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Proposals to make US patents harder to obtain and easier to challenge were put forward this week by the US Federal Trade Commission.

The FTC has issued a report calling on the US Patent and Trademark Office to apply tougher standards in granting patents. Congress should also establish a mechanism to permit companies to challenge patents more easily, it advises.

US practices of allowing business methods to be patented (for example the Amazon One Click patent) have generated controversy in the IT business. But concerns about patent practices extend well beyond hi-tech industries.

“There is widespread concern about patent quality, and that means there is widespread concern that there are patents out there that shouldn’t (be) issued,” Federal Trade Commission chairman Timothy Muris told US reporters.

Recognising the strain an estimated 300,000 applications a year place on Patent Office staff, the FTC is calling on increased funding which will allow the agency to tackle a two-year long backlog.

The FTC would also like a procedure enabling rivals to challenge a patent without resorting to costly litigation established, and a lower "burden of proof" needed to invalidate any patent.

Discussion of US patent practices comes amid continued concerns about changes in EU patent regulations that critics fear will result in Europe adopting some of the worst aspects of American patent practice.

These proposals were rejected by MEPs in September but might yet be reintroduced through the intervention of government ministers in EU states. The The Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure, which has led the opposition to changes in European patent laws, explains the position here. ®

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