US Patent Office

The US PTO is one of the best known and least understood government agencies. One of the biggest myths is that the PTO is a registration center for inventions and that it will "rubber stamp" any application it receives. To appreciate the procedure required for obtaining a patent, one should closely consider the process that takes place between the time when a patent application is filed until a patent is granted, as well as who is involved in that process.

The official date of filing of a patent application is the date that the PTO receives a complete patent application. This important date determines the life of the patent, because patents issued typically have a 20-year lifetime from the date of the filing.

Soon after the patent application is filed, a classification expert and a security expert will briefly review the patent application. The classification expert determines the particular scientific field that covers the patent application. For example, patent applications may be classified as automobile accessories, protein catalysts, or orthopedic medical devices. The classification expert classifies each application using a designated classification number that is needed to transfer the application to the appropriate expert(s) in the PTO that are charged with reviewing all patent applications within that field. Such experts are called patent examiners.

Before the patent application is transferred to the patent examiner, a security expert considers whether the patent application contains any material that may be detrimental to national interests if made public. Typically, inventions in the national defense industry are designated as security risks, as well as other inventions that may have potential for public misuse, such as radiation devices or certain types of chemicals or compounds. Patent applications designated as having security risks will not be published or made available to the public, although a patent could be granted. These patents are secret and are known only to the particular patent examiner, the patent attorney, and the inventor.

Patent examiners are the government's counterparts to the patent attorney. They typically are charged with reviewing patent application in specific scientific areas to gain experience and knowledge in such fields, even if their background education does not relate exactly to such fields. All patent examiners have at least a bachelor's degree in a scientific field. Many patent examiners have advanced degrees, such as phds, mds, ddss, or mbas. Thus, very experienced patent examiners are considered by some as foremost experts in their particular fields of review because they are the first to see the latest develop ments in a particular field, outside of the actual inventors and their attorneys. Thus, patent examiners are not rubber stamp bureaucrats who do not have the capacity to understand the merits of a patent application.

Once a patent examiner receives a patent application and places it on his or her docket, a considerable amount of time—sometimes several months to several years—may pass before the examiner actually reviews the application. This delay is caused in part by the relatively small number of examiners (a few thousand) compared to the number of patent applications received per year (several hundred thousand). The patent examiner must review these applications in the order that they were received. Thus, it may take years for a patent examiner to review a patent application, even though it may have been on his or her docket for several years. This elapsed time is typically considered part of the 20-year period of the patent and may not be "reimbursed" once the patent has been issued.

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