The following is a post that I had originally written in 2004 when I was a law student for my old “Great Change” blog. Given that patent reform remains a salient, timely issue — ie, see President Obama’s comments from this past week — I thought it would be a good time to repost it.
Today I took my first trip to the Patent Office for a meeting. It’s in a newish building in Crystal City, Washington’s urban-planning answer to La Defense in Paris.
The meeting aside, I approached the building with a sense of reverence, in no small part because of this letter to the editor I found in the New York Times archives:
To the Editor of the New York Times:
To the majority of uninformed inventors and the hundreds of applicants for patents, the charges of an inventor that the ills of our patent system are concentrated in the United States Patent Office and its personnel should call for further investigation. Another avenue has been opened to undermine and shake the confidence of American business. Another governmental agency is charged with being corrupt and dishonest, favoring big business and destroying the initiative of the individual inventor.
With the exception of the few Presidential appointees, the entire staff of the Patent Office is under Civil Service. Promotions in the various grades of examiners are made as the result of rigid promotion examinations and length of service. The rulings of the examiners and even the Commissioner of Patents himself are subject to review of the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia. The personnel of the Patent Office is one of the highest in the field of scientific endeavor, and the honesty and integrity of the individual examiners has always been considered as being second to none. In all my experience, both inside and outside the Patent Office, not a single charge of irregularity imputed to an examiner or appointed Patent Office official has ever been sustained.
No system built up on court decisions and past rulings of former Commissioners by which a governmental agency or bureau is guided can be perfect. Time changes all things, even the Patent Office. There may be just cause of complaint that the system is too costly; that too long a time intervenes before a patent is granted, and that the interference procedure is so complicated that court rulings are often in conflict. This condition is not the fault of the Patent Office, because the examiners are governed by Congress and the courts. It is immaterial to the examiner whether one contestant or another is successful in a litigation in the Patent Office. As a matter of fact, it may be charged that the examiners are too lenient in the granting of patents, with the result that inventors are often misled as to their limited rights and subsequently become involved in litigation. The benefit of a doubt is invariably resolved in favor of the individual inventor, and the Patent Office attempts to encourage him to reduce his invention to practice.
For years the Patent Office has not had the requisite number of employes[sic] to conduct its work with dispatch. It is one of the very few self-supporting agencies of the Government, and yet many of its divisions are months behind in their work. The Patent Office building is a relic of Civil War days, and a part of the work is conducted in the old Land Office building. There are now over 70,000 pending applications — nearly 1,350 applications for each examiner. Congress and not the Patent Office is responsible to the inventor.
Aaron L. Applebaum, New York, December 19, 1927.
At the time he wrote this letter was a patent lawyer who had also worked in the Patent Office for many years. And so it seems I will not be the first IP attorney in the family: he was also my great-grandfather.