November 18, 2014 / 4:55 PM / 5 years ago

U.S. patent office tightens rules for examiners working from home

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has tightened supervision of patent examiners who work full-time from home, an official said on Tuesday, but critics in Congress questioned whether the office was not going far enough to curb abuse.

The estimated 5,000 patent examiners who work from home full time must now be available electronically when they are on duty, among other changes, Margaret Focarino, commissioner for patents at the USPTO, said in testimony prepared for a hearing.

U.S. Representative Darrell Issa, in remarks before the hearing, indicated that he considered the agency’s efforts inadequate.

Examiners have been accused of “end-loading,” or turning in most of their work just before a quarter ends to satisfy what is essentially their work quota. Critics say examiners also practice “mortgaging,” or turning in unfinished work to get credit for the quarter.

Issa called those two practices “scams against fee-paying applicants.”

The patent office has long been under fire for taking more than two years to approve patent applications. It also has been criticized for approving what some say are weak patents, especially for software. The result is what many call excess litigation, as patent holders sue technology companies for infringing patents that critics say should not have been granted.

Issa said Congress should look at “how abuse of the existing system can be prevented” and also “ask if the current metrics-based requirements for examiners are appropriate, given the current allegations.”

A handful of patent attorneys who regularly deal with the office said telework was not the issue as much as inadequate supervision both inside the Virginia headquarters of the patent office and outside.

There are about 8,000 examiners in total, and many of them are inexperienced, hired when the patent office was ramping up to deal with a backlog, the attorneys said.

The patent office has been without a permanent director since February 2013.

The White House nominated former Google executive Michelle Lee to be the new director last month. She currently is running the office on an acting basis. That nomination is subject to approval by the U.S. Senate.

The patent office is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce and awards patents and registers trademarks.

Reporting by Diane Bartz; Editing by David Gregorio

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