Patent Office examiners, whose job is to decide when to award a patent, regularly billed for hours they did not work and also rushed their reviews in order to make quarterly performance targets.
Those are some of the conclusions set out in a damning internal report shared with the Washington Post. The findings come as another black eye for an agency already under fire for allowing too many low-quality patents.
Many of the report’s criticisms turn on the Patent Office’s award-winning work-from-home program, which was designed to make it easier for the office to recruit and keep examiners. As the Post reports, employees often padded their hours:
Some of the 8,300 patent examiners, about half of whom work from home full time, repeatedly lied about the hours they were putting in, and many were receiving bonuses for work they didn’t do […] [The report] cited several detailed cases of time and attendance abuse. In one, an examiner missed 304 hours of work in a year but was paid for the time. Despite warnings, this examiner kept cheating and was caught twice but not fired. Another examiner claimed to have worked 266 hours for which there was no evidence she was on the job, and she received $12,533 in pay.
One version of the report also flags a culture of “end-loading” in which examiners “can go from unacceptable performance to award levels in one bi-week by doing 500% to more than 1000% of their production goal.”
From a policy perspective, this report of “end-loading” is especially serious because the practice is likely responsible for the issuance of sub-par patents that can then be exploited by patent trolls and others.
The Patent Office is struggling with a long-term challenge of how to attract examiners, who typically have specialized technical or scientific knowledge, and who can often command a higher salary in the private sector. Currently, the Patent Office employs around 8,000 examiners around the country.
As the Post reports, the version of the report that was sent to an inspector general at the Commerce Department was watered down, and didn’t contain many of the more serious allegations. (The Post article describes both versions of the report).