The Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) is responsible for administering all laws relating to trademarks and patents in the United States. It has thus been an important agency for several generations of entrepreneurs and small business owners, as well as for larger corporations and universities. The PTO describes itself thusly: "Through the issuance of patents, we encourage technological advancement by providing incentives to invent, invest in, and disclose new technology worldwide. Through the registration of trademarks, we assist businesses in protecting their investments, promoting goods and services and safeguarding consumers against confusion and deception in the marketplace. By disseminating both patent and trademark information, we promote an understanding of intellectual property protection and facilitate the developments and sharing of new technologies world wide."
In addition to handling the nation's patents and trademarks, the PTO also has a notable advisory function. It serves as both a developer of intellectual property policy and an advisor to the White House on patent/trademark/copyright policies. In addition, the PTO provides information and guidance on intellectual property issues to international commerce offices such as the International Trade Commission and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. In 1999 the PTO was established as an agency within the Department of Commerce.
By nearly all accounts, the PTO has historically done a laudable job of protecting the intellectual property rights of businesses and individuals while simultaneously encouraging the growth of business. "Since its inception, the patent system has encouraged the genius of millions of inventors," wrote Inventor's Desktop Companion author Richard C. Levy. "It has protected these creative individuals by allowing them an opportunity to profit from their labors, and has benefited society by systematically recording new inventions and releasing them to the public once the inventors' limited rights have expired…. Under the patent system, American industry has flourished. New products have been invented, new uses for old ones discovered, and employment given to millions."
LEGAL UNDERPINNINGS OF THE PTO
The fundamental principles of the modern American patent system were first codified into law in 1790. Guided by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson in its early years, the patent office grew quickly, and in 1849 the Department of the Interior was given responsibility for maintaining it. In 1870 the powers of the patent office were expanded dramatically; the commissioner of patents was given jurisdiction to register and regulate trademarks. The office thus came to be responsible for all American trademarks, even though the word "trademark" would not appear in its name for another 105 years (the Patent Office became the Patent and Trademark Office on January 2, 1975). In 1926 responsibility for the Patent Office was handed over to the Department of Commerce, where it remains today.
The PTO currently touts the following laws as the primary statutory authorities guiding its programs:
* 15 U.S.C. 1051-1127—Contains provisions of the Trademark Act of 1946, a law that governs the office's trademark administration
* 15 U.S.C. 1511—Establishes the PTO as a subordinate agency of the Department of Commerce
* 35 U.S.C.—Provides the PTO with its basic authority to administrate patent laws
* 44 U.S.C. 1337-1338—Gives the PTO authority to print trademarks, patents, and other material relevant to the business of the Office
In 1991 the PTO underwent a significant change in operation. The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (OBRA) of 1990 included provisions to make the Office a self-supporting government agency that would not receive federal funding. In order to provide the PTO with needed operating funds, Congress raised the PTO's patent application fees to cover operating costs and maintain services for inventors. The PTO has been funded solely by fees since 1993. In 1999 it was formally established as an agency within the Department of Commerce.
As part of its efforts to process its patent applications in a timely manner, the Patent and Trademark Office established and opened an electronic patent application filing system open to all inventors in October 2000. The PTO's web site (www.uspto.gov) now allows inventors to assemble all components of a patent application online, including calculate fees, validate content, and encrypt and transmit the filing. At the same time, the PTO raised its patent fees to match current rates of inflation. This increase, the first since 1997, was needed to pay for the electronic system and other expenses associated with processing the huge volume of patent and trademark applications that pass through the PTO's doors every year (the Office experienced an annual 10 percent growth in patent applications during the 1990s, and in 1999 alone, the PTO issued more than 160,000 patents and registered more than 100,000 trademarks).