News broke several days ago that Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) has raised the issue of funding for the United States Patent and Trademark Office in his role as a member of the so-called Super Committee, which is charged with finding $1.2 trillion in budget cuts over the next 10 years. See Super Committee Considering an End to USPTO Fee Diversion. This means the patent community has another chance to urge Congress to do the right thing and adequately fund the USPTO. Everyone in the patent community can and should get involved and be heard — patent attorneys, patent agents, patent bar groups, patent bloggers, corporations, inventor groups, inventors and industry organizations such as the ABA IP Section, the AIPLA and IPO. It is time to get involved!
Many will recall that recently we came up to the doorstep of putting an end to fee diversion through the creation of a revolving fund for the USPTO. The revolving fund proposed by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), would have tied a revolving fund together with taking the USPTO out of the appropriations process. This would have meant that the USPTO would be guaranteed to keep 100% of the user fees collected without Congress being able to divert fees over and above what they specifically appropriated. The revolving fund made it into the enacted America Invents Act, but not the part about taking the USPTO out of the regular appropriations process, which essentially just kept the status quo.
Today the U.S. patent community sits perilously in the path of an oncoming train. The Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (AIA) Act mandates – but fails to fund – a wholesale conversion of the USPTO from an expert examining agency to one that not only examines patents but also adjudicates patent disputes in ways that promise to be faster and cheaper than patent litigation in our courts.
Senator Kyl is raising PTO funding on the Super Committee.
Without predictable funding, the Congressionally mandated reforms of the AIA will likely turn out like the agency’s “fast track” and Detroit office initiatives: announced, planned, but then delayed by the lack of one essential element – money. Indeed, without predictable funding, the reforms mandated by the AIA will likely result in a greater patent backlog, significant additional delay in finalizing the value of disputed patents, and a confused and discouraged agency workforce, all of which will significantly delay the recovery of our national innovation-based economy.
The coming train wreck would have been avoided if the 95 Senators who voted for ending fee diversion (with the support of every significant stakeholder in the otherwise-divided patent community) had had their way. It can still be avoided at no cost to taxpayers. And it can be avoided quickly, before Thanksgiving’s leftovers are gone, via the Super Committee. Let me explain.
The ink is hardly dry on the America Invents Act and Congress is already about to take money from the United States Patent and Trademark Office in violation of the promise of Congressman Rogers, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.
It isn’t exactly a newflash to announce that Washington, D.C. is dysfunctional, anyone paying attention over the past few years has long since come to that conclusion. Thus, it is hardly breaking news to report that Congress is on the verge of passing a Continuing Resolution rather than actually doing their job and passing a budget for fiscal year 2012. Why do today what is required of you to fulfill the responsibilities of your job when you can just kick the can down the road? Of course, by so doing Congress will embark upon a path that will divert some $600 million from the USPTO during FY 2012.
On Friday, September 16, 2011, President Obama signed into law “The America Invents Act” (“AIA”) which passed the Senate on September 8, 2011, by a vote of 89-9. The AIA passed the House of Representatives on June 23rd by a vote of 304-117. The measure, which is the product of a seven-years-long legislative battle among patent policy stakeholders, changes how patents are obtained and enforced in the United States. Important reforms to patent law are incorporated into the AIA and, just as significantly, several controversial proposed changes were deleted from the AIA before final passage.
Starting with President Obama’s State of the Union Address in January, where he made innovation and job creation key elements of his speech and specifically embraced passage of patent reform as a means of addressing both issues, patent reform was well positioned to be enacted in 2011. Moreover, Congress was desperate for legislative accomplishments in an environment where partisan differences, a weak economy, and government fiscal concerns dominated. Longstanding pro-reform coalitions and associations continued to expend considerable resources on the bill. Passage was deemed virtually assured when the Chairmen of the Judiciary Committees – Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) – essentially agreed this summer on a common piece of legislation. But, as explained below, nothing’s ever as simple as it seems in Washington.
