2002 October 15 Tuesday
The Tarzan Swing Invention and other USPTO mistakes

When I first saw mention that the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) of a patent granted for swinging on a swing sideways I figured the people writing about it must be exaggerating and that the USPTO couldn't be that bad. Well, it really is that bad:

The standard method of swinging on a swing is defined by oscillatory motion of the swing and the user along an axis that is substantially perpendicular to the axis of the tree branch from which the swing is suspended. This "forward and back" movement has been known for generations, and is illustrated in FIG. 1. In contrast to the conventional method of swinging, the present inventor has discovered that much greater satisfaction can be obtained by alternately pulling on one chain to move the swing and the user toward that side, and then pulling on the other chain to move the swing and the user toward that side. This side-to-side oscillatory motion of the swing and the user is thus along an axis that is substantially parallel to the axis of the tree branch from which the swing is suspended, and is illustrated in FIG. 2. This side to side swinging method has the added benefit that it can be continued for long periods of time simply by alternately pulling on one chain and then the other. The importance of sufficient clearance between the swing and any obstructions or threats to the user's safety is apparent.

On the bright side, USPTO chief James Rogan says the USPTO has drastically cut back on the acceptance rate of business process patent applications:

"We were granting 65 or 70 percent of these things," patent office chief James Rogan said at an event at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "Now the rejection rate is around 65 or 70 percent."

Rogan, who took the job last December, said he's trying to revamp a massive bureaucracy of about 3,400 examiners who review 350,000 to 375,000 patent applications each year and have a backlog of about 430,000 patents. "We want to move away from the status quo," he said. "It is hurting technology. It is hurting our economy."

The number of patents and examiners works out to over 100 patents per examiner per year. That works out to about one patent every two days (not sure how many real work days an examiner works after subtracting sick days, vacation days, training days, administrative meetings, and other factors). Some patents properly require days, weeks, or even months of research on prior art and also can require extensive research on the processes involved to be able to judge their obviousness and uniqueness. One can hardly expect such a system to work well.

You may be relieved to learn that IBM has relinquished rights to a patent for making reservations for airplane restrooms:

The present invention is an apparatus, system, and method for providing reservations for restroom use. In one embodiment, a passenger on an airplane may submit a reservation request to the system for restroom use. The reservation system determines when the request can be accommodated and notifies the passenger when a restroom becomes available. The system improves airline safety by minimizing the time passengers spent standing while an airplane is in flight.

This next article, after reporting that IBM has relinquished its restroom reservation patent, describes an improvement made in the USPTO patent examination process:

The office now generally publishes patent applications 18 months after they are filed. By publishing applications before they are granted patents, the office has opened up the process, allowing people to submit documentation that challenges claims made by a patent applicant.

I think opening up pending applications to outside review is an absolutely necessary and wise step. There is just no way the small USPTO staff has time to spend enough time examining each patent. With a more open process the engineers and scientists employed by competitors, academic researchers, and interested members of the public can look at patent applications and provide valuable feedback.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2002 October 15 11:04 PM 


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