SAN JOSE, Calif. The U.S. House of Representatives may vote as early as Friday on a sweeping and controversial patent reform bill. HR1908 aims to raise the quality of patents and reduce patent litigation and abuse.
Similar bills have been proposed in several past legislative sessions but were shot down by debates between various industries and patent holding groups. The current bill sponsored by Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.) reflects the directions of many past proposals.
HR1908 calls for the U.S. to shift from its first-to-invent to a first-to-file policy more in line with patent offices around the world. The first-to-file approach reduces sometimes thorny litigation aimed at establishing when concepts were invented and eases a path to global patent harmonization.
The bill also aims to set limits on damages by tying them to the value of the patent itself, not including any prior art on which it is based. It also seeks to narrow the definition of willful infringement to cases where it can be demonstrated an infringer knew of the patent and used it anyway. Willful infringement can pay treble damages.
The bill also would limit patent lawsuit venues to courts in jurisdictions where the infringement took place or where the parties do business. Finally, it would define a new and streamlined process for re-examining patents when they are challenged.
Both the patent office and the legal system have been under increasing strain due to the number of patent applications and patent lawsuits. The US Patent and Trademark Office is said to have a backlog of as many as 750,000 patent applications.
The number of patent lawsuits settled in or disposed by federal district courts doubled between 1988 and 2001, from 1,200 to nearly 2,400, according to a report from the National Research Council. Meanwhile, the number of patent attorneys in the United States rose 39 percent, more than six times the growth rate overall for attorneys, the report found.
"High patent quality is essential to continued innovation," said Rep. Berman when the bill was introduced in April. "Litigation abuses, especially ones committed by those which thrive on low quality patents, impede the promotion of the progress of science and the useful arts. This is why we must act quickly -- to maintain the integrity of the patent system," he added.
A companion bill in the Senate (S1145), sponsored by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) was referred to the Judiciary Committee in July and has yet to be scheduled for a Senate vote.
"If the House bill passes, that would be a big impetus to set a vote for the Senate bill," said an aide to Rep. Berman.