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Patent Office: Paperless is capital idea

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is drowning in paper. But a proposal to eliminate certain paper record searches at its public facilities is meeting resistance.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is drowning in paper, but plans to convert some of its paperwork to electronic form are meeting with resistance.

At a hearing last week, the Patent Office heard comments about its proposal to eliminate certain paper record searches at its public facilities in Virginia.

The proposal wouldn't eliminate the original documents. Those are stored by the Patent Office for 10 years, and by the Federal Records Center for 40 more years, before being turned over to the National Archives. What may be eliminated, however, are paper copies of the records that are made to help patent researchers.

"The paper collection (consists of) 30 million patent documents, and each one is 20 to 30 pages. We add to it 16,000 patent documents a week," said Brigid Quinn, a Patent Office spokeswoman. "Each week we add seven shelves that are 10 feet tall and a foot wide. It's on three floors, and each room is about 65,000 to 70,000 square feet. It's row after row after row of gray, government-issued shelves with paper stacked on them."

To supplement the paper records, the Patent Office began offering electronic search functions in 1985 for trademarks and in 1989 for patents. And the searches have caught on: In 2001, the public spent more than 90,000 online hours searching records, an increase of more than 36,000 hours from the previous fiscal year. The Patent Office also bumped up the number of workstations available for such searches from 33 in 1999 to 122 this year.

The electronic search methods "have been upgraded and enhanced to the extent that they now meet or surpass the U.S. paper collections in completeness and timeliness of newly acquired material, and provide equivalent or better functionality in search strategy," the Patent Office said in a notice in the Federal Register. In the interests of saving space, the office is now looking to dump the paper.

But while electronic searches have met with general approval, not everyone is on board with getting rid of the paper just yet.

"While we applaud the significant efforts the USPTO has made to move in to the electronic age, much has to be done to ensure a smooth transition with reliable data for accurate information dissemination," said Daphne Hammond, chairman of the Trademark Office Public User Society, in a written statement to the USPTO.

For example, Hammond said, the paper records contain codes for certain identifying color marks. Such codes were not included when electronic search was set up; while some new codes were established during redesigns and upgrades, "Thousands of existing registrations and applications were not retrofitted with those codes," she said.

The head of the Patent Office, in consultation with managers, will make the final decision about the records. Quinn said no timeline has been set.

Meanwhile, the Patent Office is also looking for someone to accept the copies of patent records used by the service's patent examiners. Those records have already been replaced by the electronic searches, and if the Patent Office doesn't find someone to take them, they will be disposed of.

The National Archives and Records Administration has declared that paper copies of the patents in the examiners' search rooms are "temporary records" that may be destroyed. Some of the records have already been destroyed, but in the interests of preservation, the Patent Office is looking for someone to take the records off of its hands.

To comply with government regulations, the records can only be given to a nonprofit organization, which must agree not to sell them except as wastepaper. To date, only one organization has expressed interest in obtaining the papers. Groups have until May 24 to contact the USPTO.