There are 3,800 patent examiners and the number of applications is increasing yearly: about 355,000 last year, compared with 278,000 five years ago. Even during the dot-com bust, the number of patent applications increased. The USPTO, under Bourgeois' direction, has deployed a storage area network [SAN] to support a massive online transaction database. The SAN lets the office provision storage capacity as needed to support increased online application processing and patent research. The Patent Office has also upgraded security policies and technology to meet federally mandated standards and has implemented an enterprise architecture to define how technology is developed and implemented.
There has been a lot of criticism of the USPTO for issuing patents on technology that is obvious. For example, Mark Lemley wrote the "rational ignorance" paper presuming that there were a number of patents that were wrongly issued, but that this did not matter, because few patents are ever licensed or litigated. A paper in the May 2003 issue of the Harvard Law Review talked about stopping the madness at the USPTO, and (wrongly) suggested that the USPTO was granting 97% of all applications submitted. There is currently much discussion of the Eolas/Berkeley browser patent which is undergoing reexamination. Yet, USPTO notes that it receives fewer than 400 re-examination requests annually despite issuing 3,500 patents weekly. Is legal academic research on the USPTO that accurate?
There also has been discussion of the "patent gap," a term used to indicate that the number of patent applications filed is growing faster than the number of patents issued. The current wait is sometimes estimated to be 27 months, although the wait does depend on technology area. If one is expressing the patent gap issue on a yearly basis, the delay is greater than a year, and patent applications are monotonically increasing, there will always be a patent gap.
From August 17, 2004:
Congressman Jim Moran will join Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property Jon Dudas in recognizing the outstanding efforts of the USPTO employees who have brought the agency’s electronic patent application processing system, called the Image File Wrapper (IFW) and Public PAIR (patent application and information retrieval) to fruition. The IFW/Public PAIR systems, major milestones in the USPTO’s e-government initiatives, replace paper files. IFW is now used by patent examiners to review applications, and is the official application file. Public PAIR enables anyone anywhere in the world, with the click of a mouse, to track the progress of a public patent application as it moves from publication to final disposition, and review documents in the official application file, including all decisions made by patent examiners and their reasons for making them.