Silicon Valley gets a patent office — but who will work there?

The US Patent Office announced it’s moving operations closer to America’s innovation centers by opening new satellite offices in Dallas, Denver and San Jose, California early next year. Here’s an overview of what this means and why the new offices may face a severe staffing shortage:
So what’s so great about these new patent offices?
The new locations mean companies will no longer have to travel to Washington for proceedings like re-examinations. It also means the patent office may be able to hire more examiners to plow through the hundreds of thousands of applications that have created a multiyear backlog.
The new centers are also intended to let patent examiners gain expertise in the regions and industry they serve. In Silicon Valley, this means examiners will be computer experts and in Denver it means they will be aerospace experts, according to Bloomberg. In Detroit, site of the first satellite office to be announced, examiners will be experts in auto technology.
Will this improve the quality of patents that are issued?
A rash of low quality patents issued by the US Patent Office is partly to blame for patent trolls and the ruinous lawsuits engulfing the technology sector. Better trained examiners could help staunch the problem.
“It will improve the quality level of patents in certain areas, especially software, semi-conductors and telephony,” according to Fabio Marino, a partner at the Silicon Valley office of McDermott Will & Emery. Marino adds that he expects high tech companies will work with the satellite office to familiarize examiners with the latest technologies to ensure patents they grant really are novel and non-obvious.
Sounds like a great idea. But who are these patent examiners?
Here’s the catch. The Patent Office has said there is a “critical need for electrical engineers” and, in general, has struggled to hire and retain people with expertise in the technology for which they are awarding patents. The problem can largely be summed up by the following chart which lists starting salaries just above $40,000 a year:

If the Patent Office already has a problem keeping electrical engineers in its Washington office, one can only imagine how its HR department will fare competing with the likes of Google (s goog), Apple (s aapl) and Facebook (s fb) right next door.
On the other hand, the Patent Office has been adapting by creating a popular telework program and talking up the chance to “do something great for your country and for yourself.” Silicon Valley is full of millionaire engineers disgusted with the current patent system — perhaps some of them will jump at the chance for better work hours and a chance to reform the patent system.
Will an office in Silicon Valley actually fix the patent mess?
Not anytime soon. The 2011 law that created the new satellite offices introduced a series of reforms, including some that make it easier to challenge bad patents. These reforms, however, apply only to patents issued this year or later. That means that many of the inane patents (like this one for emoticons) fueling the current lawsuits will be washing through the court system for years to come.
There is also the question of funding for the Patent Office. While last year’s America Invents Act will allow the Patent Office to keep more of the fees it collects, it’s unclear if this will be enough for it to provide the technology and examiner training needed to do its job. More generally, courts and lawmakers are still struggling with whether certain subject matter — like software or medical techniques — should even be patentable in the first place.
So what’s the bottom line?
The new satellite Silicon Valley patent office, which will likely be housed in San Jose City Hall, may improve the patent system through better trained examiners — but the examiners (provided they can be found in the first place) are only one piece of a larger problem.
Marino, the patent attorney, also suggests the new patent office could produce a more indirect benefit — it could produce a cultural shift in the Patent Office as examiners and technology companies spend more time shoulder to shoulder and come to better understand each other.
(Image by R. Gino Santa Maria via Shutterstock)