A USPTO Ombudsman Pilot Program, Now That’s Using ADR in IP! Or is it?

On April 6th of 2010, the Patent and Trademark Office announced its new Ombudsman Pilot Program for patent examinations. David Kappos, the USPTO’s Director, states in his blog entry of May 12, 2010 that the program was established to assist in meeting the Agency’s priority to improve relations with its stakeholders.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Admittedly, it is refreshing to see that the PTO is responsive to complaints from patent attorneys. Patent practitioners and applicants alike have often been frustrated with the process. Director Kappos gives examples such as when the examination process has stalled, or where applicants are unsure of the appropriate person to contact for assistance. Or where attorneys need assistance getting connected with the right person to help them resolve a particular issue. In other words, he says, the program is intended as a “pressure relief valve.”

This is all very laudable, but is this really the job for an ombudsman, Mr. Kappos? I always thought an ombudsman was there to resolve disputes you might have with an agency, not just a sophisticated receptionist who can connect you with the right person.

Maybe this person ought to be called a Facilitator rather than an Ombudsman. Yes, I hear you wonder: “Isn’t an ombudsman a facilitator?” Yes, all mediators and ombudsmen are facilitators, but not all facilitators are mediators or ombudsmen. The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ombudsman as “a government official (as in Sweden or New Zealand) appointed to receive and investigate complaints made by individuals against abuses or capricious acts of public officials.” That is not, at least not at the moment, what the USPTO’s ombudsman is supposed to do.

The USPTO’s webpage dedicated to the Pilot Program describes its purpose as: “enhanc[ing] the USPTO’s ability to assist applicants and/or their representatives with issues that arise during patent application prosecution. More specifically, when there is a breakdown in the normal prosecution process, the Ombudsman Pilot Program can assist in getting the process back on track.”

The “official” purpose sounds more meaningful, and even somewhat at odds with what Director Kappos describes. I can see that such an Ombudsman could be useful if the normal prosecution process has stalled or even broken down completely, and nobody seems to know why. But when you read on, the details are pretty much the same as what Director Kappos describes. So, back to “Facilitator”?

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by Eric van Ginkel

Eric van Ginkel is an international arbitrator and mediator, and an Adjunct Professor of Law in Dispute Resolution at the Straus Institute of Pepperdine University Law School. In addition to intellectual property matters, he handles a large variety of matters, including complex business and commercial real estate disputes. Eric was the co-editor of the IBA Mediation Newsletter until December of 2010. He serves as arbitrator and/or mediator for several US and international dispute resolution institutions.