Like Lucy and Ethel on the chocolate factory assembly line, U.S. patent examiners were hit with an onslaught of a quarter million patent applications last year. They issued a record 154,579 patents in fiscal 1998, processing an estimated 203,000 applications, including about 48,000 that were rejected or abandoned.

The patent deluge is the result of a surge in filings, led by software developers, and the end last year of a five-year federal hiring freeze. On one side, industry is staking out new and broader intellectual property claims. On the other side, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is bringing on hundreds of new examiners and tinkering with the system to keep the application process moving at a fast clip.

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