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Intellectual Property: Drowning In Ideas

A search of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's Web site for the word "treadmill" turns up references to 354 patents dating back to 1978. The Patent Office's search engine distinguishes between the treadmill's original patent (No. 4,066,257), which describes a storable exercise device, and one of the more recent patents (No. 6,749,542), which describes in detail a more sophisticated version of the device. There are patents for treadmills for dogs and sheep, as well as three for aquatic treadmills.

It's an exercise that shows not only the prowess of the Patent Office's technology but the challenges the agency faces in the coming years as the number of patent applications grows, and its resources stay constant. Indeed, "treadmill" may have a different meaning for the Patent Office's 3,800 patent inspectors as they try to keep pace with the rising application volume--about 355,000 last year, compared with 278,000 five years ago--and increased pressure from the software industry for faster approval of their much-coveted intellectual property.

The Patent Office has a backlog of 500,000 applications and an average wait time of 27 months for patent approval. But with tech companies such as Microsoft looking to increase their patent applications, the Patent Office could face a backlog of 1.5 million applications by 2010, says Bruce Lehman, senior counsel with Washington, D.C., law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld and U.S. commissioner of patents and trademarks from 1993 through 1998. "The expansion of patentable subject matter is also increasing the workload, to the point where the office is reaching a crisis," Lehman says. "An increasing backlog creates a lot of uncertainty in industry, particularly in a changing industry like software. The office must avoid a situation where it's issuing patents for technology that's already out of date--a situation that affects the technology industry's freedom to innovate."

Decades ago, the Patent Office identified IT as crucial to improving processes and gaining efficiencies. Now the agency sees technology, along with sound policy and procedures, as the best way to come to grips with a business environment that's placing a high priority on intellectual property. "Intellectual property is becoming more of a strategic asset for companies that operate both in the U.S. and abroad," says Douglas Bourgeois, who served as the Patent Office's CIO for three years before leaving last month.

Patent Growth ChartMicrosoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates said during a July financial analysts meeting that his company plans to file more than 3,000 patents in fiscal 2005, a significant increase in the "something over" 2,000 filings the previous year. Though the company ranks about 30th among patent holders in the United States, it intends to move into the top 10.

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