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Losing the Race

Is the Patent Office's slowness putting U.S. innovation at risk?

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This story appears in the May 2003 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

As the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) celebrates its 200th birthday this year, it also faces the gravest predicament in its history. Put simply, the office can no longer keep pace with the burgeoning number of patent applications it is currently receiving.

In the 1980s, the USPTO received about 150,000 applications per year; over the past decade, it has averaged nearly 300,000 applications annually, as the growth of the Internet has led to a spike in patents and inventors have begun patenting incremental improvements. The office now has a backlog of more than 300,000 applications, generally considered the most complicated legal documents in the world. While in the 1980s the average amount of time between filing for and receiving a patent was roughly 18 months, the average has risen to 26 months. Brigid Quinn of the Patent Office has admitted the USPTO is "an agency in crisis."

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