Patent Examiners Mostly Accurate in Time

The Office of Inspector General, following up on a report from last year about a patent examiner who had received $25,000 by falsely claiming worked hours, has just released a report on two concurrent studies of about 80% of the 10,000 examiners at the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The study found that while most examiners accurately report their hours and time worked, there is still a large amount of waste in salary, overtime, and bonuses paid out.

The OIG conducted a 9-month study as well as an overlapping 15-month study in looking at time spent. It compared timestamp data from several independent sources within the Patent Office with hours reported by the examiners themselves. The OIG notes that its study was “conservative,” excluded significant amounts of unsupported hours, and thus likely underestimates the number of hours falsely reported, perhaps by as much as half.

The short and long studies were generally consistent in their findings. Approximately 180,000 examiner-hours each year are unsupported by any electronic records, timestamp, or method of verification. It appears therefore, that those hours were wasted, in that compensation was paid for them without any work being performed in return. In the 9-month period, $8.8 million dollars was potentially paid out on unsupported hours; in the 15-month period, $18.3 million was paid out.

Much of the waste comes from a few of the examiners. About 3.5-5% of the examiners accounted for 39-43% of the waste; at least 10% of their hours were unsupported. Of those, many had above-average performance ratings, and about 10% essentially took 3 days off every 80 work hours. One-quarter of the wasted compensation was for overtime work. Further, had the compensation been paid out for actual work, the OIG found that the backlog would have been reduced by 7,500 applications in 9 months and by 16,000 applications in 15 months. This is quite troubling when one considers that most applicants wait 1-2 years for an application to receive examination.

The OIG concluded that there were several reasons for the waste. First, some examiners have realized that they can game the system by falsely reporting time. Second, some examiners are very efficient and get their work done faster than the time allotted yet still report the full time. Other examiners complete more work in the allotted time but then claim overtime. The time allowances and production goals have not been updated since 1976. The OIG recommends enhancing the time-tracking systems and updating production goals within the art units.