In the late '90s and early '00s, the US Patent Office saw a massive jump in patent grants -- including tons of really, really bad patents, that have been tied up in huge, expensive lawsuits for years, wasting tons of judicial time and (more importantly) wasting a ridiculous amount of resources that could have (and should have) been going to actual innovation. Some of the research into what was going on showed that the incentive structure at the patent office was totally screwed up. Basically, the incentive was "when in doubt, approve." Why? Because patent examiners were judged on how efficient they were -- meaning how many patents they were able to complete their analysis of in the short amount of time they had. So here's the problem: if you approve a patent, you're done. If you reject a patent, the inventor (well, the lawyers) get an unlimited number of times to change the examiners mind, resubmitting modified applications. In other words, they can bury patent examiners in paperwork, dragging down their efficiency numbers. This isn't to imply that any patent examiner purposely decides to approve junk patents, but that it's impossible to ignore the incentive problem here.
Combine that with some ridiculously bad court rulings, that made things (software, business methods) that people previously considered unpatentable "fair game," along with some insanely large rewards in patent infringement lawsuits, and you had a recipe for disaster. Multiple studies showed that the cost of legal fights over patents greatly outweighed the actual value of those patents. And it was becoming a dangerous snowball: the more bad patents approved, the more bad patent lawsuits, the more bad patents filed, etc. What was interesting was that around 2004, as the debate on this started getting so much attention, the USPTO realized it had a problem and started adjusting things so that incentives were a bit more aligned. And, lo and behold, a lot more patents started getting rejected, and the approval rate went down. Many patent system supporters chided those of us who complained about the incentive structure by saying "see? everything's fine now, since the patent office knows to reject bad patents."
Not so fast.
Last year, the new bosses at the patent office decided that the number one problem was "backlog." No doubt about it, there is a huge backlog and the time it takes to get a patent is very, very long. But rather than realize that the way to decrease the backlog is to reject all bad patents (thus making it less lucrative to file bad patent applications), it appears to have gone back to the old system: implicitly setting up the system so that "when in doubt, approve," is the norm -- just to get through the backlog.
The numbers don't lie, and the always excellent PatentlyO blog has the numbers and the graphs to show that we haven't just increased the rate of patent approvals, we've shot way up, beyond anything seen previously -- making it look like the "correction" from the past few years was just an anomaly. Not only that, but the rate of patent approvals on a monthly basis seems to be increasing, which doesn't bode well for the future either:
Of course, the unfortunate reality is that this won't actually solve the backlog problem at all. You would think, with all the engineering/operations brains at the Patent Office, that they would understand that this will only make the backlog worse. Approving junk patents only makes it more lucrative to file ever more ridiculous patent applications, which only increases the backlog. In rushing through more patents, it only encourages a bigger and bigger backlog. In treating the symptoms, rather than the actual disease, we're making the disease much, much worse.