The 1991 decision to make the PTO pay for itself, however, has created a series of perverse incentives that encourage the office to approve undeserving applications, and has made it easier for applicants to game the system.The USPTO hates fee diversion, yet funding the office in this way can only lead to ever spiraling corruption and an ever increasing number of faulty patents.
Because each new application now brings in a $380 fee, the agency has an incentive to approve those patents sending a signal to the market to apply for more. Additionally, patent-holders pay annual maintenance fees for the first 12 years of a patent's life, meaning that each approved patent brings in a total of over $3,000 to the office. So every patent issued means a bigger budget for the patent office, and helps to guarantee that Congress will continue to look kindly on the office. “It's like telling the Treasury Department, go call the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and tell them that they're gonna get paid by how many twenties they print,” says David Martin, who runs M-CAM, an intellectual-property consulting firm based in Charlottesville, Va., and has testified frequently before Congress about the patent system.
Dan Ravicher, of the Public Patent Foundation, a non-profit legal organization, agrees. “At the agency level, if you want to increase the number of people applying for a patent you don't want a reputation for being tough on applications,” he says. “You want a reputation for being a rubberstamp. And that's pretty much what the patent office is now.” The agency denies that management encourages examiners to approve applications. But one examiner told The Washington Monthly that he had been told by a manager, “We're not the rejection office ... if you can't figure out what's going on, don't reject it.” Another examiner agrees: “That's where the push is coming [towards allowing more applications], because allowances bring maintenance fees.”
Related: Patent Fee Diversion