Senate sends president patent system overhaul as applications pile up

WASHINGTON — The Senate gave final legislative approval last week to an overhaul of the nation’s patent system that proponents said should allow the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to speed approvals on a backlog of nearly 690,000 applications.

“This legislation will make the system more effective and efficient,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Senate voted 89-9 in favor of the bill, which cleared the House in June. It now goes to President Barack Obama, who has said he will sign it into law.

The bill’s most substantial change would shift from a “first-to-invent” to a “first-to-file” patent system, bringing the United States in line with the process used in all other nations.

Advocates said it would enable the Patent Office to avoid the expensive and time-consuming need to determine rightful inventors.

A handful of senators opposed the reform saying it favors large corporations over individual inventors.

“This is big corporation patent legislation that tramples on the rights of small inventors,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

But David Kappos, director of the patent office, said the legislation would provide the tools needed “to deliver cutting-edge technologies to the marketplace sooner, drive down the backlog of patent applications, and expedite the issuance of high-quality patents.”

The bill also would allow the patent office access to all the fees it generates.

“We intend to aggressively implement that mandate by immediately hiring new examiners, instituting new patent acceleration tools, and aggressively modernizing our IT infrastructure,” Kappos said.

Patent applications have risen sharply in the last decade from just more than 315,000 in 2000 to more than 520,000 in 2010. During that time, Congress siphoned off more than $800 million in fees generated by the patent office for other purposes.

Sens. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., voted for the bill.

An amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to grant the patent office sole control over the fees it generates was defeated, 50-48, after Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., objected.

Leahy complained that the amendment would remove congressional oversight of how the patent office spends its fees. He said the bill already assures that Congress could not siphon off fees for other purposes.

“We have before us a consensus bill that will facilitate invention, innovation, and job creation today,” Leahy said. “Let’s put Americans back to work. Let’s show the American people that the Congress can actually accomplish something and do it for America.”

Heller voted for the amendment. Reid voted against it.

The House, meanwhile, approved a fiscal 2012 spending bill for intelligence programs that fell largely along party lines.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau reporter Peter Urban at or at 202-783-1760.

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