New law changes system for awarding patents

WASHINGTON -- Legislation overhauling the nation's patent laws will help federal officials quickly process a fast-rising mountain of applications filed by inventors, President Obama said in signing the measure into law Friday.

"When Thomas Edison filed his patent for the phonograph, his application was approved in just seven weeks,'' Obama said. "And these days, that process is taking an average of three years. Over the last decade, patent applications have nearly tripled.''

Under the America Invents Act, the U.S. will award patents to inventors on a first-to-file basis instead of the first-to-invent basis, which some say is more prone to litigation.

The change will bring the country more in line with how other countries handle patents.

"Our nation's patent laws were overdue for reform to keep the U.S. competitive in a world of global innovation,'' said Chris Veronda, a spokesman for Eastman Kodak in Rochester, N.Y.

Martin Snider, owner of MSA Products Inc. in Nyack, N.Y., said the new system will make it easier for his company to defend its patents.

"I feel the first-to-file (system) will probably be better for people like me,'' he said.

Snider said he was issued a patent earlier this month for a coffee pod drawer that Bed Bath and Beyond has been selling for a year. Competitors already have copied the drawer's design, and he said his firm is trying to settle those disputes.

Critics of the first-to-file option say individual inventors often don't have the resources or know-how to quickly file for patents, and often don't file until they've already shown their product to investors or colleagues.

In congressional testimony earlier this year, Patent and Trademark Office Director David Kappos said that does happen, but rarely.

The new law, which had bipartisan backing in Congress, will allow start-up firms to get fast-tracked consideration of their patent applications, guaranteeing a decision within 12 months instead of the roughly 30 months they've traditionally had to wait.

It's also expected to reduce a backlog of patent applications by letting the Patent and Trademark Office keep the revenue it generates from fees and use it to hire more staff.

Kappos said he plans to hire between 1,500 and 2,000 new examiners to review applications in fiscal 2012, which begins Oct. 1. Up to 100 new administrative law judges will be hired to reduce a backlog of appeals.

The office issued 244,358 patents last year, including 22,799 for designs and 981 for plants.