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The Nation

February 28, 2011

Congress takes up major change in patent law

WASHINGTON — The patent system hasn't changed much since 1952 when Sony was coming out with its first pocket-size transistor radio, and bar codes and Mr. Potato Head were among the inventions patented. Now, after years of trying, Congress may be about to do something about that.

The Senate is taking up the Patent Reform Act, which would significantly overhaul a 1952 law and, supporters say, bring the patent system in line with 21st century technology of biogenetics and artificial intelligence. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, hails it as "an important step toward maintaining our global competitive edge."

Congress has been trying for well over a decade to rewrite patent law, only to be thwarted by the many interested parties — multinational corporations and small-scale inventors, pharmaceuticals and Silicon Valley companies — pulling in different directions. Prospects for passing a bill now, however, are promising.

The Senate bill is sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Hatch and another top Republican on the panel, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa. The committee voted 15-0 in early February to send the legislation to the full Senate.

The overhaul is long overdue. It now takes the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office about three years to process a patent application. There are about 1.2 million applications pending — 700,000 waiting consideration and another 500,000 somewhere in the process. The patent office says it received about 483,000 applications in 2009 and granted about 192,000 patents.

"Hundreds of thousands of patent applications are stalled" at the patent office, Leahy said. "Among those is the application for the next great invention."

The most sweeping, and controversial, change is the transition from a first-to-invent application system to a first-to-file system that is used by every other industrialized nation, but has been opposed by independent inventors. It comes with an enhanced grace period to protect inventors who publicly disclose their inventions before seeking patents.

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