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Patents to the people: US Patent and Trademark Office sends staffer to live among NYC startups

Patents to the people: US Patent and Trademark Office sends staffer to live among NYC startups


Cornell's new tech campus gets a resident patent examiner who will serve as a liaison to the software industry

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David Kappos 640
David Kappos 640

Almost exactly a year after the America Invents Act passed a number of patent reforms, the US Patent and Trademark Office is conducting an experiment. The agency announced today that one of its patent examiners will be stationed at the new Cornell University applied sciences campus in order to provide expertise and guidance to students and entrepreneurs in the New York City area.

This is a first for the patent office, which has been attacking the reform of its ancient system with a creativity unusual for a government agency. Once the legislature gave the USPTO the signal to start making changes, director David Kappos — the former head of IBM's intellectual property division — was free to get progressive. One easy example is the office's partnership with Stack Exchange, a New York-based startup that built a system to augment its patent review process by letting anyone submit examples of prior art that could invalidate new patents.

Opening a one-woman bureau in New York was not mandated by the new law, but seems in line with the spirit of the reforms. Sue Purvis, who has worked at the patent office since 1998, is already ensconced in the tech campus's temporary Manhattan location. The first Cornell NYC Tech "beta" class starts in January, although the first academic building won't even be completed until 2017. Her precise responsibilities will be determined once she starts talking to entrepreneurs, but the patent office envisions one-on-one consulting and possibly classes. Purvis can help entrepreneurs figure out when and how to file patents or trademarks and encourage them to assert their intellectual property rights.

The US Patent and Trademark Office is conducting an experiment

"It's very unusual," David Kappos, director of the USPTO, told The Verge. "This agency has never done anything like this in 230 years. We're trying to do things that are really relevant to the community. If you have a question now, you can have coffee with Sue. You don't have to go to a faceless bureaucrat in New York."

The patent system is repeatedly criticized for being inefficient and blocking innovation. Over the past few years, the tech sector has become increasingly frustrated as decades-old software patents, assigned liberally when the internet was still new, were bought up and exploited by litigious "patent trolls." This endless debate has primed many young entrepreneurs with a spiteful view of the USPTO. However, Kappos and Cornell president David Skorton hope the initiative will prove to be a "two-way street," opening a new channel for dialogue between the government and the tech sector. "We need to figure out the sweet spot of intellectual property in the tech industry," Skorton said.

Given that Purvis is likely to be immediately overwhelmed with requests for meetings from New York's vast numbers of startups and entrepreneurs, that goal seems ambitious. The USPTO is still implementing the sweeping changes mandated by the America Invents Act, which switched the US from a "first-to-invent" to "first-to-file" system.

"We need to figure out the sweet spot of intellectual property in the tech industry."

The USPTO first approached Cornell about working together after the university won a fierce bidding contest — beating even Stanford, the early favorite — to build a tech campus in New York with the support of City Hall. The USPTO has no plans to send officers to other campuses, but the outreach effort in New York could be a pilot program that eventually extends to other cities. Other universities have expressed interest, but the USPTO wants to see how the experiment goes first.