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Patent Office Loses Tech Head At Crucial Time

Departing CIO led needed effort to modernize IT and speed patent-examination process.

At a time when software intellectual-property issues are being hotly contested, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's CIO is leaving to head the Department of the Interior's National Business Center.

Douglas Bourgeois, who spent three years at the Patent Office, leaves an organization dealing with a business environment that has increasingly placed a high priority on defending intellectual property. Bourgeois spearheaded efficiency-improving projects, including an E-government initiative that has enabled online filing of patent applications and access to patent information, as well as data sharing with international patent offices.

"Intellectual property is becoming more of a strategic asset for companies that operate both in the U.S. and abroad," he says. Business-technology companies are among those applying for an increased number of patents each year. Microsoft plans to file more than 3,000 patents in fiscal 2005, up from the previous year when it filed more than 2,000, Bill Gates, chairman and chief software architect, said at a July meeting with financial analysts. Microsoft is about 30th in terms of the largest U.S. patent holders and intends to move into the top 10.

Patent Gap, bar chartTo help its 3,800 inspectors keep pace with the rising number of patent applications--about 355,000 last year, compared with 278,000 five years ago--the Patent Office, under Bourgeois' watch, has deployed a storage area network to support a massive online transaction database. The SAN lets the office provision storage capacity as needed to support increased online application processing and patent research. The Patent Office has also upgraded security policies and technology to meet federally mandated standards and has implemented an enterprise architecture to define how technology is developed and implemented.

Ronald Hack, the Patent Office's deputy CIO, will take over the CIO role temporarily until a permanent replacement is found for Bourgeois, who, in his new job, will oversee the Interior Department's budget, procurement and contracts, and finance and accounting systems. Bourgeois' successor will be responsible for integrating the Patent Office's online efforts with those of the European and Japanese patent agencies. These three agencies publish 90% of the world's patents. The Patent Office also is progressing with a 2-year-old plan to meet increasing demands for processing capacity and speeding database access for patent examiners to the office's database of nearly all the 7 million patents issued since 1790.

Increasing the efficiency of the Patent Office is crucial to helping software companies combat piracy, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said at a June Business Software Alliance meeting in Washington, D.C. Ballmer and other high-tech CEOs want patent applications processed more quickly than the current 27-month wait.

Intellectual-property claims are central to the heated debate between people advocating proprietary software and those pushing for open source, highlighted by SCO Group Inc.'s allegations and lawsuits that its Unix intellectual property was illegally contributed to the Linux kernel. Some open-source advocates criticize the Patent Office, claiming it grants patents for technology already widely in use and penalizing developers and users who standardize on this technology.

The office defends the integrity of its research, noting that it receives fewer than 400 re-examination requests annually despite issuing 3,500 patents weekly.

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