Mumbai: A review of comments submitted to the commerce ministry in response to proposed legislation for the reorganization of the intellectual property (IP) office reveals an organization sinking under the weight of its own paperwork and lacking the workforce to lighten the load.

The Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion’s (DIPP’s) discussion paper, “Review of the Organizational Structure of the Controller General of Patents, Designs, Trademarks and Geographical Indications", circulated in October, asked stakeholders to evaluate the size of the IP office, the wisdom of outsourcing administrative work, and the desirability of spinning off the office for the trademarks registry outside the purview of the controller general.

The deadline for comments is 31 December.

Many responders seized on DIPP’s admission that the trademark registration office is critically understaffed.

A file photo of a government office over run with files and folders

DIPP’s discussion paper acknowledges some 400,000 trademark applications are pending at various stages and that the IP office has resorted to measures like outsourcing examinations or hiring temporary examiners—strategies that critics have said could foster conflicts of interest.

The non-profit International Trademark Association responded by saying: “Without sufficient numbers of examiners, attempts to lower the current backlog poses a serious risk that the quality of examinations will suffer."

A request filed under the Right to Information Act by IP lawyer Prashant Reddy, who blogs for the influential IP web site Spicy IP, reveals a dramatically understaffed trademark division. Reddy said the findings show the trademark office has only 55 examiners and registrars, out of 122 sanctioned positions.

As a result, Reddy said, the quality of trademarks issued is compromised, which “floods the whole system with litigation."

In an interview earlier in December, P.H. Kurian, the outgoing controller general, acknowledged that a lack of personnel is the biggest challenge facing the IP office.

“Money and resources are not a problem. Human resources are the problem," he said, adding that it was up to DIPP to initiate recruitment. Kurian said 16 people held the post of examiner, eight were assistant registrars working on examinations, and another 20-odd members of the administrative staff worked in “supportive roles" on examinations.

“My feeling is that another 100 people are needed. I hope more posts will be created," he said.

Kurian, an Indian Administrative Service officer, took up the post in 2009 and was hailed by many stakeholders as a reformer who achieved strides in terms of efficiency and transparency. But Kurian announced his departure for greener pastures in June, only halfway through his five-year tenure.

V. Ravi, who was senior joint registrar of trade marks and who headed the trademark office, retired last month. Replacements for neither men have been announced.

IP stakeholders have expressed concern over the motives of any reorganization, which they fear could lead to a rollback of many recent reforms. Comments provided by INTERPAT, a Swiss association of global pharmaceutical companies, were characteristic. “We do not see a clear rationale for separating the patent and trademark functions into autonomous units."

In most countries cited in the DIPP paper, the group said patent and trademark divisions “function independently of one another, but are organized, as is the situation now in India, under the auspices of a single IP office."

Kurian said he was not involved in the proposal to spin off the trademarks registration office, but said the reforms he had set in motion—such as digitization of records and a move toward electronic filing—cannot be undone. Kurian said that nearly all trademark documents are online, and applications will be able to be processed entirely online—thus eliminating interactions between agents and examiners—in 1-2 years.

Mahesh Bhagnari a Mumbai-based IP attorney who specializes in trademark registration, expressed concern about the proposed spinoff of the trademark registration office.

“If there is less discipline enforced from the top, then some people will have more leeway to do their own thing, and this encourages corruption," he said.