Friday, November 30, 2007

Big News in Patent Information Land

Joe Ebersole, founder and chief counsel for the Coalition for Patent and Trademark Information Dissemination, died on Oct. 18 in Washington, D.C. There's a brief obit in the December issue of Information Today (not yet available online) and the Washington Post (10/21). Mr. Ebersole was part of the generation that launched the modern information industry in the 1970s and 1980s. In the early 1980s he worked as director of special projects for Mead Central Data (Lexis-Nexis) and in that capacity was responsible for creating Lexpat, the world's first full-text patent system. He later moved into medical information systems.

In the 1990s he established the Coalition in order to oppose patent office efforts to make patent information available on the internet. While Ebersole was often described as a consultant to USPTO management on matters relating to patent automation, he was, in fact, a registered lobbyist whose clients included some of the largest commercial patent information vendors. He worked tirelessly to block the USPTO from improving its website. In my opinion, his influence is one of the reasons why the USPTO web-based patent databases are so under-developed compared to those of other patent offices.

Ebersole's philosophy was straightforward: patent offices had no business providing online patent information to the public that could be provided more efficiently (and at a substantial profit) by private sector vendors. [Ebersole, WPI, 2003] Of course, he conveniently ignored the fact that vendors built their search systems (developed in part with government grants and contracts) using patent data obtained from patent offices at nominal rates. In recent years many vendors have enhanced their products by linking to free patent data on patent office websites, thus avoiding the cost of storing the data and images on their own systems. Ebersole also claimed that resources spent on external information dissemination would be better spent improving internal operations for the benefit of inventors. This is a very old argument. U.S. patent commissioners in the 1870s and 1880s faced similar criticism when they began publishing a weekly gazette of patent abstracts and annual patent indexes.

The Coalition has had little impact outside the U.S. where there is greater support for patent information dissemination as a public good and a means of encouraging economic development. For example, the European Patent Office has continuously improved its esp@cenet system since it was first launched in 1998, adding 60 million patents from more than 70 countries, patent legal status and family data, enabling patent document downloading and printing, etc. According to recent articles and interviews with Wolfgang Pilch, the EPO's principal director for patent information, there are even greater things in store for esp@cenet in 2008. For example, the EPO is investigating the possibility of adding chemical structure and synonym searching.

In retrospect, the views of Mr. Ebersole and his clients were out of step with the times. In the late 1990s citizens in developed countries went online in huge numbers. Libraries, universities and government agencies at all levels turned to the internet as a means of delivering better, more effective services to their constituents. For example, the USPTO is extremely proud of its online patent and trademark application systems, which now handle 50 and 95 percent, respectively, of all new filings. Ebersole and the Coalition's arguments were also undermined by the emergence of other free independent patent databases such as FreePatentsOnline, Google Patents and Patent Lens. These services, which were created by small groups (or individuals) for a variety of entrepreneurial and idealistic motives, offer capabilities that are as good or better than many patent office websites. It will be interesting to see if the Coalition survives without Ebersole at the helm.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Plant Patents & Canadian Pears

Plant patents rarely make the news, so I was delighted to see a story in this weekend's Globe and Mail about a new type of pear cultivated by a team of Canadian scientists. The pear, which is known only by the designation "HW614", is a cross between several types of pears including the familiar Bartletts. It's described as juicy, sweet and huge, "up to four inches in diameter". Presumably Agriculture Canada will come up with a catchier name by the time the pear is ready for market in several years.

David Hunter, one of the scientists responsible for creating the new pear, holds three plant patents on pears identified as "HW610" (marketed as "Harrow Crisp"), "HW616" (marketed as "Harrow Gold") and "Harrow Sweet", but none for "HW614". Perhaps a application is in the works. Most of the research on pears is done at the University of Guelph's Vineland research station, near St. Catherines, Ontario.

The patent classification for pears is PLT/176 with subclasses for Ornamental (PLT/177), Asian (PLT/178) and Rootstock (PLT/179). Since 1930 the USPTO has issued approximately 80 patents for pears.

U.S. Patent Counts, July-Sept. 2007

Quarterly Patent and PGPub Counts

Q1 || 47,332 | 74,277 | 121,609
Q2 || 45,828 | 76,640 | 122,468
Q3 || 44,567 | 75,831 | 120,398
Q4 ||

The third quarter of 2007 was relatively unremarkable with both patents (utility, design reissue and plant) and published applications experiencing a slight decline from the previous quarter. Published applications were down one percent to 75,831 but up a percentage point over the same quarter last year. Patents dropped 2.75 percent to 44,567, which was a decline of 11 percent from Q3 in 2006. Patents averaged about 3,500 per week, virtually unchanged from Q2, with only two weeks below the 3,000 mark. Published applications averaged 5,833 per week, hitting a high for the quarter of 6,595 on August 14. At this rate, the USPTO is on track to break 300,000 for the total number of published applications in a year. Since 2001, the USPTO has published approximately 1.5 million utility and plant patent applications.

In related news, GlaxoSmith filed a last-minute suite in federal court to prevent the USPTO from implementing its new patent rules which, among other things, limit the number of continuation applications an applicant may file. The USPTO hopes the new rules will reduce the number of applications.