The IPKat stumbled across this absorbing piece in the Washington Post. It seems that US Patent and Trademark Office records allow nearly unlimited access to the Social Security numbers, credit card numbers and bank account numbers of hundreds of inventors who petition to reclaim their patent rights each year. Inventors who are late to file maintenance fees due after four, eight and 12 years of patent ownership must explain the delay and show why they should be allowed to keep their patent rights. More than 1,000 inventors petition to reclaim their patent rights each year.
Inventors typically provide documentary evidence to prove that hardship prevented them from paying their maintenance fees (ranging from $450 for independent inventors to $3,800 for large companies) on time. These records, which are not legally required, include divorce decrees, tax returns, records of psychological therapy, professional licence suspensions, hospital bills, credit reports, telephone numbers and home addresses. Said the wife of one inventor:
"Why would they need all of that information? If you have a patent, the patent is to get the product to the general public. Why does the public need to know what we eat and breathe? I think it's an invasion of the most intimate of privacy".USPTO officials acknowledge the risk of identity theft, although they are not aware of any specific instances, and said they are trying to find a solution. On 10 August they posted a warning on the agency's website while they search for a better way to protect inventors.
An embarrassed IPKat confesses that, though he's sure the USPTO Advisory is there, he couldn't find it (but why, he asks, is the Patents home page on the USPTO webbie so horribly crowded? Hot tip to the USPTO: see how it's done in the UK , nice and uncluttered). Merpel adds, stop this obsession with form over content!! American inventors are exposing their private details to the world and all you can talk of is web-page layout. The IPKat ripostes, if an inventor can't find the warning that's on the website then it may as well not be there.