Sunday, November 19, 2017

Prosecution Delays at the USPTO of the Type We Are Not Meant To Hear About (Part I)

by Steve Reiss (

Sure, with things like: tough examiner, RCEs, appeals to the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB), and yet further appeals to the Federal Circuit, getting a patent can take many years. Of course, what is meant by "many" can be subjective. Three years? Five Years? Ten Years?

However, nothing beats what happened to some of the inventions of William Friedman (September 24, 1891 – November 12, 1969).

William Friedman

It was probably around 1933 that Friedman came up with a pretty good invention. Indeed, it was not just a good invention; it was critical to the United States' national security.  Friedman was an -or maybe even the- expert in cryptography and his invention was just a little too important to disclose to the mere public during the inter-war period.

The invention of his application was deemed so worthy of a national security hold (see generally, 37 CFR5.3), that the application was not made available to the public until it was granted into USP 6,097,812, in 2000. 

USP 6,097,812 (Filed: 1933/Granted: 2000)
That's absolutely correct. This patent application was kept locked in a vault at the USPTO from 1933-1999 (66 years),

The invention of this patent was the SIGABA—which was the US's highest-security cipher machine in World War II—and co-invented with another crypto-genius, Frank Rowlett

The patent application was allowed in 1999 and finally granted in 2000, 31 years after Friedman died at the age of 78; and just months after Rowlett died at the age of 90. 

To the best of public knowledge, Friedman's USP 6,097,812 patent is accepted as the longest-ever pending patent application. However, it is possible that there are yet older patent applications still on security holds, possibly never to be released. Until and unless such patent applications are granted, we will never know.

Friedman, as a sole inventor, also received one other cryptography patent, posthumously. It too was subject to an extended security hold. USP 6,130,946 (2000) was filed on October, 9, 1936. It spent from 1936 until November 1999 (63 years) on the security hold list. While in 1964, Congress awarded Rowlett US$100,000, as partial compensation for his classified cryptologic inventions, there is no readily available information about whether Friedman was financially compensated. 

Friedman probably would have assumed his SIGABA patent application was destined for the vault. His work was regularly classified or subject to security holds. Indeed, in 1941, Friedman was hospitalized with a "nervous breakdown", widely attributed to the mental strain of his work on breaking PURPLE, the diplomatic cryptographic machine used by the Japanese Foreign Office just before and during World War II.  

The few patents Friedman did receive while he was actually alive, also took extended, though fairly reasonable, periods of time to actually be granted;  USP 2,028,772 (filed 1932/granted 1936); USP 2,518,458 (filed 1944/granted 1950) and USP 2,877,565 (filed 1944/granted 1959). Even after his retirement from the NSA, according to wiki, and many decades after his work, Friedman's work was frequently still deemed too important for disclosure. 

In the late 50's, at NSA's request, Friedman prepared Six Lectures Concerning Cryptography and Cryptanalysis, which he delivered at NSA. But later the Agency, concerned about security, confiscated the reference materials from Friedman's home. But that was not the end of it. 

Even after his death, and more decades after his most important works, Friedman's archives had material reclassified and removed by the NSA.


More on secrecy holds in a future post where we will see that cryptography was more important to national security than nuclear bomb technology.

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