More on the US Patent & Trademark Office Upside Down Fax Mess -- IT Systems 20 Years Out of Date

Last Updated Feb 5, 2010 12:55 PM EST

The other day I posted something about the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) not accepting pages faxed in upside down. A lot of people questioned whether I could possibly be reading this right. Surely this was some obscure legal issue, or a badly worded memo actually referring to a page flipped over before faxing so that only a blank page arrived. Uh ... no. Here's a statement that the USPTO sent to me this morning, attributed to Peter Pappas, Chief Communications Officer:
This error, which affects a fraction of documents filed by fax, is due to antiquated software that is scheduled to be replaced next month. Our current software cannot read pages that are faxed in the wrong direction and consequently generates an automatic error message. The vast majority of filings are received electronically and are unaffected by this problem. We apologize for the inconvenience caused to fax filers and urge them to ensure that faxed pages are correctly oriented as we work to resolve this problem.
No good reason, just old systems. How old? According to information provided by Hal Wegner, a partner with IP law firm Foley & Lardner, highly placed sources confirmed that 22 years ago, the department either failed to upgrade its fax software to read upside down images or tried to develop its own system, even though off-the-shelf commercial applications were available. But this isn't just an issue of the fax system, according to Wegner, as well as many other USPTO watchers:
There are serious glitches in the IT system that go back more than a quarter-century to the Quigg-Manbeck era that have never been fixed and which create tremendous impediments to the [newly hired USPTO head David Kappos] Administration's quest to right the ship.
The reference to righting the ship has everything to do with the massive backlog of patent applications and the average 25.8 months it takes to get even a preliminary response as to whether an application will be allowed or if the filer need to do more work to convince a patent examiner. As I pointed out just a couple of days ago, the USPTO wasn't even forthcoming in its last annual report about the current state of the backlog:
In 2004, USPTO had a patent backlog of nearly a half million applications and average processing times of 27 months. By 2007, processing times averaged nearly 32 months, with wait times for communications-related patents as long as 43 months. As of September 30, 2008, USPTO reported a backlog of 750,596 applications and estimated that the backlog will exceed 860,000 by September 2011. The 2010 President's Budget reflects a backlog of 740,000 applications by the end of FY 2009, which is a decrease of approximately 10,000 applications over end of FY 2008 numbers.
Can you tell what the backlog was at the end of fiscal year 2009, which ended last September? Neither can I, nor can anyone else.

When it comes to slow processes, technology can be a boon, but only when adequately and competently implemented. What we're apparently seeing at the USPTO is decades of neglect and poor management. This becomes even clearer when you come across stories of advanced work that other branches of government are doing to greatly speed operations. Although USPTO leadership is trying to hire another 1,000 examiners, even if the agency is successful in convinced experienced former examiners to return, that number isn't any higher than what it has been adding to the payroll for years. Perhaps it needs to be focusing on overhauling its IT management and systems and putting emphasis on spending that could result in significant improvements in efficiency.

Image via stock.xchng user mordoc, site standard license.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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