Are American Patents Being Rubberstamped?
Policy + Politics

Are American Patents Being Rubberstamped?

A federal watchdog is questioning whether patent examiners at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office are actually issuing quality patents or if they’re just approving ideas without any real oversight.

That’s the suggestion of a scathing new report from the Commerce Department’s Inspector General, which is accusing the agency of approving patents that may not actually deserve it.

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The IG defines high-quality patents as those whose claims clearly define and provide clear notice of their boundaries” meanwhile, low-quality patents contain unclear property rights and overly broad claims.” The IG said issuing low-quality patents further increases “concerns regarding abusive patent litigation.”

The report blasts the agency’s examiners for being “ineffective” at determining what should be classified as a “high-quality patent.” It suggests that because examiners receive financial incentives when they receive a good rating from the agency, they tend to issue more patents that they dub “high-quality” even if the patents are not.

The IG said that between 2011 and 2013, more than 95 percent of examiners received “outstanding” rating for issuing quality patents in their performance evaluations.

Earning a “quality” rating makes them eligible to receive hefty bonuses. Between 2009 and 2013, the auditors said 99 percent of examiners received bonuses for their performance rating totaling about $145 million or 6,000 per examiner each year. 

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And since nearly all of the examiners are receiving good ratings, “[it]

makes it difficult to distinguish between patent examiners who are issuing high-quality patents and those who are not,” Inspector General Todd J. Zinser wrote in the report.

On top of that, the auditors say that there is little oversight over the patent examination process. Every year, agency managers are supposed to conduct a lengthy review of the four main patent examinations to make sure the process is working sufficiently. However, the IG said that the agency couldn’t provide records to confirm that those reviews are actually happening.

The report also said the managers aren’t keeping track of examination errors to figure out what’s working and what’s not so they can improve their system. Right now, the IG said very few examiners are penalized or warned for issuing “low-quality” patents.

The auditors recommended that the agency develop ways to improve oversight of the examiners and the patent examination process, to which, the agency agreed. 

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This isn’t the first time the Commerce IG has dropped a scathing report about the Patent and Trademark Office. Last year, a separate audit case the agency under the spotlight for allegedly abusing its telecommuting policy and wasting millions of tax dollars. 

An August report from the Commerce IG accused a handful of employees

at the agency had been getting paid between $60,000 to $80,000 over the last four years while they were at home on Facebook, online shopping or doing basically anything but working. The auditors said because it was never reported or stopped, the government wasted about $5.1 million to pay these people to not work. The IG also accused agency managers of looking the other way and allowing the employees to continue raking in their government salaries. 

Separately, the IG who is doling out these scathing reports, Todd Zinser, is under scrutiny himself, for allegedly retaliating against whistleblowers and covering up instances of wrongdoing within his own watchdog agency. Earlier this month, lawmakers and independent organizations began pushing the president to remove the IG. For now, the White House has not commented on whether it will take action against Zinser. But the allegations against him do raise questions about the integrity of his own work as a watchdog. 

6,994,809 Plug for and method of patching a hole in a wall Maybe not really crazy, but crazily obvious. This patent shows you how to patch a hole in a wall by cutting out a piece the same size as a pre-formed plug, and then inserting the plug and plastering over it. Isn't that pretty much the way drywall is always patched??? Submitted by Ren Hoek.
4,202,456 Toy utilizing used, discardable items such as bottle caps and beverage cans Making building blocks out of bottle caps? Sounds like a good way to cut yourself. OK, stupid invention. But why did someone spend thousands of dollars to patent something whose primary purpose is to use cheap parts available in the home – especially when the whole idea of the patent essentially means that the inventor can't sell a product, since he is encouraging people to make their own "toy" at home? Submitted by Oliver Kroth.
4,300,473 Device For Moistening The Adhesive Coating on Postage Stamps and Envelopes Describes a device containing an applicator to moisten stamps. Check out this quote: "The applicator may be in the form of a human tongue" Boy, that's novel.
6,718,554 Hands free towel carrying system A towel with a neck loop. Seriously -- that's all it is. And it took until 2004 to patent such a thing. I wonder what other amazing inventions remain to be discovered???
6,711,769 Pillow with retractable umbrella A pillow, with a built-in umbrella to protect the user from the sun. Somehow the idea of having a tanned body and a ghostly white head doesn't appeal to me, but whatever floats your boat.
5,443,036 Method of exercising a cat Covers having a cat chase the beam from a laser pointer. The patent has been criticized as being obvious.
6,004,596 Sealed crustless sandwich Issued in 1999, covers the design of a sandwich with crimped edges. However, all claims of the patent were subsequently canceled by the PTO upon reexamination
6,368,227 Method of swinging on a swing Issued April 9, 2002, was granted to a seven-year-old boy, whose father, a patent attorney, wanted to demonstrate how the patent system worked to his son who was five years old at the time of the application. The PTO initially rejected it due to prior art, but eventually issued the patent. However, all claims of the patent were subsequently canceled by the PTO upon reexamination.
Sources: Free Patents Online and Wikipedia

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