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Leahy leads another effort at patent reform

Reviving an effort stretching back half a decade, a bipartisan group of senators took the latest crack at comprehensive patent reform Thursday, announcing that they will introduce a bill when the Senate returns next week.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and two Republican colleagues, Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Chuck Grassley of Iowa, say they plan to offer the measure on Tuesday.

The proposed legislation is designed to revamp the patent-application system by simplifying the process, improving the quality of the patents that are approved and ensuring that the Patent and Trademark Office is fully funded.

Reducing the backlog at the PTO has "broad" support, said Brian Pomper, executive director of Innovation Alliance, a group that includes technology firms such as Qualcomm.

"Adequately staffing and resourcing the [Patent Office] would be the single best patent based step to encourage economic innovation and job creation at time when more of both is sorely needed," he said. "Any legislative approach which leads to less certainty about patents or reduces the value of American patents would be a step backward."

The proposal revises the calculation for damages and the system for challenging the validity of an existing patent, both hot topics for small businesses that rely heavily on their patents. Under the bill, challenges would be heard by designated patent judges, and challengers would be required to meet several levels of proof. A company would be liable for damages only if it is found to have knowingly and recklessly infringed on someone else's patent.

The bill is based on a plan proposed in the 109th Congress by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif. It also includes provisions from a compromise measure that Leahy developed last year with Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who served as Judiciary's ranking member in the last Congress.

Because the bill largely mirrors legislation proposed last year, the coming debate will likely involve similar battle lines; industry organizations have so far responded accordingly.

A coalition that represents such companies as 3M, General Electric, and Johnson & Johnson immediately praised the revamped proposal as an important way to encourage economic growth.

"Americans want jobs--and patent reform is part of the solution," said Gary Griswold of the Coalition for 21st Century Patent Reform. "With passage of patent reform legislation, the United States Patent and Trademark Office will be better able to provide the incentives needed to create jobs. This legislation will ensure our nation's patent system will promptly provide inventors with high-quality patents and protections needed to spur innovation, develop new products, and create jobs."

Industry observers say that Leahy has expressed an interest in pushing the bill through committee to get it to the point where last year's legislation was. The bill has been put on the Judiciary Committee's agenda for a January 27 markup.

But some groups are already anticipating a fight over the plan. "We will reserve judgment until we see the final bill, but if it's anything like the last one, we will oppose it," Mark Isakowitz of the Coalition for Patent Fairness, which represents tech firms such as Google, Intel, and Oracle, told National Journal Daily on Thursday, before the bill's text was released.

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