The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office plans to speed up reviews of applications from would-be inventors of various "green" technologies. Announcing the new pilot program yesterday at a press conference, USPTO Director David Kappos said that the current 40-month wait for a final decision is "far too long" and that it "delays innovation." Commerce Secretary Gary Locke added that it's one reason the United States trails other countries in commercializing alternative energy solutions.
But can an accelerated review process really help the United States reduce its carbon emissions and make the country more energy efficient, as Locke argues? Or is it more likely to be what one Washington insider calls a "feel-good" exercise, unveiled on the first day of the international climate meeting in Copenhagen, to show that the Patent Office is doing its part to combat global warming?
A notice in today's Federal Register  describes how the PTO pilot will work. Anyone with a pending application has 1 year to submit a letter explaining how the invention qualifies under one of four "green" criteria. As many as 3000 applications will be chosen from an estimated 25,000 in the pipeline that patent officials say meet those criteria. The expedited review will shave 12 months off the normal timeline, says a PTO spokesperson, adding that the extra layer of bureaucracy needed to select the pilot applications is not expected to slow the expedited review. Kappos says that 3000 represents a "manageable" number that can be handled "without impacting" the normal flow of business. PTO now has roughly 800,000 pending applications.
Green tech patent-holder Michael Sykes was invited to the press conference to share the story of his company, Enertia Building Systems. Enertia designs and builds homes using wood frames, made from specially treated southern yellow pine, that act as passive heating and cooling systems and eliminate the need for insulation. The Raleigh, North Carolina–based company has built 100 homes in 25 states over the past 2 decades, says Sykes, an independent inventor who came up with the idea after noticing that a pile of logs on a work site were radiating heat at the end of the day.
Sykes says that the biggest obstacle to scaling up his business is local building codes, which require contractors to declare how much insulation they plan to use. "We often have to go all the way to the [state]" to win approval, he says. The timeliness of his patents hasn't been an impediment, he admits. In fact, he says, the current downturn may even be a disincentive for green building technologies like his. "You probably wouldn't want to waste the first year of your patent in such a slow housing market," he admits.
Stephen Merrill, director of the science, technology, and economic policy program at the U.S. National Academies, says that the value of an expedited patent review "depends on what it's used for." In comparison to other sectors, he said, "speed is probably more important for green technologies than for biotech, and less important than for IT (information technology). But is there a priori evidence that a fast track by itself would be a boon for green technologies? Not that I'm aware of."