January 04, 2008

Starting this month, the USPTO has implemented a new technology on its website in an attempt to curb "disruptive use" of at least one of its online databases. If you are a heavy user of USPTO database resources like I am, you likely also experienced a number of instances in the past couple of months where Public PAIR was either extremely slow or completely inaccessible. Public PAIR (available at the link below) is the USPTO’s free patent application information retrieval system where users can access available documents pertaining to pending patent applications, issued patents, and abandoned patent applications. Common uses of Public PAIR include searches to identify status information for pending patent applications, access to documents within an application’s file history, and the identification of one or more additional patent applications within the same "family" of a particular patent application. The USPTO has identified common uses as including the ability to "[v]iew bibliographic data, status, file history, PDF file images ("IFW"), continuity, foreign priority, patent term adjustments & extensions, text & TIFF images of published applications & patents, maintenance fees, and online ordering of copies."

In the last couple of months, it appears that the use of automated programs (to obtain and perhaps download Public PAIR information and documentation) had significantly decreased overall public access to the same information. The USPTO introduced a "PAIR Usage Policy" stating that "To maintain general availability of USPTO information and services provided on the Internet, any activities or operations that cause a denial or diminution (decrease) of services to other customers, whether generated automatically or manually, may result in the Office’s denying access to the Office Internet resources to the offender." In response to this automated access, the USPTO implemented technology from Carnegie Mellon University called reCAPTCHA, which, according to the reCAPTCHA website (link below), "helps prevent automated abuse of your site (such as comment spam or bogus registrations) by using a CAPTCHA to ensure that only humans perform certain actions."

CAPTCHAs (short for "Completely Automated Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart") have been in use for a number of years now where the ability to use computers to access databases, online retail websites, and other resources has either hindered general public use of those same resources or has caused an unfair advantage by allowing automated access to those resources faster and more frequently than the public may have. If you have ever tried to purchase concert tickets online that are made available at a pre-announced time, and despite your best and quickest efforts you can only obtain last-row tickets, you understand what impact this type of technology can have.

The current use of reCAPTCHA allows Public PAIR users to choose which method of verification code entry to use at any particular time. The default method is the use of a stylized and somewhat difficult to read font to create two words that the user would need to type in before obtaining access to Public PAIR. The second method is the use of an audio challenge, whereby a series of numbers is read to the user with enough "feedback" and other background noise to make it somewhat difficult to hear the numbers being read to the user. As is the case with other websites utilizing this or a similar technology, if the user incorrectly enters the challenge information, a new challenge is provided to the user. So far, the only difficulty I have experienced with the reCAPTCHA verification system is that after successfully entering challenge information (both types of challenges), I was provided with a subsequent challenge when I should have instead been granted access to Public PAIR. This was only a periodic phenomenon and may have been browser-specific. However, once I was granted access, I had very quick access to the information I was looking for. Hopefully the implementation of this technology will allow patent practitioners and other members of the public to have quick and uninterrupted access to this useful database.

Public PAIR: LINK
USPTO’s Patent Electronic Business Center Webpage: LINK
reCAPTCHA Website: LINK

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Mark Reichel
Reichel IP LLC

I am a patent attorney with Reichel IP LLC, where I concentrate my practice on patent drafting and prosecution, trademarks, and general intellectual property matters. I currently focus on the preparation and prosecution of medical device and other life sciences patent applications, and being actively involved in a number of local not-for-profit organizations.

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