I once silenced a seat­mate on a transat­lantic flight who threat­ened to be overly chatty by (truth­fully) telling him that I was trav­eling to London to speak about the his­tory of the patent exam­iner. Hor­ri­fied I might tell him about it, he quickly returned to his own, appar­ently more inter­esting reading.

One glance at the Manual of Patent Exam­ining Pro­ce­dure, a gov­ern­ment pub­li­ca­tion more than 3,000 pages long, would seem to jus­tify his sus­pi­cion that patent exam­i­na­tion is dry as dust. The manual, famil­iarly known as the MPEP, pro­vides instruc­tions to the employees who review patent appli­ca­tions as well as guid­ance to inven­tors seeking patents. The MPEP is dull reading. Its dull­ness, how­ever, hides the nearly mag­ical task of the patent exam­iner. It also papers over decades of lively con­tro­versy about how patent exam­i­na­tion should occur, if at all.

Appli­ca­tion review in patent-​​speak is “exam­i­na­tion,” and those who con­duct it are “exam­iners.” Exam­i­na­tion is the chief task of the patent divi­sion of the U.S. Patent and Trade­mark Office, which cur­rently employs about 8,000 patent examiners.

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