Patent examiner representatives have written to the heads of the patent offices in Europe, the US and Canada demanding changes to the way patents are examined.
Massive increases in the numbers of patents to be examined mean that the quality of assessment of each is falling and the harm being done to technical progress is significant, the examiners said.
"The importance of intellectual property is demonstrated by the increase of new patent applications during the last twenty years," said the letter, titled 'The future of the patent system'. "Recently, however, many in the intellectual property community have come to realize that an increase in patent applications does not necessarily represent an increase in technological progress.
"They now recognize that poor-quality patents can become a hindrance to, rather than a stimulus of, innovation and economic growth. They understand that a strong patent system requires high patent standards and quality examination," said the letter.
The examiners said that a build up of outstanding applications and a focus by patent office managers on quantity, not quality, of examinations means that the whole system is in danger of suffering irreparable damage.
"Patent offices worldwide continue to focus on their backlogs of applications and ways to increase examiner productivity," they said. "Unfortunately, in many patent offices, the pressures on examiners to produce and methods of allocating work have reduced the capacity of examiners to provide the quality of examination the peoples of the world deserve. Quality examination requires skilled, well-trained and motivated examiners, powerful and efficient search and examination tools and, most importantly, the time necessary for examiners to apply those skills, training and tools to the examination of patent applications."
The patent examiners made a series of demands of the patent office heads. They said the offices must allow examiners more time to analyse and research each patent; provide more ongoing training for examiners; and urge governments to create laws which discourage undeserving patents by providing sensible standards of patentability.
"We, the undersigned representatives of patent examiners, join together in declaring that the combined pressures of higher productivity demands, increasingly complex patent applications and an ever-expanding body of relevant patent and non-patent literature have reached such a level that, unless serious measures are taken, meaningful protection of intellectual property throughout the world may, itself, become history," they said.