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USPTO launches three-pronged attack

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The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is rapidly becoming the cornerstone of US global hegemony, and this week a new initiative, supposedly from US President George Bush, and talked up by US Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, was intended to push the intellectual property agenda overseas.

There are three new initiatives, one to put intellectual property rights experts on watch in key overseas countries including Brazil, China, India and Russia, and a new Small Business Outreach program to educate US small businesses on how to protect their intellectual property rights and a global intellectual property academy which is expected to provide training for foreign government officials on IP issues.

In the end this has all become a political agenda driven by the USPTO which foisted the flawed Digital Millenium Copyright Act on the world in the form of the Word Copyright Treaty signed by 179 countries.

Recently European legislation pushed by the European Commission on patents failed to gain the support of the member countries. This would have made it possible in Europe to patent obvious business model ideas and software in the same way that they can be patented in the US.

The US is where most IP litigation takes place, much of it due to patents that should never have been granted in the first place. Many US multinationals now commonly file patents for inventions that have huge amounts of prior art, a process that could be stopped if there was more onus on the filing companies to show diligence in looking through prior art.

It sometimes appears that if a patent has not been filed in the US, it doesn't count, so a US company can file it in the US and claim that it invented it first, hence the amount of litigation. The message from this new initiatives are pretty confused. Is the US administration tying to stop other countries from pirating music, or is it trying to drive patent and royalty streams for US technology businesses, which would be far more valuable.

Comments like "The Bush administration is committed to stopping trade in pirated and counterfeit goods. Theft of intellectual property is not tolerated and will not be tolerated," seem to suggest that it is directed towards copying films, which would protect a few $ billion in revenues, but surely the entire technology business is far larger than the entertainment businesses, and in particular in communications where everything from wi-fi, to OFDM to CDMA in wireless communications, drive multiple trillion dollar communications businesses.

The focus was also cited as being technology, IP-based businesses, such as software, bio-technology and the entertainment industries, now represent the largest single sector of the U.S. economy. IP theft costs US businesses an estimated $250bn per year, and 750,000 American jobs.

The World Customs Organization and Interpol estimate the total global trade in illegitimate goods increased in 2004 to more than $600bn.Does that include, we wonder cynically, companies claiming patents on inventions created overseas?

Perhaps that's unfair. Increasingly the war for all technology will be fought in the courts, and only while the US remains a plumb key market, will its laws remain relevant. Right now its ability to withdraw trade from a country has a huge impact. In perhaps as little as ten years, the laws of China may become the global international standard, as it uses its market weight to establish just how it might insist that its own intellectual property is policed.

Copyright © 2005, Faultline

Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of the week's events in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.

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