Technology Patent Wars Sign of Robust Innovation

The head of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office tells a congressional panel that the landmark reform bill signed last September is already yielding significant results, but defends litigation in tech sector as a sign of vigorous innovation.

By Kenneth Corbin
Thu, May 17, 2012

CIO — David Kappos, the director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, received a friendly reception from a House committee yesterday as he offered an update on the agency's progress in implementing the landmark patent reform legislation enacted last September, a billed hailed by many tech firms as a major achievement for their IP-heavy industry.

At the same time, Kappos told the panel that the patent wars common to the tech sector -- and particularly smartphones -- are hardly a sign that the system is broken, but rather a hallmark of robust innovation.

The American Invents Act (AIA), the first reform to the nation's patent system in some six decades, and the most comprehensive overhaul in nearly two centuries, left the U.S. PTO with the daunting task of forging ahead with myriad rulemaking proceedings to implement the bill's provisions.

Those efforts, already well underway, are proceeding in accordance with the deadlines stipulated in the bill.

"I am pleased to report that the AIA implementation efforts are indeed proceeding on schedule," Kappos told members of the House Judiciary Committee. Seven of the law's provisions have already taken effect, with nine more working their way through the Federal Register process. Final rules are expected to be published by or before Aug. 16 and take effect on Sept. 16, giving the U.S. PTO at least a month to train its examiners and educate patent filers about the new procedures. "We will succeed in implementing all of them on time," Kappos told the committee.

A central aim of the bill was to create an environment in which the patent office could clear through its considerable backlog of applications, which had ballooned to more than 750,000, creating a delay of roughly three years between the initial filing and a final decision. Particularly for small businesses or individual inventors, that gap proved untenably long, but the U.S. PTO, which finances its own operations through the fees it charges, could not expect to win a budget appropriation to cover the cost of hiring additional patent examiners.

Instead, the reform bill gave the agency authority to adjust the fees it charges for initial examinations, reviews of contested patents and other services. In early February, the U.S. PTO issued its proposal for raising patent and trademark fees, which Kappos acknowledged amounted to a steep hike, but said that most of the comments his agency has received have been generally supportive and understanding of the economics of the situation. Ultimately, the U.S. PTO might "recalibrate those fees in a lower direction," Kappos said, though he indicated that the final rates will still amount to a significant increase as the agency works to clear its backlog.

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