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Why the head of the U.S. Patent Office is interested in artificial intelligence, false trademarks and the Western Slope

The Denver branch of the federal Patent and Trademark Office now has 209 employees, compared to 29 in the entire state five years ago

Molly Kocialski, director of the Rocky Mountain Regional United States Patent and Trademark Office, and Andrei Iancu, the director of the USPTO, at a news conference celebrating the office's fifth anniversary on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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In the last five years, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has hired more lawyers in the Front Range region than ever before.

The Colorado hiring frenzy, of course, had everything to do with the agency opening a satellite office in Denver in 2014 as part of a move to expand outside of Washington, D.C.

Since then, the Rocky Mountain Regional Office has hired a new director, Molly Kocialski, and there’s new leadership for the federal agency. Andrei Iancu, a former Hughes Aircraft engineer who went on to become an intellectual property lawyer, was appointed by President Donald Trump and confirmed as the USPTO director in February 2018. 

Andrei Iancu, director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, stopped in Denver to speak to the Colorado Bar Association on August 29, 2019, a day before attending the agency’s celebration of the Rocky Mountain Regional Office’s fifth year in Denver. On the right is Molly Kocialski, who has served as director of the Denver-based office since January 2016. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

Iancu joined Kocialski and elected officials, including U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, and U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, in the Mile High City last week to celebrate the first five years of the regional office.

In an interview with The Colorado Sun, Iancu talked about the importance of having a local presence, the future of the agency and the impact of China on U.S. intellectual property. 

“There are significant issues to be addressed. One of them, probably the most important one, it’s the question of patentable subject matter,” said Iancu, who has visited Colorado three times since taking the job. “… That definition needs to be fixed in the United States as a whole from a policy and application point of view. … (It’s) cleaning up our trademark register and stopping the abuses that we see at the registration… And third, operationally. Stabilizing and modernizing our IT infrastructure is critically important. And we are very much dedicated to that issue, right now.”

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The agency is working on defining patents with better guidance, while other pieces are falling into place. By Memorial Day, the agency had overhauled the computer servers behind its two-decade-old system that helps staff examine patent applications.

(It’s “1,000 times faster, 20 times more efficient, and far more stable and less prone to failure,” according to a blog post Iancu coauthored in June). 

Andrei Iancu, director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, speaks at news conference celebrating the Rocky Mountain Regional United States Patent and Trademark Office’s fifth anniversary on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The agency has seen a flood of trademark applications from other countries, though primarily China, which had a 10-fold increase in applications from 5,161 in 2014 to 54,064 last year. More than a few filings used Photoshopped images to falsely claim proof of use. Some even requested for a chargeback from the credit card company, Iancu said.

“Unfortunately over the past number of years, we’ve seen a significant increase in false claims of use. And a good proportion of the false claims of use come from overseas,” Iancu said. “… So we really need to address that problem. And we’re taking a whole host of approaches to try to address it.”

These methods include creating a special task force and adding new guidelines to help examiners investigate digital images more closely. Iancu said they’re also starting to use artificial intelligence to spot fake and altered products.

The agency doubled the number of random post-registration audits and so far, more than 50% resulted in “some goods or services being deleted” because of the lack of proof of use, according to USPTO testimony at a U.S. House subcommittee.

It’s also now requiring non-U.S. companies to have a U.S.-based lawyer so someone is held accountable for false claims. 

“Presumably members of bars of American states would be more careful about submitting those types of applications to the PTO,” Iancu said. “And second, we have recourse. We know who to go after in case they do submit fraudulent applications. So we think that’s going to help. Will it solve the problem completely? Probably not. There are all sorts of ways that clever folks get around the system. But we have a whole host of other approaches as well, technology being key.” 

Molly Kocialski, director of the Rocky Mountain Regional United States Patent and Trademark Office, speaks during a news conference celebrating the office’s fifth anniversary on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

As part of his job at the patent office, Iancu also promotes the agency’s resources. He hopes to diversify patent applicants regionally and encourage inventors who aren’t familiar with the process.

“Instead of having innovation and entrepreneurship concentrated in just certain pockets, we really need, as a nation, all hands on deck,” he said. “And having a local presence really helps to stimulate that. Not just here physically in downtown Denver, but throughout the region. It allows for folks like Molly and her staff to travel through the region, meet with people (and) encourage people to participate and innovate.”

Kocialski, who became director of the Rocky Mountain office in January 2016, spends a good chunk of her year doing just that by traveling to visit her 9-state territory — Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.

Located in the Byron G. Rogers Federal Building in Denver, the local facility is open to the public for those who want to search for patents or schedule a one-on-one consultation with an examiner.

“It helps to demystify the process because it is a complex process, the IP patent trademarking application system,” said Iancu, who traveled to Colorado to ski long before he joined the patent office. “And having folks locally that can explain it is really helpful. Last time I came (to Denver), I was walking out and I saw an examiner in the lobby on a bench with a potential applicant and inventor, just simply talking, and helping them understand the various steps, you know, go to that website, push that button, do this, do that, and so on.”

The Rocky Mountain office has continued to add patent attorneys since Kocialski started, though space constraints means it’s nowhere near the once-projected 500 examiners.

Still, the Denver office now has 209 employees, compared to 29 in the entire state five years ago, Kocialski said.

That’s helped the entire agency shave a couple months off how long it takes to get a patent — to about 24.2 today from 26.6 months in 2016.

The office also holds seminars and workshops for prospective inventors, participates in science and technology educational programs for children and added Patent and Trademark Resource Centers in Durango and Grand Junction. 

“We wanted to make sure that the people who are innovating in those places, and especially the people that are going to be innovating now that the BLM (U.S. Bureau of Land Management) is moving to Grand Junction, have a resource, because that’s going to become the next innovation ecosphere for the state of Colorado,” Kocialski said.

Staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this story

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