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9/9/2004
04:43 PM
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Patent Revolution

Not since the dawn of the previous century has technology, and the need to protect inventors' ideas and techniques, had such a profound impact on business and society. Today, as it was 100 years ago, new inventions that change the way people work and live emerge at a furious pace. Likewise, today, as it was a century ago, inventors (we're more likely to call them developers now) seek to capitalize on innovative ideas and build upon other's innovative ideas.

Not since the dawn of the previous century has technology, and the need to protect inventors' ideas and techniques, had such a profound impact on business and society. Today, as it was 100 years ago, new inventions that change the way people work and live emerge at a furious pace. Likewise, today, as it was a century ago, inventors (we're more likely to call them developers now) seek to capitalize on innovative ideas and build upon other's innovative ideas.This creation of intellectual property is unlike the world has seen in recent times, certainly over the past 50 years, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's deputy commissioner for patent resources and planning told me this morning. But not all that different from the state of the world following the Industrial Revolution. The basic challenge remains the same for the Patent Office: How do you examine an influx of technology whose inner workings and implications are not yet fully understood?

"Today's products are products of the mind," deputy commissioner Edward "Kaz" Kazenske told me when I asked him to name the biggest difference between today's innovations and those from the last century.

While the Patent Office has seen heavy growth in patent applications related to biotechnology discoveries and software applications, Kazenske told me that the most explosive growth has come in the area of telecommunications. "People are grappling not so much with understanding the computer these days but rather with how it can be used," he said. After all, when was the last time you used your computer to actually "compute" something?

But new intellectual territory requires that the Patent Office train its patent examiners accordingly. Kazenske pointed out that several of the office's examiners, for example, have to quickly gain expertise in the area of nanotechnology as developers apply for patents related to this technology. "One of the biggest challenges is that we see things before they come to market," he said. The office prides itself on educating its examiners, but it's not always easy to know what training they should receive or how much of the staff to devote to a particular emerging technology.

Not an easy call given the office's tight budget and the software industry's demand that the Patent Office cut the amount of time for patent approval. It takes five years for a patent examiner to move from junior status to that of a journeyman. To become an examiner, a candidate must first have a bachelor's degree in the sciences (biology, chemistry, or physics). From there, the Patent Office trains these candidates in patent law, which makes them susceptible to then leaving the office to make their fortune with a private law firm.

Technology is no substitute for properly trained patent examiners, but it does have the ability to expedite and ensure the integrity of the patent review process through online application filing, public-key infrastructure data security, and enhanced database search capabilities. "In some cases, [such as studying folded proteins for biotech patents], technology is the only way massive amounts of data can be reviewed," Kazenske said.

It's this use of today's technology to help determine the fate of tomorrow's technology.

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