US House approves patent reform bill

Critics say the bill's first-to-file provision would hurt small inventors

The U.S. House of Representatives has voted to approve a bill that would overhaul the U.S. patent system and allow for a new review of patents after they are approved by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

The America Invents Act would also allow the USPTO's director to set the fees for patents, with the aim of giving the agency enough money to process a long backlog of patent applications. The bill would also change who is awarded a patent from the first person to create a new invention to the first person to file for a patent. Most other countries award patents to the first person to file.

Many large tech companies have been pushing for changes in the U.S. patent system for years. The USPTO approves too many questionable patents, leading to patent lawsuits, critics have said. Large tech firms have also complained that it's too easy for patent holders to sue and collect huge damages from tech vendors that potentially have hundreds of patented inventions in their products.

The House approval, by a 304-117 vote, moves "long-awaited" patent reform closer to becoming law, said Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and sponsor of a similar bill in the Senate.

"This bill will unleash American Innovation and create good, well-paying jobs for American workers," Leahy said in a statement. "It is commonsense legislation that goes to the heart of our shared agenda: reinvigorating the American economy and promoting job growth."

Advocates of the patent bill said the legislation will improve patent quality and give more resources to the USPTO. The Senate passed Leahy's bill in March, and lawmakers from two chambers will now have to work out differences in the two pieces of legislation before voting again on the bill.

The Senate stripped out limits on patent lawsuit damages that some large tech companies had supported.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Information Technology Industry Council, an IT trade group, were among the groups supporting the legislation.

Opponents of the legislation argued the legislation will hurt small inventors in favor of large corporations. Opponents offered several amendments in an attempt to water down the bill, but the amendments failed.

The House bill retroactively allows new review of financial business method patents, creating an illegal grab of property held by small patent holders, argued Representative John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat. "The bill essentially will give large banks a special new bailout at the expense of small inventors and the American taxpayer, and even worse, would do so on a retroactive basis," he said on the House floor.

Conyers also questioned the bill's first-to-file provision, saying it hurts small inventors who may not have the money to file patents quickly. "As a result, the bill would permit the Patent and Trademark Office to award a patent to the first person who can win a race to the patent office regardless of who is the actual inventor," he said. "This is patently unfair to inventors."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags Information Technology Industry Councilintellectual propertyU.S. House of RepresentativesU.S. Chamber of CommercepatentU.S. Patent and Trademark OfficelegallegislationgovernmentPatrick LeahyJohn Conyers Jr.

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