When a utility patent is issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office the identifying number has 7 digits, which has been the case since U.S. Patent No. 1,000,000 was issued on August 8, 1911.
At some point in time in the not too distant future the USPTO will grant U.S. Patent No. 10,000,000. That’s a nice round number, but we just crossed the nine million threshold with the issuance of U.S. Patent No. 9,000,000 on April 7, 2015. Over the next several weeks the USPTO will award U.S. Patent 9,200,000, which will occur just less than 8 months after U.S. Patent No. 9,000,000 was awarded. At this pace the ten million threshold will come sometime in June 2018.
Why even think about U.S. Patent No. 10,000,000 at this time? The simple answer is because it will add one more digit – an eighth digit – to utility patent numbers. Since the dawn of the computer age, computer systems have handled only 7 digit patent numbers. Without deliberate consideration and action moving to an eighth digit may not be as smooth a transition as you may want to believe.
Some readers will undoubtedly remember the last few years of the 20th century when a massive effort was undertaken to upgrade very old software code, written in Cobol if you can believe it, so that software systems would properly function when we changed over from ’99 to ’00. The forty years of computing using 2 digit years came to an end. There was no catastrophe, so the temptation may be to say “so what”? But those who lived through these efforts know it took a Herculean effort to avert what could have been a real disaster.
A similar issue to the millennial software crisis exists now for the U.S. patent system. We need to extend the 7 digit US patent number to 8 digits, and there is not a lot of time to do it in a way that will minimize impact and maximize the likelihood of a smooth transition. After all, despite what the Supreme Court may think to the contrary, software does not write itself and you actually can’t write reliable, useful, bug-free code over a weekend – no matter how much coffee you drink.
Obviously, adding an eighth digit to U.S. utility patent numbers is far narrower than the Y2K challenge. At the same time, a large number of USPTO systems could face challenges related to dealing with an extra digit in the patent number. Many, if not all, commercial product providers in the patent marketplace could also have similar challenges. These challenges should be manageable given the time currently available to address them. There is no need for alarm. At the same time, however, ignoring the issue and failing to take remedial steps in advance to ensure a smooth transition would be foolish.
In order to keep the 8th digit issue from becoming a bigger challenge than it needs to be some action does need to be taken soon. Many changes required will only affect the way patent numbers are displayed or printed. They might truncate the first or last digit in some cases or visually corrupt surrounding data in forms. In other cases search results might be affected or listed in unexpected ways. Some software might even distinguish between US application numbers (currently 8 digits) and patent numbers (currently 7 digits) based on length.
A potential larger concern exists for the USPTO. The USPTO computer system is widely known to be extremely fragile. For example, under the Kappos Administration Google accepted a no-fee contract to scrape data saved only in image files from the USPTO servers, converting the data to usable and readable text files. So fragile was the USPTO system that Google could only scrape data for several hours in the middle of the night due to concerns that additional traffic would cripple the system. Even further, each night Google would encounter numerous errors.
It is difficult to believe, but the USPTO computer systems for a variety of reasons have a long history of being woefully inadequate. Over recent years the monumental task of updating and enhancing the computer systems has been undertaken. The office has made exceptional strides in stabilizing their technology infrastructure, but is the USPTO ready for U.S. Patent No. 10,000,000? Even given the positive steps forward by the IT department at the USPTO, some systems may prove difficult to update without applying considerable time or resources.
Determining the scope of this issue requires attention in the very near future. That determination should reveal the number of systems needing remediation and facilitate planning for how to properly resource the changes required. Commercial IP service or content providers may have the same challenges facing them and they too should begin an analysis.
The USPTO – as this nation’s innovation agency – should get in front of this issue and not be caught off guard by what the future will inevitably bring.