Science & Technology in Congress
On March 12, the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill to reform the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO). The bill, H.R. 400 would convert the PTO to a wholly-owned government corporation and would require the office to publish patent applications within 18 months of the date they are filed.
The bill has drawn fire from some members of Congress who feel that the bill would hurt U.S. innovation. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) is one of the chief opponents of H.R. 40o, referring to it as the "Steal American Technology Act." Rep. Rohrabacher argues that the bill, in publishing patents a year and a half after filing, rather than the current method of publishing at the time the patent is issued, would make it easier for foreign competitors to copy American technological developments, and thus erode U.S. competitiveness. Critics also claim that the bill would shorten the patent term granted to inventors. Under the new system, an inventor's patent term would last 20 years from the date of his application, rather than 17 years from the actual date the patent was issued under the current system. Rep. Rohrabacher and others feel that H.R. 400 would have a seriously detrimental effect on small businesses and innovators, by eroding their patent protection and encouraging larger businesses to co-opt and prematurely claim rights to the inventions of others.
Supporters of H.R. 400, however, assert that it is necessary to reorganize the PTO and change the way patents are processed in order to improve the Office's effectiveness and compatibility with other nations. By publishing patents earlier, U.S. business would be able to take advantage of technology more easily. This would also allow companies to develop technologies submitted for patenting, even if patents are never issued. Proponents of the bill also note that provisions are included in the legislation to extend the patent term if administrative delays hold up the processing of the application, and that royalties would be paid to applicants if their inventions are developed by someone else, using the inventor's published patent application.
Rep. Rohrabacher's alternative, the Patent Term Restoration Act of 1997 (H.R. 811) was tabled by the House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Courts and Intellectual Propery. However, an aide to the Congressman says that the bill is not dead yet, and may be resubmitted on the floor of the House.