ad info
   personal technology

 custom news
 Headline News brief
 daily almanac
 CNN networks
 CNN programs
 on-air transcripts
 news quiz

CNN Websites
 video on demand
 video archive
 audio on demand
 news email services
 free email accounts
 desktop headlines

 message boards





Net-patent boom forces Patent Office to seek help

September 20, 1999
Web posted at: 12:19 p.m. EDT (1619 GMT)

by Julia King

(IDG) -- Responding to a surge in new applications for Internet-related patents, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and U.S. Copyright Office has hired nearly a dozen new patent examiners with both computer science and specialized industry expertise.

Despite criticism about its treatment of e-commerce, the Patent Office is also standing behind the 125 or so patents it granted last year for supposedly new ways of doing business on the Internet.

In the past 18 months, the agency has come under fire by critics who claim it's awarding too many new Internet patents for ways of doing business that are neither new nor novel except that they're executed in cyberspace (see "Net patents stir debate," link below).
  Computerworld's home page
  Patent suit targets Windows, IE
  Patent Office wrestles with e-commerce
  The problem with patents
 Reviews & in-depth info at's personal news page
  Year 2000 World
  Questions about computers? Let's editors help you
  Subscribe to's free daily newsletter for IT leaders
  Search in 12 languages
 News Radio
 * Computerworld Minute
 * Fusion audio primers

But that, according to Patent Office Deputy Director Brigid Quinn, is often good enough to warrant the monopoly protection of a patent, because patents aren't reserved solely for new inventions, as many people believe.

"Patents are [granted] for improvements, too," Quinn said. Rejecting Internet-related processes such as Inc.'s patent for reverse auctions would be "like saying Henry Ford shouldn't have gotten a patent for the automobile because we already had a horse and buggy with wheels that moved you forward," she said.

Prior inventions

One of the primary criticisms leveled at the Patent Office is its alleged cursory searches of so-called "prior art," or previous inventions and/or research that might invalidate a patent application. To ensure that applications are scrutinized thoroughly from both business and technical standpoints, the Patent Office is recruiting examiners who hold computer science degrees and a second degree or work experience in business disciplines, such as marketing or finance. This year, the Patent Office has hired 11 new examiners to review applications for Internet-related business methods, which brings the total number of examiners in this area to 39. Another four examiners are due to be hired by year's end.

"The increased filings and the subject matter being addressed is what's driving this," said Joseph Rolla, director of the group.

For example, a patent application for an electronic-billing method might be reviewed by someone with both a computer science degree and a degree or work experience in finance and accounting, Rolla said.

To attract new examiners, who earn from $40,000 to just a little over $100,000 per year at the highest job grade level, the agency is offering to start new examiners at higher job grade levels than before and to advance them more quickly through the government pay schedule.

"The primary weakness is that the [Patent Office] is going through a real big growth spurt, particularly in the examination of computer-related patents," said Mike Smith, who worked as a software patent examiner from 1998 to 1999 and is now a patent attorney in Minneapolis.

Typically, an examiner has four days to read a patent [application], conduct a search and write an initial rejection, Smith said.

In addition to its load of new applications, the Patent Office re-examines about 350 patents per year -- many because of disputes about their validity.

Kevin Spivak, another former patent examiner now working as a patent attorney in Washington, points to the sheer novelty of Internet technology in general.

"The problem with Internet [patents] is not so much that [the Patent Office is] not digging up prior art, but that there's nothing to dig up," Spivak said. "It's a stretch to say they're not doing their job."

Internet Patents on the Rise
Number of Internet-related patents issued

See related Computing stories

Net patents stir debate
Opinion: The problem with patents
(The Industry Standard)
Does a patent threaten Web-privacy standard?
Trying's patent medicine
(The Industry Standard)
The is right
(The Industry Standard)
Marimba sues Novadigm for patent infringement
Microsoft sued over broad Web patent
(Windows TechEdge)
Year 2000 World
Note: Pages will open in a new browser window
External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
U.S. Copyright Office
Note: Pages will open in a new browser window
External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.
Enter keyword(s)   go    help

Back to the top   © 2001 Cable News Network. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.