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Green-tech patent program off target pace

A federal program to encourage economic activity in green technologies has not yet yielded the volume of fast-track patent applications as expected.

A trial program meant to speed the pace of innovation in green technology hasn't unleashed the torrent of activity as hoped.

Launched in December, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's Green Technology Pilot Program puts patent petitions related to environmental technologies at the front of the line for appraisal. The goal is to encourage economic activity in the sector.

Initially, the patent office said the first 3,000 existing patent petitions that fit the category could request accelerated status, with the number capped to ensure adequate attention from examiners. As of Thursday, however, a USPTO representative said there have been 1,477 requests for accelerated status, well short of the pace first expected.

Overall, the program appears to be underutilized, particularly by start-up companies, which stand to benefit from the accelerated review process.

"It's kind of a head scratcher as to why this has not been taken up more quickly," said Eric Raciti, who works in the alternative energy practice of law firm Finnegan. "If it were publicized and more broadly accessible from the beginning, the response probably would've been more robust."

He suspects that more small companies haven't taken advantage of the program because they may not have budgeted for the additional legal costs associated with receiving a patent in a quicker timeframe.

The green-tech program doesn't have a big backlog of patent applications, which is a growing problem at USPTO overall. By mid-August, there were only 53 applications awaiting review, with over 700 granted and the rest dismissed or denied.

Jennifer Rankin Byrne, director of public affairs at the USPTO, said the USPTO is pleased with the pilot program, is considering whether to extend it another year, and would like to see more participation.

In response to the low number of applications after the first six months, the USPTO in May loosened the requirements to take advantage of the fast-track process. Rather than having to fit into a specific classification, patent petitioners now need to fall into four general areas of renewable energy, technology to improve environmental quality, energy conservation, or greenhouse gas reduction.

But even with easing the limitations on patent classifications, there hasn't been a dramatic increase in acceleration requests since May, when about 950 had been submitted.

Putting competitors on notice
Some companies have clearly benefited from the program. Skyline Solar, which makes a solar concentrator, estimates the accelerated review saved it about two years in the securing its intellectual property portfolio.

Other companies and inventors that went through the accelerated program received patents related to wind turbines, fuel cells, standby power in electronics, and mobile water purification systems. The wait time to get a decision from the USPTO, which is on average almost three years for the USPTO, was cut significantly, in some cases to under a year.

The benefit to start-up companies is that they can put competitors on notice that they have defendable intellectual property and they gain exposure through public relations, Raciti said. Larger companies have less motivation to speed through the patent process because patents are often done for defensive reasons.

As of mid-August, the technology area with the highest number of patent applications is in chemical and materials engineering with 490 total petitions. Next is the area of semiconductors, electrical and optical systems, followed by transportation related applications. (See PDF here for the full breakdown).