wait for a pay check.
"People with inventions in the automotive field, for instance, have to license their inventions to a big firm like Ford or General Motors," she said. "They can't get any income until they do. The big corporations won't even look at an idea if the patent is still pending."
Once a patent is granted, the inventor has the exclusive rights for 20 years. Ownership rights -- and the ability to profit from them -- spur inventiveness, said Nick Godici, commissioner for patents.
Every year, applications come from hundreds of thousands of people who are convinced they have found new and better ways of doing things. Recently a small group of bird-lovers and engineers around Richmond, Va., patented a device to toss squirrels off a bird feeder, designed to be cheaper than one already on the market.
Two applications still pending:
-- Mark Pierson of Binghamton, N.Y., has developed a soft plastic he calls "Get-A-Grip." It molds to the human hand and sticks to a pen, a tool or a golf club so the user can always get his personalized grip.
Pierson already owns a patent to a solar-powered charger for electric auto engines. He is credited with 76 other patents that are now the property of corporations.
-- Kathleen Di Scenna of Syracuse, N.Y., has designed a device to keep your hands free while using a cell phone. An adjustable, crescent-shaped boom arm hangs from a headband, dodges the nose and holds the phone close to the mouth. It would be her first patent.
Under the first U.S. patent law, applications had to be examined by the secretary of state, the secretary of war and the attorney general. George Washington also signed some.
Abraham Lincoln hosted a ball at the old Patent Office to celebrate his second inauguration, a few weeks before he was assassinated. Guests walked past an exhibit of models, which could have included the patent Lincoln won himself -- No. 6,469, "A Device for Buoying Vessels over Shoals." He's the only president to hold a patent.
Now the old building is home to two museums, and the current patent office has a modern structure in suburban Arlington, Va. The office's head, Rogan, is a former Republican congressman from California, one of the House prosecutors in President Clinton's impeachment trial.
Last year the office issued an average of more than 3,000 patents a week. It is one of the few federal agencies that brings in more money than it spends.
Some of that money is siphoned off to other agencies -- more than $630 million since 1992. Rep. Zoe Lofgren,D-Calif, a member of the overseeing House subcommittee, says she couldn't vote for a fee increase until the diversion problem is solved.
"It is an unfair tax on innovation and an unfair tax on investment," she says.
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