“Increase usability for sponsored accounts with large amounts of customer numbers” means what?

It will be recalled that with less than two hours to go before the close of business on the day that the USPTO had resolutely determined that it was going to shut down the trusted PAIR and EFS-Web systems, the USPTO blinked.  (See blog article.) The USPTO decided to postpone the shutdown by four business days, from November 8 to November 15.  What excuses did the USPTO provide for this blink?  One of the excuses was that the USPTO proposed, during those four days, to “increase usability for sponsored accounts with large amounts of customer numbers”.  What exactly does this word salad mean? 

I have invested quite a bit of time trying to guess what the USPTO means by its first excuse for the blink:

“increase usability for sponsored accounts with large amounts of customer numbers”.

I have arrived at a fairly confident guess that this word salad is actually feature request FR34.  Predictably, this feature request dates from 2020.  This means the USPTO has been studiously ignoring the feature request for more than three years.

The problem, as was pointed out to the USPTO in FR34 on July 8, 2020, is that if an attorney “sponsors” a paralegal, the access to the attorney’s portfolio of application files is “all or nothing”.  Either the attorney does not sponsor the paralegal, in which case the paralegal cannot see even one of the attorney’s application files, or the attorney does sponsor the paralegal, in which case the paralegal can see absolutely every one of the attorney’s application files.

This crude “all or nothing” design by the USPTO leads to extremely bad results for real users.  As a typical example, suppose an attorney is with an outside patent firm (“PF”).  The firm PF serves a number of corporate clients (“CC1”, “CC2”, “CC3” and so on.)  The attorney needs to be able to set it up so that a paralegal in the corporate patent department of CC2 can see the pending patent applications for CC2.    So the attorney “sponsors” that paralegal.

The crude design of this aspect of Patent Center is so crude (did I mention that it is crude?) that the only choice for the attorney is that the paralegal at corporation CC2 will now be able to see the confidential patent applications of all of the other corporations CC1, CC3, and so on.

Just ten days ago I received a frightened telephone call from a paralegal at a Fortune 200 corporation.  If I were to name this Fortune 200 corporation you would instantly recognize it as a very well-known American corporation that makes products that every American uses every day.  This Fortune 200 corporation relies upon a very well-known American patent firm to handle some of its patent work before the USPTO.   Unsurprisingly the very well-known American patent firm (you would instantly recognize the name of the firm if I were to tell you) also has many other Fortune 200 corporations as clients.

An attorney at the very well-known American patent firm needed to be able to provide access to the Fortune 200 client so that it could see the application files of that Fortune 200 client that were being handled by that well-known American patent firm.  And so the attorney did the only thing that Patent Center permits the attorney to do.  The attorney at the well-known American patent firm “sponsored” a paralegal in the patent department of that Fortune 200 client.

This paralegal was aghast to see that he or she had suddenly been given access to see all of the patent applications of other clients of that well-known American patent firm.

It would be one thing, I suppose, if the unacceptable crudeness of this “all or nothing” design by the USPTO for sponsorship of paralegals had only become evident to the USPTO for the first time in, say, the days leading up to November 8, 2023.   But that’s not what happened.  What happened is that the Patent Center listserv warned the USPTO about this serious problem on July 8, 2020.  The USPTO was warned of this problem in FR34 more than three years ago.

A listserv member also copied this warning from FR34 into the USPTO’s Ideascale system as idea number 568.  As is well known in the patent community, the USPTO’s Ideascale system is “where good ideas go to die.”

Now, three years later, the USPTO has belatedly noticed that its “sponsorship” feature is gobsmackingly crude.  A paralegal in the patent department of one Fortune 200 corporation is astonished to find that he or she is able to see the secret patent applications of several other Fortune 200 corporations.

It would be one thing, of course, if the need for thoughtful design of access permissions had never been addressed by any patent office until just now, in the days leading up to the shutdown by the USPTO of PAIR and EFS-Web in November of 2023.  But that’s not the real situation.  The real situation is that (just to give one example) WIPO had thoughtfully designed such access into its ePCT system more than ten years ago.  And the real situation is that alpha testers of Patent Center in 2018 had told the USPTO, over and over again, “look to see how WIPO does it in ePCT!”

