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I think you, JAlexoid, and fretinator are absolutely right. The justification for granting patent monopolies has shifted. Initially, the whole reason the public government allowed private monopolies was to provide an incentive to disclose trade secrets. In other words, the patent system was envisioned as a public benefit rather than a private entitlement. Today patent holders are typically considered the main beneficiaries, and any shred of public benefit is completely sidelined and obfuscated. Patent holding companies feel entitled to own patent monopolies regardless of whether the system produces a public benefit or not.
As for the lack of resources, I think there's a combination of factors at work. I've already mentioned some recently here:
The number of patents is always increasing (close to 200k granted per year in the USA alone, no clue on foreign patents), the resources that count as prior art (traditional book/magazines & new online media & existing products) just continue accumulating as well. So regardless of what cost cutting measures the patent office might try to implement, the per-patent costs (after inflation) should logically be projected to rise indefinitely for a constant level of service.
Since the PTO can't/won't raise their prices indefinitely, the level of quality simply has to drop. We could allocate more resources to help the PTO cope for the time being, but in the long term it cannot scale along a field as large as IT without impeding it. Edited 2012-07-10 06:23 UTC