As reported in an earlier post, last fall the Israel patent community was left scratching its head as a result of the Commissioner’s about-face regarding Australia. Specifically, in December 2008 the Commissioner indicated that applicants would no longer be able to piggy-back on an allowance in Australia to obtain allowance of a corresponding patent application in Israel, because the ILPTO’s experience had shown that Australian examinations weren’t reliable. In September 2009, the Commissioner reversed course and again recognized Australia for this purpose, announcing his decision in a tersely worded statement that provided no reasons for the change of heart. At the time, some speculated, jokingly, that there had been a pay-off of some sort to the ILPTO, perhaps a junket to Australia.
The joke wasn’t far off the mark. In late September, the WIPO general assembly decided to grant Israel the opportunity to become a PCT International Search and Examination Authority. The reinstatement of Australia a few weeks earlier was done in anticipation of the WIPO meeting at which this decision was taken: Dr. Meir Noam, the Commissioner of Patents, reasoned that by reinstating Australia, he would curry favor with Francis Gurry, the head of WIPO and an Australian national. While it’s impossible to know if the ruse worked without asking Mr. Gurry himself, it’s hard to believe that the head of WIPO would condition support for recognition of any particular country as an ISA on how that country regarded the WIPO head’s home country, rather than, say, that country’s competence at prior art searching and analysis. It’s even more difficult to believe that Mr. Gurry actually pays attention to details of Israel patent practice such as whether or not one can piggy-back on Australia to gain allowance in Israel.
While Dr. Noam has admitted that he was trying to get in Mr. Gurry’s good graces for purposes of having Israel named as a potential ISA, it’s hard not to wonder if, in reversing his position on Australia, Dr. Noam wasn’t also angling for a job at WIPO. He has been pushing for stronger ties with WIPO, and during his tenure hired an Israeli national from WIPO’s administrative ranks to be an adjudicator at the ILPTO. In February 2009 the Cabinet decided to limit the terms of high-ranking civil servants across the board, so by last September, it was probably clear to Dr. Noam that he would be out of a job at the end of 2010. Maybe he was hoping that by placing politics, both ILPTO and personal, above substantive concerns about the quality of patent examination in Australia, Mr. Gurry would be more likely to offer him a job.
What is clear is that although during Dr. Noam’s tenure as Commissioner, the ILPTO has made progress on some fronts, in others it still lags behind, and in some ways things have gone precipitously downhill. On the up side, many new examiners have been hired, and according to the ILPTO, as of April 2010 the backlog in patent examination had dropped in most areas to between about 2-3 years from national phase entry to the beginning of examination. Similarly, the backlog in judicial decisions (e.g. patent and trademark oppositions; patent, trademark and design cancellation actions; ex parte appeals within the ILPTO) had dropped significantly – although given the fact that Dr. Noam’s predecessor had failed to render a single substantive patent decision in the over four years he was on the job, things couldn’t have gotten any worse in that regard. And as discussed in a previous post, there is now a publicly-available online database that facilitates checking the status of Israel patent applications.
Nevertheless, not all is rosy. The quality of OAs remains spotty, with many examiners, even senior ones, still failing to explain how the art they cite applies to which claims. In the 1990’s Israel was one of the first countries to introduce electronic filing of trademarks – credit Nurit Maoz, who is still head of the trademarks division, for that – but it still isn’t possible to file a patent application electronically in Israel, let alone to view patent file histories online. Similarly, the quality of the judicial decisions has not always been on the mark. Witness, for example, Dr. Noam’s decision in IL 100816, a case in which a patent containing 1 independent and five dependent claims was at issue. After disposing of claim 1 as being obvious over the prior art, Dr. Noam concluded that the remaining claims, by virtue of being dependent from claim 1, were necessarily obvious and thus invalid – without actually analyzing the additional recitations in those dependent claims to see if they distinguished over the prior art.
Of greater concern is the observation that Dr. Noam has become increasingly authoritarian in his approach to the running of the ILPTO. While it was traditional for Commissioner to circulate letters from time to time clarifying ILPTO policies, Dr. Noam has issued more such circulars, over 80, than any of his predecessors. (One PTO employee I spoke with said that they no longer keep up with all the circulars because there are simply too many.) In several cases, these circulars were so unclear that they necessitated subsequent letters of clarification – in some cases several such clarification letters.
Furthermore, whereas in the past those circulars were issued with respect to questions that had arisen regarding interpretation of the Patent statute and regulations, or policies adopted for administrative convenience, Dr. Noam has in some cases tried to impose new policies that are substantive policy-making and thus properly the province the Knesset (the legislature), not a civil servant. Placing limitations on the filings of divisionals-of-divisionals is one example. Another, on tap for the beginning of July, is a requirement, newly imposed by the Commissioner without legal basis therefor, that applicants provide copies of OAs from corresponding applications in foreign jurisdictions and their responses to the points raised in those foreign OAs – even if the claims pending in Israel are different or the applicant has not yet filed a response to the original OA. (American readers: echoes of the Dudas administration?)
Nor has the Commissioner made his administration a model of transparency. The decision to reinstate Australia was done without explanation, as was the decision to attempt to require applicants to do the ILPTO’s work by imposing draconian reporting requirements. (Curiously, earlier this month, in yet another circular, the Commissioner announced that in the future he would disseminate draft circulars and solicit comments before issuing new circulars. Yet later in the same week, he issued more circulars without going through such a process; and to date, no draft circulars have been disseminated.) Until March of this year, the ILPTO’s web site contained telephone listings of all examiners and many other ILPTO personnel; that list is now gone, replaced with a much more truncated list that doesn’t include examiner telephone numbers. (Here is a copy of the list of ILPTO personnel from March 2009, organized by department.) In addition, in some cases information is sent via email, without being posted on the ILPTO’s web site. And the web site itself doesn’t contain, for example, copies of all ILPTO judicial decisions.
Given some of his more recent actions, there will probably be many in the Israel patent community who will not mourn Dr. Noam’s exit as Commissioner. As for his relationship with WIPO, we will have to wait and see if Dr. Noam ultimately lands a WIPO sinecure, and if he does secure such a post, we may never know if he actively pursued it. One interesting tidbit, though: Mr. Gurry is in Israel this week, and a letter from the Association of Patent Attorneys in Israel (APAI) to its members stated that Dr. Noam urged that there be a “massive” turnout of patent practitioners at a reception for Mr. Gurry to be held tomorrow in Tel-Aviv. So that we can show our collective obsequiousness?