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Why the patent process should be overhauled

Sunday, February 27, 2011; A14

MORE THAN 60 years have passed since a major overhaul of the U.S. patent system has taken place. And it shows.

The U.S. patent system lags woefully. One example: Patents in the United States are given to those "first to invent." This approach is out of step with the rest of the world's "first to file" approach and is highly inefficient. It invites people to come out of the woodwork years after a product has been on the market to claim credit and demand royalties.

The secretive, lengthy U.S. process also too often allows patents for products that are neither novel nor innovative. It leaves manufacturers vulnerable to infringement lawsuits and damage awards long after their products have gone to market.

The Senate is poised to take up a bill on Monday that would eliminate these defects and bring the U.S. system into the 21st century.

The Patent Reform Act, introduced by Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), would recognize the "first inventor to file" standard, creating a bright line - the date on which a patent application was filed - and bringing certainty to the process. Yet the bill is not inflexible and wisely keeps in place protections for academics who share their ideas with outside colleagues or preview them in public seminars.

The bill also would increase protections for those with legitimate gripes. Third parties, currently shut out of the process, would be given clear rules and time limits to challenge patents that have not yet been approved. They'd also have a chance to lodge objections after a patent has been granted; the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) would resolve these disputes. This safety valve should reduce the litigation costs associated with court challenges.

The PTO has long been overwhelmed and underfunded. The bill would allow the agency to set the amount it charges for filings while providing discounts to solo inventors and small companies. An amendment likely to be introduced by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) would allow the agency to keep all of its fees, thereby ensuring it the resources it needs to carry out the bill's mandates.

President Obama made much of "winning the future" in his State of the Union address. A patent system that protects innovators and encourages real breakthroughs would help achieve that goal.

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