It has now been several weeks since the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 1249, dubbed the America Invents Act, which is commonly referred to as patent reform. In February 2011, the U.S. Senate passed S. 23, their version of patent reform. In their infinite wisdom, or lack thereof depending upon your perspective, the House did not pass a bill that was identical to S. 23, which means that before patent reform will become a reality it needs to once again be taken up by the Senate. But what are the odds of that happening any time soon?
Even the most casual observer likely knows that the United States is in the middle of a debt crisis. According to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner we have until August 2, 2011, within which to raise the debt limit and allow for more borrowing. Apparently the failure to raise the debt ceiling will trigger calamitous events that will cascade into an economic catastrophe. Yes, pretty big stuff seems to be at issue over the debt limit, which is consuming all of the oxygen in the room.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce conducted two small business focus groups on April 1, 2011, in Philadelphia, as well as a national survey of small business owners through interviews with 900 businesses April 8 – 12, 2011. The findings from this study make up the inaugural quarterly “Small Business Outlook Survey,” and paint an unfortunately bleak picture of the collective outlook of small businesses moving forward.
Small businesses are the backbone of the nation’s economy and those that are most likely to engage in job creation. Unfortunately, the small businesses surveyed tell a tale of little or no job creation over the next 1 to 3 years, and in fact suggest there will be more layoffs coming. The respondents see too much uncertainty in Washington, DC, too many regulations and a number of other matters (i.e., the deficit, debt, health care and taxes) as significant impediments to job creation. This on the heels of a disappointing jobs report for June 2010, downward revisions of the number of jobs created in April and May, and unemployment rising to 9.2%, this Chamber survey only piles on the continuing terrible news for the economy. With Congress bickering over the obvious — namely that we simply cannot spend money we don’t have and need to start spending less than we bring in to cut the deficit — it doesn’t seem there is likely to be any good news on the horizon.
The vast number of America’s companies that need patents to prosper and grow should fear the post-grant provisions for challenging patents in H.R. 1249, the patent reform bill passed last month by the House of Representatives. In a system already plagued by delays in granting patents, they threaten to delay courts from enforcing patents once finally granted. This threat has received little attention, perhaps because advocates of the bill promise promptness that they cannot deliver.
Advocates’ promise of completion in one year rings hollow for several reasons. First, the one-year deadline does not count the year, on average, that the inevitable appeal will take. Second, the deadline is extendable to 18 months and, in any event, not enforceable. Third, the one year does not count the petition stage before the proceeding begins. That adds at least another 5 months—two months for the patent owner’s response plus three months, again unenforceable, for the patent office to decide whether the challenger’s petition warrants initiating such a proceeding. So, total elapsed time usually will be not one, but almost three years.
Now that the dust is settling from the passage of H.R. 1249/S.23 (aka the oxymoronic America Invents Act) and those (like me) have stopped “moaning and groaning” about how the America Invents Act or AIA (I feel like washing my mouth out with Ivory soap every I say it) is an utter “sham” to be called reform, it’s time to deal with the reality. The AIA will definitely affect how innovative American small businesses and individuals (the “Davids”) approach patenting their technology in the U.S., especially the change from “first to invent” to “first to file” which has now slanted the playing field in favor of large multinational corporations such as Microsoft (the “Goliaths”). But there are still patenting strategies for the American Davids of Innovation to cope with the AIA (and still compete with the Goliaths) if the primary market to protect is the domestic market.
First, let’s define what I mean by the domestic market. By domestic market, we’re talking about the United States. Not Asia. Not Europe. Not even NAFTA. Just good ol’ America which, for many American Davids is all they care about, and can usually deal with.
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.
Shortly after 2pm Eastern Time the United States House of Representatives voted on the Managers Amendment to the America Invents Act, H.R. 1249. The Managers Amendment passed by a vote of 283 – 140. The House then proceeded to address several amendments to H.R. 1249. It seems that there will be a vote on H.R. 1249 later today, and the way the amendments are going it seems as if the House will pass patent reform.
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.
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