Patent Office chief endorses legal reform

Head of Patent Office says reforms are needed--and larger budgets too. Segway inventor Dean Kamen isn't so sure.

The head of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has endorsed some key reforms that Congress is scheduled to consider this year.

Patent Office chief Jon Dudas said Monday that federal law should be changed to award a patent to the first person to file a claim and to permit review of a patent after it is granted. Currently patents are awarded to the first person who concocted the invention, a timeframe that can be difficult to prove.

"I think we can implement that," Dudas said about the post-grant review suggestion. "It will take resources, and it will be necessary for us to get the resources in place" through a larger budget. The Patent Office already has a backlog of 490,000 applications and is planning to hire 800 more patent examiners, bringing its total to 4,400. It approves more than 500 patents per day.

Monday's hearing before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee kicked off a process that's expected to end in new legislation being drafted by the end of the year.

As a result, technology companies including Microsoft and Oracle recently have stepped up their lobbying efforts. Microsoft has gone on the legislative offensive after a jury awarded Eolas Technologies $565 million in damages--which has been partially reversed--in a patent dispute over Internet Explorer.

A National Research Council study on intellectual property rights also endorsed reforms. In a summary prepared for Monday's hearing, the committee said patents should not be awarded when they're "obvious" to people familiar with the state of the art in a field; that researchers should be immune from patent infringement lawsuits; and the U.S. patent system should be aligned more closely with Europe and Japan.

Dean Kamen, president of the DEKA research firm and inventor of the Segway, asked Congress not to do anything that would detract from the rights of inventors. "I fear that some of the patent reform measures currently under discussion are not only unnecessary to address the issues that exist in our patent system today, but have the very real potential to create substantially worse problems," he said. "Our existing patent system is not broken...A vast majority of the patents issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office are sound."

Other legislative possibilities include lengthening the duration of a patent, currently 20 years. "I've begun to wonder whether the time for the patent is an adequate time," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

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