Patent reform act stirs mixed emotions in science circles


( -- The Senate on Thursday approved (by a vote of 89-9) the America Invents Act. The Act is being hailed as a substantial overhaul of the U.S. patent system. The America Invents Act changes the way one can obtain patents to a new "first to file” system replacing the old "first to invent" system. The move is seen as a way to curtail wasteful court disputes where warring parties fight over who invented what first. The Leahy-Smith America Invents Act, as it is formally called, is being championed as the answer to what was wrong, for decades, in the patent process.

The first-to-file system positioned by the America Invents Act is praised because it keeps things simple. If you filed for the patent first, you get the patent protection. The idea is to speed the patent process and stimulate innovation.

Supporters also praise the reform because the patent office is to have the authority to set its own fees and have access to money it collects from patent and trademark applicants. The result, they say, is that the office will be better able to hire more patent examiners and upgrade its technology systems.

David Kappos, director of the patent office, said the overhaul was going to give his agency the tools to deliver cutting-edge technologies to the marketplace sooner, drive down the backlog of patent applications, and speed up the issuance of patents "without adding a dime to the deficit."

Washington supporters foresee more spinoffs and in turn more new hires. The Act's supporters say it could create 200,000 jobs.

As vocal as the praise is for this reform, critics have stepped up to complain that the Act will do little good for inventors. Opinion pieces and press statements have cast their shadows over the vote. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has said that the reform will not move any mountains for the kinds of people it represents, small-scale innovators and individuals

Other technology critics voiced similar views, in that detractors felt it is big technology firms that will have unfair advantage to file first. Inventors at large companies that employ patent lawyers can more easily rush to file applications with the U.S. and Trademark Office. Critics also doubt whether the Act will help create as many jobs as is claimed, unless they are counting lawyers too.

A dividing line about the efficacy of patents in supporting innovation, meanwhile, further divides attitudes toward the new America Invents Act. There are strong convictions amongst software developers that development is cumulative, compatibility with existing data formats is essential and collaborative efforts work out best. The public wiki End Software Patents is a case in point."The reform we need is legislation clarifying to the courts that software is not patentable," says the ESP site. Many professionals in biomedical industries, in contrast, say that they need protection from patents to make sure competitors don't feed off their efforts.

A number of academic groups have welcomed the legislation. They think it will help inventors at universities better compete in the global market. That is the thought expressed in a statement from university groups including the Association of American Universities, Association of American Medical Colleges, and the Association of University Technology Managers.

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