An op-ed piece in the July 14th Wall Street Journal by L. Gordon Crovitz makes an interesting case about the shortcomings of the US patent system and the recent failure of Congress to enact patent reform. One of his criticisms is the lack of transparency in the system. This may seem odd given the amount of patent information that is available in public databases. Surely the public has never had better access to the latest patent information? Well, actually...
Although the USPTO was a leader among patent offices in publishing patent data on the web in the mid-1990s, over the past decade it hasn't invested much in its core patent databases, PatFT and AppFT. PatFT contains issued patents from 1790 to the present and AppFT contains published applications from 2001 forward. Creating a separate database for published applications may have made sense from an internal bureaucratic, ah...administrative, point of view, but it's a huge disadvantage to searchers because it forces them to do double the work. Almost every type of patent search, from a patentability search to a state-of-the-art search, must include both issued patents and published applications. Other third-party public databases such as esp@cenet, FreePatentsOnline and Patent Lens, allow users to search both types of documents at the same time.
Most patent offices publish patent documents in PDF format, but the USPTO still insists on using TIFF, an obscure format that is loathed by searchers because it requires them to install a special browser plugin such as AlternaTIFF or InterTIFF. And the USPTO still does not allow printing or saving multipage documents, forcing users to go to esp@cenet, which enabled multi-page downloads in 2004, or a third-party service like Pat2PDF, in order to download complete US documents. The USPTO allows does not allow exporting patent bibliographic data, which would be very useful for creating databases or spreadsheets for analysis purposes.
One of the biggest impediments to transparency is the fact that there is no central access point on the USPTO website to patent information. Patent documents, classification, status information, ownership, and post-grant actions are scattered in at least a half dozen systems and channels. For example, the USPTO publishes notices about expired patents, corrections, reexamination filings, reissue applications in the electronic Official Gazette, a weekly periodical that was first published (in print) in 1872. Even though the print edition was discontinued in favor of the electronic in 2002, the format of these notices has not really changed in more than fifty years. Although the OG is searchable back to 1995, it would be much more convenient to make this data available in the PatFT database and allow users to create RSS or e-mail alerts for individual patents. Users who want to check on the ownership status of a patent or published application must use the Assignments on the Web database. Users who want to view the contents of a file wrapper must use the PAIR system. Neither system is connected to the PatFT or AppFT databases.
So while the public has much better access to US patent information than it did 15 years ago, it is still very difficult to find given that it is locked up in so many different silos and stovepipes on the USPTO website. The end result is a very fragmented, user-unfriendly system that effectively hides important information.
I'm the librarian for research services in the Engineering and Science Library at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. I've been working with patent information since 1991, including seven years at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. I believe that the dissemination of patent information is a public good and should be promoted, especially in the education of science and engineering students.