|United States Patent and Trademark Office|
|Seal of the United States Patent and Trademark Office|
|Agency executive||David J. Kappos, Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property|
The United States Patent and Trademark Office (PTO or USPTO) is an agency in the United States Department of Commerce that issues patents to inventors and businesses for their inventions, and trademark registration for product and intellectual property identification.
The USPTO is currently based in Alexandria, Virginia, after a 2006 move from the Crystal City area of Arlington, Virginia. The offices under Patents and the Chief Information Officer that remained just outside the southern end of Crystal City completed moving to Randolph Square, a brand new building in Shirlington Village, on April 27, 2009. Since 1991, the office has been fully funded by fees charged for processing patents and trademarks. The current head of the USPTO is David J. Kappos, who was sworn in on August 13, 2009 following the United States Senate's confirmation of his appointment by President Barack Obama. He succeeded John Doll, who served as acting head following the resignation of Jon W. Dudas at the end of the George W. Bush administration.
The USPTO cooperates with the European Patent Office (EPO) and the Japan Patent Office (JPO) as one of the Trilateral Patent Offices. The USPTO is also a Receiving Office, an International Searching Authority and an International Preliminary Examination Authority for international patent applications filed in accordance with the Patent Cooperation Treaty.
The legal basis for the United States patent system is Article 1, Section 8 of the United States Constitution, wherein the powers of Congress are defined. It states, in part:
The mission of the PTO is to promote "industrial and technological progress in the United States and strengthen the national economy" by:
As of September 30, 2009, the end of the U.S. government's fiscal year, the PTO had 9,716 employees, nearly all of whom are based at its huge five-building headquarters complex in Alexandria. Of those, 6,242 were patent examiners (almost all of whom were assigned to examine utility patents; only 99 were assigned to examine design patents) and 388 were trademark examining attorneys; the rest are support staff.[4 ] While the agency has noticeably grown in recent years, the rate of growth was far slower in fiscal 2009 than in the recent past; this is borne out by data from fiscal 2005 to the present:[4 ]
|At end of FY||Employees||Patent examiners||Trademark examining attorneys|
Patent examiners are generally scientists and engineers who do not necessarily hold law degrees, while all trademark examiners must be licensed attorneys. All examiners work under a strict, "count"-based production system. For every application, "counts" are earned by composing, filing, and mailing a first Office action on the merits, and upon disposal of an application.
The Commissioner for Patents oversees three main bodies, headed by the Deputy Commissioner for Patent Operations, currently Peggy Focarino, the Deputy Commissioner for Patent Examination Policy, currently Andrew Hirshfeld as Acting Deputy, and finally the Commissioner for Patent Resources and Planning, which is currently vacant. The Patent Operations of the office is divided into 9 different technology centers that deal with various arts.
Decisions of patent examiners may be appealed to the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences, an administrative law body of the USPTO. Decisions of the BPAI may further be appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, or a civil suit may be brought against the Commissioner of Patents in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. The United States Supreme Court may ultimately decide on a patent case. Similarly, decisions of trademark examiners may be appealed to the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, with subsequent appeals directed to the Federal Circuit, or a civil action may also be brought.
In recent years, the USPTO has seen increasing delays between when a patent application is filed and when it issues. To address its workload challenges, the USPTO has undertaken an aggressive program of hiring and recruitment. The USPTO hired 1,193 new patent examiners In Fiscal Year 2006 (year ending September 30, 2006), 1,215 new examiners in fiscal 2007, and 1,211 in fiscal year 2008. The USPTO expected to continue hiring patent examiners at a rate of approximately 1,200 per year through 2012; however, due to a slowdown in new application filings since the onset of the late-2000s economic crisis, and projections of substantial declines in maintenance fees in coming years, the agency imposed a hiring freeze in early March 2009.
In 2006, USPTO also instituted a new training program for patent examiners called the "Patent Training Academy." It is an eight-month program designed to teach new patent examiners the fundamentals of patent law, practice and examination procedure in a college-style environment. Because of the impending USPTO budget crisis previously alluded to, it had been rumored that the Academy would be closed by the end of 2009. Focarino, then Acting Commissioner for Patents, denied in a May 2009 interview that the Academy was being shut down, but stated that it would be cut back because the hiring goal for new examiners in fiscal 2009 was reduced to 600. Ultimately, 588 new patent examiners were hired in fiscal 2009.[16 ]
For many years, Congress "diverted" about 10% of the fees that the USPTO has collected into the general treasury of the United States. In effect, this took money collected from the patent system to use for the general budget. This fee diversion has been generally opposed by patent practitioners (e.g., patent attorneys and patent agents), inventors, and the USPTO. These stakeholders would rather use the funds to improve the patent office and patent system, such as by implementing the USPTO's 21st Century Strategic Plan. The last six annual budgets of the George W. Bush administration did not divert any USPTO fees, and the first budget of the Barack Obama administration continues this practice; however, stakeholders continue to press for a permanent end to fee diversion.
