Nearly a month into the government shutdown, the United States Patent and Trademark Office continues to run at full capacity. The Patent Office is somewhat self-funded, in that the fees that applicants pay to file and prosecute patent applications are used to pay examiners and other staff. However, the Patent Office is not allowed to spend all of that money willy-nilly; its budget is set by Congress, and the Office is permitted to spend up to that budget limit assuming sufficient fees are collected.
In past years, sufficient fees have been collected, and with great foresight, the Patent Office has funded an operating reserve account with some of those fees. While the Patent Office has a separate reserve fund which is supplied by fees paid in excess of the budget, the money into the operating reserve represent fees siphoned from the budget, perhaps the delta between the budget and the operating costs of the PTO. And, while the reserve fund is empty, the operating reserve has about $300 million. This is enough to keep the Patent Office running for a short time, about five weeks.
The operating reserve is not exhausted, but is being steadily consumed with this shutdown. As it drains further, “non-essential” activities will be suspended. Examiners will likely pause their reviews of applications. However, the filing systems – and the staff necessary to support them – will remain online so that application filing deadlines can continue to be met. It is not clear what will happen if the shutdown continues to the point where there aren’t even fees to keep the filing systems up….