There’s an arms race between government patent offices and patent filers assisted by private law firms. The folks who work for the former get paid a lot less than the those who work for the latter. This leads to a continual drain away from government review of patent applications toward private generation of patent applications. A San Jose Mercury News blog entry explains more of the problem, which will affect all areas of technology but especially new, complex, multidisciplinary ones such as nanotechnology:

Dilbert is alive and well and managing the Patent office

The government can’t hire new examiners fast enough to keep up with the old examiners who are throwing in the towel. That’s the cherry on top of a report from the Government Accountability Office published Thursday that says, “Increases in the volume and complexity of patent applications have lengthened the amount of time it takes the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to process them”…

The GAO found that from 2002 through 2006, one patent examiner left for nearly every two the agency hired. “This represents a significant loss to the agency because 70 percent of those who left had been at the agency for less than 5 years and new patent examiners are primarily responsible for the actions that remove applications from the backlog.”

While the new peer review process being tested now should help, it seems to me that this arms race may be unwinnable in the long term, just due to increasing complexity of technologies and patent applications, including in nanotech. Regardless of whether you view patents as beneficial or harmful, delays and uncertainty may be the worst of all worlds, economically speaking. —Christine