How should USPTO interact with its Patentcenter beta testers?

The USPTO is developing its Patentcenter system which it intends will eventually replace EFS-Web and PAIR.  Eventually USPTO plans to shut down EFS-Web and PAIR and the only way that customers of the USPTO will be able to accomplish the functions formerly carried out through EFS-Web and PAIR will be by means of Patentcenter.  From the outset, USPTO has said that one of its stated requirements for Patentcenter is that it must offer at least all of the functions of EFS-Web and PAIR.

Patentcenter is not yet released from beta test, and rightfully so, given that many features of EFS-Web and PAIR are not yet implemented in Patentcenter, and given that many things in Patentcenter do not work correctly or do not work at all.  (See Patentcenter Trouble Tickets and Patentcenter Feature Requests.)  During beta test, a natural question is, in what way or what ways should the people at the USPTO who are responsible for developing Patentcenter interact with those beta testers? 

The USPTO has made clear that it feels it should not have to respond in any direct way to any of the beta testers when they report bugs or missing features.  The USPTO has made clear that it feels there are exactly three ways, and only three ways, in which beta testers should communicate bug reports or missing-feature reports to the USPTO:

  • USPTO Ideascale
  • opening of trouble tickets at the USPTO Electronic Business Center
  • sending email to eMod@USPTO.GOV

That’s it.  Three one-way communications channels.

Reviewing the three mechanisms briefly —

  • Ideascale, although well intentioned, has not worked and does not work.  See my blog article USPTO’s Ideascale — where good ideas go to die.  The large body of Patentcenter problem reports that alpha testers of Patentcenter posted to Ideascale in 2018 and 2019 that had never gotten fixed somehow got deleted from public view by the USPTO a few months ago.  Why did USPTO delete that body of postings from public view?  One can only speculate what the reason might be.  To see my own Ideascale postings again, I actually had to file a FOIA request at the USPTO.  You can see my alpha tester Ideascale postings in that blog article.
  • Opening trouble tickets at the EBC has not worked and does not work.  Although a small portion of Patentcenter bugs reported to the EBC have gotten fixed, most have not.  I have filed a FOIA request asking for documents showing the disposition of the Patentcenter trouble reports that I reported to the EBC.  (See blog article.)  Not once have I ever heard back with any disposition of even one of the trouble reports about Patentcenter that I opened at the EBC from the start of alpha testing (autumn 2018) to the present.
  • Sending email to eMod@USPTO.GOV.  A small portion of bugs and feature requests reported by email to this email address have gotten fixed or implemented.  Most have not.  Most alpha and beta testers who report bugs and feature requests to that email address never hear anything substantive back in response to any of those emails.

The three mechanisms are one-way.  Some USPTO testers feel the phrase “black hole” is the most succinct way to characterize those three communications mechanisms.

Shortly after the USPTO released Patentcenter to beta testing by all users, a group of Patentcenter beta testers formed an email discussion group (a “listserv”) called the Patentcenter listserv.  Anyone who wishes may join the listserv.  The listserv maintains three lists:

These users have repeatedly asked the USPTO, through channels both formal and informal, for four things:

  • Asking that the Patentcenter developers pick one or two people from their developer team to subscribe to the Patentcenter listserv to follow the postings.  This might sometimes permit those people to pass things along from the listserv to appropriate colleagues on the Patentcenter developer team.
  • Asking that the Patentcenter developers formally adopt the trouble ticket page as a “to do” list for trouble ticket action by the developers.
  • Asking that the Patentcenter developers formally adopt the feature request page as place for the developers to receive feature requests for Patentcenter.
  • Asking that the Patentcenter developers report back to the listserv each time the developers clear a trouble ticket, referencing the trouble ticket number in the report.

As of the present time the USPTO has not done any of these four things, and instead, the USPTO has declined to receive beta tester communications by any means other than the original three mechanisms mentioned above.

If you were to look at the items listed on the trouble ticket page and on the feature request page, you would see that many of the items were reported to the USPTO as long as twenty months ago using those three original mechanisms.  The three original mechanisms just don’t work.   

I have tried to think of ways to help the USPTO understand why it should in fact pay attention to and communicate with the Patentcenter listserv rather than refusing to communicate with it.  This prompted me recently to survey the membership of the Patentcenter listserv.  At the time of the survey (which was by now a couple of weeks ago), the membership of the listserv was just over 160 Patentcenter beta testers.  From the survey I learned that during the past ten years, this group of patent office customers had, personally or through their firms or corporations, filed well over twenty thousand US patent applications and US national-phase entries.  I learned that during the past ten years, this group of patent office customers had, personally or through their firms or corporations, paid well over sixty million dollars in fees to the USPTO.  Maybe these could be reasons why the USPTO should pay attention to, and communicate with, the Patentcenter listserv rather than refusing to communicate with it.

But I think patent practitioner Neil Ormos said much more clearly why the USPTO ought to make time to communicate with the listserv:

While I can understand that an Associate Commissioner’s time is in high demand, I would hope that other PTO personnel would be more available to participate in a regular information exchange process with the Patentcenter interest group.

Big companies and government agencies often conduct market research panels through which consumers are asked to analyze and critique web sites and other service offerings.  These research panels involve skilled facilitators and are quite expensive.

Here, Carl and his Patentcenter colleagues have done the work of assembling a panel of interested, competent users and organizing the feedback so as to be highly constructive, and are making it available at no cost.  It would be a shame if the PTO did not take full advantage of this excellent resource.

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