To speed up the patent examination process, the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has been experimenting with various initiatives.
One of these is the “Access to Prior Art Project.”
As the European Patent Office explains,
Prior art is any evidence that your invention is already known.
Prior art does not need to exist physically or be commercially available. It is enough that someone, somewhere, sometime previously has described or shown or made something that contains a use of technology that is very similar to your invention.
A prehistoric cave painting can be prior art. A piece of technology that is centuries old can be prior art. A previously described idea that cannot possibly work can be prior art. Anything can be prior art.
Prior art is relevant because novelty is a requirement in order for a patent claim to be patentable.
Thus, in order to determine patentability of a claimed invention, patent lawyers (and eventually patent examiners) have to do prior art searches.
This can be done using keyword searches of patent databases (including both granted patents and patent applications), publications, scientific papers, and the Internet in general.
Patent searching is a labor-intensive and inherently unreliable process. Just because prior art doesn’t turn up in a search, that doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t exist.
In March, the Commissioner for Patents, Andrew Hirshfeld, announced that the USPTO is making progress with the Project and that the USPTO hopes to be able allow more thorough examinations of prior art in less time.
There are currently about 500,000 unexamined applications in the USPTO’s backlog.
To get up-to-date information on the USPTO patent backlog is, visit this site.
To receive poetic updates on IP law, sign up for our monthly collection of patent haikus and news here: