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U.S. Senate to take on patent reform bill issues

Posted: 08 Apr 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:patent reform bill? patent infringement? U.S. Patent and Trademark Office?

The U.S. Senate is expected to debate on the controversial patent reform bill as early as this week following a court decision that struck down new rules the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) proposed to cope with a flood of patent applications.

A spokeswoman for Senator Harry Reid said the majority leader is committed to bring the Patent Reform Act (S-1145) to the Senate floor in the current working session, which ends in late May. "It could come up as early as next week," she said.

The Senate bill echoes many of the provisions of a bill that passed the House of Representatives (H.R. 1908) last September. Both bills are aimed in part at curbing a flood of patent litigation by limiting damages and the over-use of so called "rocket dockets," courts such as the Eastern District of Texas that tend to quickly set trail dates for patent suits.

First-to-file rule
The legislation also calls for the United States to shift from its first-to-invent to a first-to-file policy more in line with patent offices around the world. The first-to-file approach reduces sometimes thorny litigation aimed at establishing when concepts were invented, and eases a path to global patent harmonization.

Many large electronics companies have lobbied for the legislation, claiming they are being bombarded by patent infringement litigation from a rising number of firms, many with generally poor quality patents. Individual inventors and pharmaceutical companies have rallied against the measure, claiming it would weaken the patent system that protects their innovations.

The IEEE-USA came out strongly opposed to the bill, saying it would weaken the patent system and thereby harm an already bad job market for U.S. engineers. The group also compiled a list of about 200 generally medium-sized companies and universities who opposed the bill. The list included some large concerns such as the AFL-CIO, the American Intellectual Property Lawyers Association, General Electric, Medtronic and Texas Instruments.

The Bush administration also came out in opposition to the Congressional reforms last year, in part because the bill puts too many limits on a court's discretion assessing damages in patent infringement cases.

A spokeswoman for Senator Patrick Leahy who co-sponsors the bill said a group of minor amendments to the legislation was released recently. However, they did not address the most controversial provisions of the bill including efforts to limit damages, use of certain court venues and a post-grant review process.

It's unclear whether any amendments on the major provisions will be made before the bill comes to the floor. "We are gearing up to get this to the floor and hope to have all our ducks in a row as early as next week," said the spokeswoman.

Patent flood
The bill only partially addresses the need for relief at the USPTO which faces a historic backlog of patent applications despite hiring drives of new patent examiners. One item not in the bill is a provision to let the USPTO have a broader rule making authority.

Last fall, the patent office issued a ruling to put limits for the first time on the number of claims on a patent and the number of so-called continuations, or amendments that extend a patent's claims. But a U.S. District Court judge struck down those moves as overstepping the office's authority.

It's not clear whether the Bush administration might press for broader rule making authority for the patent office to help deal with the flood. "There isn't anything in the bill to address that issue right now," said the spokeswoman for Leahy's office.

A spokeswoman for the USPTO said the office is still working with the U.S. Justice Department on how it will respond to the court ruling.

In its fiscal year 2007, the USPTO received more than 467,000 patent applications and ended the year with a backlog of 760,000 applications. In an effort to catch up, the office hired more than 2,400 new patent examiners in the past two years.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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