Earlier today President Obama signed the America Invents Act at Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Virginia. Patent reform is now a reality, and over the next 18 months there will be massive changes to U.S. patent law. The Patent Office has already been working on regulatory reforms to the Appeals process and to the Reexamination process, so with the changes in this legislation along with the rulemaking necessary to implement the law there will be little that remains the same by March 16, 2013, when all aspects of the legislation have gone into effect. Virtually nothing that you know about patent law and/or patent process today will be relevant come March 16, 2013.
There are certain aspects of the patent reform legislation that will go into effect immediately, or nearly immediately. One example of a near immediate change is the treatment of fees paid to the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Effective 10 days after the legislation is signed fees will go up at the USPTO, thanks to a 15 percent surcharge.
It looks like my prediction on Tuesday that the Senate would pass H.R. 1249, the America Invents Act, prior to President Obama’s much anticipated jobs and economy speech that begins at 7:00pm ET today, Thursday, September 8, 2011. The Senate voted to pass H.R. 1249 and send the House version of the America Invents Act to the White House for President Obama’s signature by a vote of 89 to 9. The Coburn Amendment, which would have once and for all put an end to fee diversion, was unsuccessful, being tabled by a vote of 50 to 48.
Beginning at 4:00pm ET the Senate started considering three separate amendments to H.R. 1249. The passage of any would have required the legislation to ping back to the House of Representatives, but that was not to happen.
What is cloture? Cloture is the only procedure by which the Senate can vote to place a time limit on consideration of a bill or other matter, and thereby overcome a filibuster. Under the cloture rule (Rule XXII), the Senate may limit consideration of a pending matter to 30 additional hours, but only by vote of three-fifths of the full Senate, normally 60 votes. Without 60 votes cloture fails and debate continues. Unfortunately for those who would like to see patent reform derailed, the fact that there was unanimous consent in the Senate for a cloture vote almost certainly suggests that there will be at least 60 votes to end debate on H.R. 1249, which will bring it to a vote, likely sometime later in the week of September 6.
At approximately 5:50pm the United States House of Representatives passed H.R. 1249, which is known as the America Invents Act, by a vote of 304-117. This bill differs from the Senate version of patent reform, S. 23, so there will be no bill going to the desk of President Obama just yet. There are important differences between the two bills, chief among them is funding for the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The bill passed by the Senate put an end to the practice of fee diversion, which occurs when the Congress appropriates the USPTO less than they collect in fees. The excess in the fees collected from users of the USPTO then go to the federal government as general revenues and are used for purposes other than the operation of the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
The one thing in the Senate version of patent reform that everyone agreed on was the end to fee diversion. The House of Representatives, however, has decided that an end to fee diversion should not be included in patent reform, which is causing a great unease within the industry.
The Senate had struggled with patent reform for years, and in February 2011 they broke through with a carefully crafted balance. The Senate version of patent reform is light on “reform” in any real sense, except for one. The Senate voted to end the practice of diverting fees collected by the Patent and Trademark Office to other, completely unrelated purposes. The House of Representatives, lead by Congressman Hal Rogers (R-KY) who is Chair of the Appropriations Committee, demanded that the USPTO do with the amount of funds appropriators want to give the Office, not the amount of funds collected from users who pay for the Office. This is causing many industry groups to openly withdraw support and fight against patent reform; a remarkable turn of events.
Earlier this year we learned that General Electric (NYSE:GE) paid no taxes for 2010. See G.E.’s Strategies Let It Avoid Taxes Altogether. Yes, the largest corporation in the United States had a very good 2010. They booked over $14 billion in profits, with over $5 billion coming from U.S. operations, yet they paid not a dime in taxes to the Federal Government. To add insult to injury, General Electric was able to claim a tax benefit of $3.2 billion for 2010, making its effective tax rate for 2010 substantially negative.
But General Electric was not the only large U.S. corporation not to pay taxes. According to Citizens for Tax Justice, General Electric had some company. In fact, American Electric Power, Dupont, Verizon, Boeing, Wells Fargo, FedEx and Honeywell all had tax rates between -0.7 percent and -9.2 percent for the stretch between 2008 to 2010. See Study finds many corporations pay tax rate of effectively zero.
On the other hand, the United States Patent and Trademark Office continues to have user funds siphoned off, making the USPTO a much larger taxpayer than the largest U.S. corporations.