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US patent reform jumps through second hoop

It's only taken 59 years – so far

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The US House of Representatives has passed a patent-reform bill that supporters say will boost the development of American politicians' favorite four-letter word: jobs.

"The Patent Reform Act is a key part of any jobs agenda," argues the bill's Senate sponsor, Patrick Leahy (Dem-VT). "We can help unleash innovation and promote American invention, all without adding a penny to the deficit. This is commonsense, bipartisan legislation."

The House bill, H.R. 1249, aka the "America Invents Act", passed on Thursday with a vote of 304-117. A nearly identical bill, S. 23, passed the Senate in March by an even more lopsided margin of 95-5.

One major reform in both the House and Senate versions of the bill is a change from the current "invented first" system to a "filed first" system. Doing so would not only bring the US system in line with those in the majority of countries, but also guard against Johnny-come-lately litigants popping up to challenge patent applications by claiming previous inventions.

Both bills include a raft of protections and appeal methods to protect legitimate opposition to patent filings, but supporters contend that the Act would go a long way towards keeping patent disputes from unnecessarily clogging the courts and stifling product innovation.

Another helpful change would be the Act's modification to how the US Patent and Trademark Office is funded. Currently, the USPTO relies on appropriations from an increasingly stingy Congress to pay its bills – and many of the Act's supporters argue that this funding method has kept the office understaffed.

Both the House and Senate versions of the Act would allow the USPTO to set and collect its own fees. There is one wrinkle, however: the Senate version would let the USPTO keep all the fees. The House version, however, would require that a certain dollar amount be appropriated to the USPTO, and if the fees collected exceeded that amount, Congress would decide whether that overage would go to the USPTO.

While the passage of the Act by such large margins in both houses of Congress is encouraging to those who regard the USPTO as an embarrassing train wreck, it's not yet law. Before it goes to President Obama's desk for his signature – and he has said that he'd sign a patent-reform bill – the two versions of the bills must be reconciled in a House and Senate conference committee.

With the current level of partisan bad blood boiling on Capitol Hill, and with both parties embroiled in a debt ceiling–debate death match, a swift reconciliation is unlikely.

But if – when? – the two versions can be successfuly combined and signed by Obama, the Act would be the first significant change to the US patent system since the Patent Act of 1952.

It's about time. ®

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