The USPTO examines applications for trademark registration. If approved, the trademarks are registered on either the Principal Register or the Supplemental Register, depending upon whether the mark meets the appropriate distinctiveness criteria. However, this function is declining in popularity as trademark applicants move to cheaper, more straightforward state-by-state registrations.  
The PTO only allows certain qualified persons to practice before the PTO. Practice includes filing of patent applications on behalf of inventors, prosecuting patent applications on behalf of inventors, and participating in administrative appeals and other proceedings before the PTO examiners and boards. The PTO sets its own standards for who may practice and requires that any person who practices become registered. A patent agent is a person who has passed the USPTO registration examination (the "patent bar") but has not passed any state bar exam to become a licensed attorney; a patent attorney is a person who has passed both a state bar and the patent bar and is in good standing as an attorney. A patent agent can only act in a representative capacity in patent matters presented to the USPTO, and may not represent a patent holder or applicant in a court of law. To be eligible for taking the patent bar exam, a candidate must possess a degree in "engineering or physical science or the equivalent of such a degree".
The United States allows any citizen from any country to sit for the patent bar (if he/she has the requisite technical background). Only Canada has a reciprocity agreement with the United States that confers upon a patent agent similar rights.
An unrepresented inventor may file a patent application and prosecute it on his or her own behalf (pro se). If it appears to a patent examiner that an inventor filing a pro se application is not familiar with the proper procedures of the Patent Office, the examiner may suggest that the filing party obtain representation by a registered patent attorney or patent agent. The patent examiner cannot recommend a specific attorney or agent, but the Patent Office does post a list of those who are registered.
While the inventor of a relatively simple-to-describe invention may well be able to produce an adequate specification and detailed drawings, there remains language complexity in what is claimed, either in the particular claim language of a utility application, or in the manner in which drawings are presented in a design application. There is also skill required when searching for prior art that is used to support the application and to prevent applying for a patent for something that may be unpatentable. A patent examiner will make special efforts to help pro se inventors understand the process but the failure to adequately understand or respond to an Office action from the USPTO can endanger the inventor's rights, and may lead to abandonment of the application.
The USPTO will accept patent applications filed in electronic form. As of March 2006, inventors or their patent agents/attorneys can file applications as Adobe PDF documents. The web page for submitting applications is https://sportal.uspto.gov/secure/portal/efs-unregistered. Filing fees can be paid by credit card or by a USPTO “deposit account”.
The USPTO's free distribution service only distributes the patent documents as a set of TIFF files (see http://www.uspto.gov/patft/help/images.htm). Numerous free and commercial services provide patent documents in other formats, such as Adobe PDF and CPC.
The USPTO has been criticized for granting patents for impossible or absurd, already known, or arguably obvious inventions.
The USPTO has been criticized for taking an inordinate amount of time in examining patent applications. This is particularly true in the fast growing area of business method patents. As of 2005, patent examiners in the business method area were still examining patent applications filed in 2001.
The delay has been attributed by spokesmen for the Patent Office to a combination of a sudden increase in business method patent filings after the 1998 State Street Bank decision, the unfamiliarity of patent examiners with the business and financial arts (e.g., banking, insurance, stock trading etc.), and the issuance of a number of controversial patents (e.g., U.S. Patent 5,960,411 "Amazon one click patent") in the business method area.
Effective in August 2006, the USPTO introduced an accelerated patent examination procedure in an effort to allow inventors a speedy evaluation of an application with a final disposition within twelve months. The procedure requires additional information to be submitted with the application and also includes an interview with the examiner. The first accelerated patent was granted on March 15, 2007 with a 6 month issuance time.
As of the end of 2008, there were 1,208,076 patent applications pending at the Patent Office. At the end of 1997, the number of pending applications pending was 275,295. Therefore, over these 11 years there has been a 439% increase in the number of pending applications. 
|Directors of the USPTO|
|u. Bruce Lehman (1993 - 1998)|
|v. Q. Todd Dickinson (1998 - 2001)|
|w. James E. Rogan (December 2001 - 2004)|
|x. Jon Dudas (2004 - January 2009)|
|y. John J. Doll (January 2009 - August 2009) (acting)|
|z. David J. Kappos (August 2009 - present)|