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Is the U.S. Patent System Doomed?
August 1961 Popular Science

August 1961 Popular Science

August 1961 Popular Science Cover - RF Cafe[Table of Contents]

Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles from Popular Science, published 1872-2021. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.

Is the U.S. Patent System Doomed?, August 1961 Popular Science - RF Cafe

In today's age of massive computing power everywhere, it is difficult to imagine needing to manually search through a three million record database of document topics as part of a patent application process. That daunting task faced patent application examiners in 1961 when a Popular Science reporter interviewed the commissioner of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Yes, computers existed which could perform the task, but no effort had been initiated to generate punch cards and/or magnetic tapes encoded with titles, grantees, dates, key words, status, and a host of other data for use in an exhaustive search. That was the first step in the difficult but necessary task that faced the organization. At the time, a thousand new patents were being granted every week. There are currently nearly twelve million patents on record. Factoid: Per the USPTO's 2023 Annual Report, the duration of protection for a patent is only 20 years - from the date of filing, not granting, while that of a copyright is 70 years after the death of the author. Trademarks last 10 years, but are renewable. At the end of FY 2023, the USPTO workforce comprised 13,452 federal employees, including: 8,568 patent examiners, 756 trademark examining attorneys, 225 administrative patent judges, 28 administrative trademark judges.

Is the U.S. Patent System Doomed?

Is the U.S. Patent System Doomed?, August 1961 Popular Science - RF Cafe"I don't mind telling you flatly, unless a solution to the search problem is found soon our patent examination system is in danger." The speaker is the new boss of the patent office, David L. Ladd. Commissioner Ladd is the very model of the current administration's executives: young (35), husky, good-looking, smart, fast-talking, and informal (shirt sleeves, feet on the desk).

In an exclusive interview with Popular Science, he outlined his plans. He is seeking ideas to ease the lot of the independent inventor (such as a preliminary application form, to be filed as soon as an idea is conceived, that would automatically prove who was first and eliminate protracted, expensive "interference" proceedings). But, he says, "The search problem comes first."

That problem is easy to state, very tough to solve. A U.S. patent can be granted only for a genuinely new invention. To make sure it is new, examiners must literally search through the earlier patents. This has always been difficult. Now, with 3,000,000 patents in the files and 1,000 new ones being added every week, it is becoming impossible.

The only way out is searching by machine. The machine doesn't exist yet, although Government and industry have been pushing hard, because a couple of crucial items need to be invented. One necessity is a good reading device - to convert the 3,000,000 existing patents into punch cards or magnetic tape that the searching machine can search through. Another necessity is some basic discoveries about language - how is the machine to tell if "bridge" means highway bridge, spectacle bridge, or a card game?

If machine searching is not perfected, Commissioner Ladd foresees fundamental - and undesirable - changes in the patent system. The French patent office doesn't try to search, he points out - there you have to fight out conflicts in the courts (a special disadvantage to independent inventors, who are usually broke). The English search, but disregard all patents more than 50 years old. Comments Ladd, ''I'd hate to have a blanket rule cutting off all patents at the end of 50 years. Some of those German chemical patents from the late Eighteen Hundreds are just now coming into commercial use. It would be unfair to let late-comers re-patent those old ideas."

More than the patent system is involved. The whole world needs the searching machine. Libraries are running out of space. And they are already so big that you can't 6nd anything in them - it's easier to rediscover needed information than to look it up. Patent searching is the most complicated kind of information retrieval, however. Ladd says, "If we can solve the problem for patents, we solve it for everything."

 

 

Posted May 3, 2024

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