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  • The surprisingly engrossing history of patent examiners

    Slate - 05/07/2014

    I once silenced a seatmate on a transatlantic flight who threatened to be overly chatty by (truthfully) telling him that I was traveling to London to speak about the history of the patent examiner. Horrified I might tell him about it, he quickly returned to his own, apparently more interesting reading.

    One glance at the Manual of Patent Examining Procedure, a government publication more than 3,000 pages long, would seem to justify his suspicion that patent examination is dry as dust. The manual, familiarly known as the MPEP, provides instructions to the employees who review patent applications as well as guidance to inventors seeking patents. The MPEP is dull reading. Its dullness, however, hides the nearly magical task of the patent examiner. It also papers over decades of lively controversy about how patent examination should occur, if at all.

    Application review in patent-speak is “examination,” and those who conduct it are “examiners.” Examination is the chief task of the patent division of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which currently employs about 8,000 patent examiners.