One assumes that there is some extremely strong bias within the USPTO to refuse to pay any attention to any suggestion by a customer that any other patent office might be doing something right that the USPTO was doing wrong.

But yes, at 3:04 PM ET on November 7, 2023, the USPTO blinked, and one of the two stated excuses for the blink was the USPTO’s plan to make use of a delay of four business days to “increase usability for sponsored accounts with large amounts of customer numbers”.  Which, as I say, is very likely to be FR34 from more than three years ago.

Like all of us, including the astonished and aghast paralegal in the patent department of a well-known Fortune 200 corporation who contacted me about ten days ago, I will be watching closely and waiting for the exciting date of November 15, 2023 to arrive.  This will be the exciting day to see the fix for “sponsorship” that the USPTO will have developed between November 7, 2023 and November 15, 2023.

How many Patent Center feature requests are there as of right now?  The answer is that there are 54 feature requests.   How old is the oldest feature request?  The oldest feature request is FR1, which dates from at least as long ago as April 30, 2020.  (It is actually a feature request for PAIR that was presented to the USPTO more than fifteen years ago.  The USPTO never implemented that feature in PAIR.)  How many of the Patent Center feature requests have been outstanding for more than one year?  The sad answer is that 38 of the feature requests have been outstanding for more than one year.

Oh, and one can also bemoan the fact that the number of feature requests that the USPTO developers of Patent Center have actually implemented, as of today’s date, is … wait for it … zero.

8 Replies to ““Increase usability for sponsored accounts with large amounts of customer numbers” means what?”

  1. But can you do FR34 in Private Pair? Is there any worsening compared to Private Pair if FR34 is not implemented? Can you delegate access to specific cases in Private Pair? (asking as non-US patent practitioner)

    1. No, I begged the PAIR developers to do FR34, and they said it was too hard. It would require intelligent linking between PAIR and EFS-Web. And that was too hard. Of course now Patent Center supposedly embraces both PAIR and EFS-Web in a single highly integrated system. FR34 should be easy now.

  2. Was sponsorship different before Patent Center? In other words, before all sponsorship activities were moved to Patent Center, did sponsorship under Private Pair/EFS-Web allow the sponsor to designate specific customer numbers for a paralegal being sponsored?

    1. No, the sponsorship function has been unacceptably crude in PAIR and EFS-Web and Patent Center for as long as this function has existed. Which is from at least as long ago as the creation of FR34, back in the year 2020.

  3. I think the PTO announcement of October 16, 2023 that starting January 20, 2024, the PTO will require all existing and new attorney support staff to verify their identity before they can access trademark filing systems is relevant. Part of the FR notice about that change says “Since establishing the sponsored staff user roles, the USPTO has discovered that some U.S.-licensed attorneys have sponsored accounts for individuals who are not directly supervised attorney support staff, which violates the Agreement that applies to all USPTO.gov account holders.” Even though this was directed at trademark practice, that says to me that the PTO wants to prohibit an attorney from sponsoring that client patent paralegal since she is not a “directly supervised attorney support staff.” That would fix the problem you mention from the PTO’s point of view even though it would make the situation even worse from the practitioner’s point of view.

  4. Some years ago, when I was in-house patent counsel at a start-up, my arrangement with our outside law firm was that they would establish a client number just for our company. And I was added to the list of attorneys on that client number. The understanding was that I would not file using that client number, thus avoiding malpractice complications for the firm; but I could see everything in my company’s files, including information in unpublished cases. It worked well for a small law firm, but would be hugely complicated in a large firm with many clients. It would also vastly increase the total of client numbers that would be needed.

    1. Yes but this only worked because you are a registered practitioner. This approach does not work if the goal is to extend access to someone who is not a practitioner (for example to a paralegal).

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