I've heard design described as "art within constraints," and among the most important constraints that designers must be aware of are patents. Patents can not only inform designers of intellectual property that is off limits, but also, what is possible.
The United States Patent and Trade Office itself is also constrained — particularly by the sheer volume of applications that it needs to review relative to its available resources. Although the office has recently taken some small steps towards reform, currently there are over 700,000 patent applications awaiting review and they'll wait an average of over two years for an initial response from a patent reviewer. In situations where patience is required, people appreciate clear communication about what is going on. A few months ago the USPTO launched the Patents Dashboard which provides a variety of data widgets reporting patent office performance including time, volume and staffing metrics. The dashboard uses a speedometer format to visualize data on different scales, and I found the choice of minimum and maximum ranges for the various gauges interesting. For example, the dial indicating the number of Patent Examiners is nearly redlined far to the right, suggesting that the examiner resources are maxed out and going further would be a significant strain. Compared that with the Backlog of patents portrayed directly above, where the needle is close to the middle of the range, implying there's reasonable room for fluctuation in either direction. In addition, the dashboard provides data on performance changes over time with the use of secondary trend lines and bar graphs. While patent applicants may not like the current data, at least they are able to clearly see it and set their expectations accordingly.
The USPTO also continues its partnership with the web-based Peer to Patent program towards improving the patent review process. The idea behind Peer to Patent is to harness the knowledge of experts to contribute to and improve the quality of the patent review process. Essentially anyone can sign-up to participate in the review of submitted patent applications by providing input and suggestions for relevant prior art (e.g. existing papers, presentations, products). By crowd-sourcing the research phase of the the patent review process, Peer to Patent does not substitute for the patent reviewer's role, but provides a potentially critical supplementary information source, particularly for non-patent literature that may not be as readily accessible to the reviewer. Patent applicants may also submit their applications to the pilot program with the added benefit of an earlier review compared with the standard application process. The pilot is primarily focused on patent applications related to software and technology — for example the most active review is on calculating web page performance. Like Google Patents, Peer to Patent is a collaborative effort by the USPTO aimed at opening-up and including the public in the vast and sometimes overwhelming world of patents. Ideally these efforts will improve the accessibility and quality of patent information for both the USPTO and the audiences it serves. [Top image: The cockpit of a P-38 by Kevin King]