The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) recently released its Performance and Accountability Report for fiscal year 2011 (FY2011). The report sheds light on the progress of the USPTO in pursuing its goals of examining patent applications in a timely manner, optimizing quality, and preparing for the implementation of the America Invents Act (AIA).

Here are some of the key figures from the report:

  • 536,604 new patent applications filed in FY2011, a 5.2 percent increase from FY2010
  • 150,173 provisional patent applications filed in FY2011
  • 1,250,191 patent applications pending at the end of FY2011
  • 267,353 patent applications abandoned during FY2011
  • 244,430 patents issued in FY2011
  • 20% of patents were issued to small entities

The USPTO reached a milestone in 2011, issuing its 8 millionth patent. It also received a record number of inter partes reexamination requests (374)., but had a slight decrease in the number of ex parte reexamination requests (759). The USPTO granted 94 percent of inter partes requests and of which, 77 percent  had related litigation. In the case of ex parte reexamination requests, 88 percent were granted, and 45 percent had related litigation.

Patent program direct costs for FY2011 were about $1.63 billion, primarily for personnel costs. USPTO operations employed 10,210 federal personnel, more than half of which were patent examiners. For FY2011, earned patent revenue was about $2 billion. The major components of revenue derived from patent operations were maintenance fees, initial application fees for filing, search and examination and issue fees.

In its 2010-2015 Strategic Plan, the USTPO set a goal of reducing the average time to first office action for patent applications to 10 months and an average total pendency to 20 months. In FY2011, however, the average first action pendency was  28 months (an increase from 25.7 months in FY2010) and average total pendency was 33.7 months (down from 35.3 months in FY2010). The report pointed to budget constraints that suspended routine programs such as examiner hiring, overtime and training as obstacles to higher performance.

The USPTO also focused on the backlog of patent applications awaiting first action—in 2009, the number of patent applications awaiting first Office Action ballooned to more than 760,000, but by the end of FY2011 that number dropped to about 670,000. To reduce the backlog, the USPTO launched a program to more strictly manage its inventory in a first-in, first-out environment. The USPTO is also developing work-sharing programs such as the Patent Prosecution Highway to reduce re-work, increase collaboration and provide consistency between IP offices.

The USPTO is seeking to hire more patent examiners, with an emphasis on recruiting experienced former examiners and IP professionals. The USPTO also plans to increase telework, including to locations outside of the Washington, D.C. region. Already, more than 6,200 employees agency-wide are working from home at least one day per week.

The passage of the AIA is pivotal to USPTO operations as it gives the USPTO fee setting authority. The ability to spend those fees will still depend upon annual Congressional appropriations. With an increased income from fees, the USPTO plans to modernize its IT infrastructure, hire more examiners and implement the sweeping changes mandated by the AIA over the next 18 months. The AIA is intended to improve patent quality, reduce the backlog of patent applications, reduce domestic and global patenting costs for U.S. companies, provide greater certainty in patent rights and offer effective alternatives to costly and complex litigation.