Patent reform proponents see potential in new bill

Gary Locke singled out patent reform as an important step to help American companies compete.

Supporters of the latest legislation designed to reform a cumbersome patent system are heartened by what they see as increased momentum for change.

President Obama made innovation and economic competition the keystone of his State of the Union speech a week ago, and on Monday administration officials kicked off a program to jump-start entrepreneurship in America.

Speaking at the event to launch the "Startup America" initiative, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke singled out patent reform as an important step to help American companies compete.

"As many of you know, our U.S. Patent and Trademark Office plays a key role in promoting innovation and entrepreneurship," Locke said. "But as you also probably know, there's an unacceptably long backlog of patents awaiting examination, and that's not good for America's innovators."

He went on to highlight a PTO proposal to provide a flexible patent approval system that would cut the wait from three years to one for applicants willing to pay a higher fee.

All that attention bodes well for Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy's newest version of patent reform, scheduled for markup on Thursday, said Bill Mashek of the Coalition for 21st Century Patent Reform.

"I think there is a lot of momentum for this bill now," he said. "I think Sen. Leahy's bill is a great start, and the fact that he's put it first on his committee's agenda is a great sign for proponents of patent reform."

Leahy's Patent Reform Act of 2011, introduced with bipartisan support, is similar to a bill that failed to gain passage last year, but the Vermont Democrat said he hopes the committee approves the legislation when it meets Thursday.

"Comprehensive patent reform has the support of the administration and many business organizations," Leahy said. "We can help support innovators and help companies create jobs. Importantly, the Patent Reform Act does so without adding a penny to the deficit."

The bill has gained support from a range of groups, including the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which asserted that the proposed legislation would "help strengthen and improve our nation's patent system for all users while preserving the incentives necessary to spur the creation of high-wage, high-value jobs and sustain America's global leadership in innovation."

Other powerful players remain unconvinced. Lobbyists representing some of America's top technology companies, including Apple, Google, Intel, and Cisco, among others, have blasted the potential law as worse than the current situation.

"We have deep concerns about this bill and it is our feeling that on the key issues, we would be better off not having a bill at all," said Mark Isakowitz of the Coalition for Patent Fairness, which represents the tech companies on patent issues. He told National Journal Daily he expects the bill to fly through Leahy's Judiciary Committee but hit much more opposition in the full Senate and the House.

It remains to be seen what kind of impact the new GOP majority in the House will have on patent reform, with some conservative groups already taking aim at any legislation that would undermine property rights.

In a letter obtained by National Journal Daily on Monday, conservative activists, including Kevin Kearns of the U.S. Business and Industry Council, and Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum, urge congressional leaders to oppose Leahy's measure.

The new bill would "cripple most of America's smaller inventors, research consortia and universities, and even the larger industrial firms that depend on patents," according to the letter.

The groups urge both Democratic and Republican leaders to keep the legislation from coming up for a vote in either chamber.