Notes on the New Detroit Patent Office

This article was originally published in the May 7, 2012, issue of the Michigan Lawyers Weekly.  Here is a link to my previous comment on the Detroit Patent Office.

In July, the United States Patent and Trademark Office will open a branch office in downtown Detroit.  You may have heard a year or so ago that a Patent Office branch was coming to Michigan, and then was canceled.  Not this time: Congress explicitly wrote into the America Invents Act, which became law last September, that the USPTO would open three new branch offices in the next three years.  Not only was Detroit the only city specified as a host for one of these new branches, but the Detroit Patent Office will be the first branch to open.

This is a big deal.  It is a big deal for southeastern Michigan, which is being recognized as a center of technology and innovation, a focal point for a talented pool of engineers who generate patent applications, and a wellspring of technologists who are well-qualified to serve as patent examiners.  The new Detroit Patent Office is also a big deal for the USPTO, which has never before operated an office outside of the Washington Beltway, and which is doing so now at least in part to help address a large backlog of patent applications awaiting examination, and a high volume of turnover in the patent examining corps.

Within a year or so of opening the new office, the USPTO hopes to have approximately 100 patent examiners hired, trained, and examining patent applications in its new offices along the Detroit River.  These individuals will be engineers with three or more years of experience, and, importantly, will have some practical experience working with intellectual property matters (as many engineers do).  Initially at least, the USPTO's focus is on hiring mechanical and electrical engineers, although I am told that Michigan's strength in other technology areas, such as life sciences and chemical technologies, has not gone unnoticed.

Further, although not in the original plans, the USPTO now plans to hire a number of administrative law judges to work in Detroit handling patent appeals, having experienced a very positive response to its plans to open a branch in Detroit, and recognizing the vast talent pool here.  Indeed, having posted a vacancy announcement and begun the hiring process, some are hoping that the USPTO has seen such a good pool of experienced patent attorneys that it may even further expand its plans for administrative patent judges working in Detroit.

It is fitting that the USPTO is responsible for helping protect technological innovations, because modern technology will greatly contribute to the effectiveness of the Detroit Patent Office.  The USPTO already has a robust telework program for experienced patent examiners, and thus has tools at its disposal to effectively integrate the new Detroit patent examiners into the examining corps.  And in fact, Detroit's examiners will work closely with supervisory examiners at the USPTO's headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, and will have all the advantages of the extensive training for patent examiners offered by the USPTO in Virginia.

It is true that a patent application filed by a Michigan inventor may not be likely to be examined in Detroit; initial plans, at least, do not call for Michigan patent applications to be funneled to the Detroit Patent Office.  Nonetheless, the Detroit Patent Office will bring perquisites for Michigan companies and inventors, not to mention the large community of patent professionals in southeastern Michigan.  Even after the USPTO's other two new locations are selected, very few cities will have the resources of the United States Patent and Trademark Office sitting in their backyards.

I have already alluded to the symbolic significance of the Detroit Patent Office, which is no small thing in light of recent national perceptions of our area.  But other benefits of the Detroit Patent Office are not small.  The Detroit Patent Office will offer a number of resources that will give the Michigan patent bar a leg up on practitioners in other areas of the country.

Patent application prosecutions (the process of shepherding a patent application through the USPTO) are unlike many other judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings in that ex parte contact with patent examiners is not only allowed, but is encouraged.  And I think most patent attorneys would agree that discussions with the patent examiner (referred to as “interviews”) can often be very helpful.  The Detroit Patent Office will take advantage of improved technology to offer sophisticated videoconferencing for personal interviews, whereas patent attorneys remote from the USPTO's Virginia headquarters otherwise must travel to Virginia or talk to the patent examiner by telephone.  And of course, if your patent examiner is in Detroit, you will need only hop over to Detroit Patent Office to speak with him or her.

Also, the USPTO provides sophisticated computer databases and patent search tools for its examiners.  These tools, made available to the general public on only a limited basis, will be provided at the Detroit Patent Office.

Furthermore, the USPTO is introducing to the Detroit Patent Office a new class of supervisory patent examiners who, in addition to working with examiners reviewing patent applications, will be tasked with working with the patent bar.  The USPTO may also offer small-business assistance, on-site inventor training on intellectual property subjects, and other educational initiatives which heretofore have been offered only at its Virginia headquarters or online.

We all know that technology has made remote working relationships easier and more effective in recent years.  As a patent attorney, I have for years worked remotely with the USPTO and its examiners, as have the tens of thousands of my colleagues who live and work far from the DC beltway.  Nonetheless, we all also know that there is no substitute for physical proximity and the opportunity for face-to-face discussion.  The patent and technology community will now have that in Detroit.

All in all, the new Detroit Patent Office can only bring good opportunities for Michigan, for the metropolitan area, and for local companies and inventors and the patent bar representing them.