Dennis Crouch, a associate professor of law at University of Missouri has compiled a table of the time to first office action for a variety of technology centers. That is, how long does it take the patent office to get back to you with their (no doubt obviousness-based) rejection of most or all of your claims.
For the technology centers he lists the time ranges from a low of 1.7 years for Manufacturing Devices to a high of 3.7 yearsfor a couple of un-important technologies – fuel cells, batteries, and solar. Now remember, this is the time between filing and your first office action. It can easily take another year before your patent issues and during all that time you have been unable to enforce your patent rights. Heck, you didn’t even know if you were going to have any patent rights.
Mind you, if you filed a provisional application first, then your patent application has been public after 0.5 years from the filing date of the regular application, so you fuel cell companies out there have had your proprietary information hanging around the street, so to speak, for a little over 3 years and counting.
I always tell my clients that the patent system is supposed to be a deal between the inventor and society. You get limited time control over your invention in exchange for teaching the rest of us all those juicy details. This bargain breaks down, I think, when your teaching is published 3 or 4 years before you know that you have control over your invention, if you ever do get that control. During that time your competitors have had the chance to build on your proprietary information to your disadvantage.
It makes one wonder if it’s still worthwhile applying for a patent in a fast moving technology area.