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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 its200th birthday this year, it also faces the gravest predicament inits history. Put simply, the office can no longer keep pace withthe burgeoning number of patent applications it is currentlyreceiving.

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

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