On March 4th, United States Senate Judiciary Committee bipartisan leaders released the details of legislation aimed at reforming US patent laws. The new bill makes significant steps toward resolving longstanding conflict in efforts to revamp US law for patent quality and efficiency, and make it more compatible with international laws. The new bill, referred to as the “managers’ amendment“, is being said to provide a much needed boost to innovation. However, the bill must go to the full Senate for a vote, and must be passed in the House of Representatives as well.
The “Managers’ Amendment” includes nearly all of the improvements to the patent laws that were part of the Patent Reform Act of 2009, and contains changes to greater balance all users of the patent system. One of the reforms is particularly intriguing, the transition to a first-to-file system.
Currently, the USPTO runs under a “first-to-invent” system, which as the name suggest, gives rightful ownership of the patent to the first inventor of the innovation. Under this system there is the potential for the person who invented the innovation first, but failed to file it with the USPTO to be retroactively awarded the patent, thereby possibly leaving the person who filed the patent first to be stripped of it. This system creates many situations where patents must be disputed between two parties (or more). The complications of the first-to-invent system are outlined in this example provided by Wikipedia:
Assume Tom conceives of a new mousetrap on January 1, 2006. Tom works diligently from January 1, 2006, to February 1, 2006, to prepare a patent application, and Tom files his patent application on February 1, 2006. Thus, Tom constructively reduced his invention to practice on February 1, 2006. Assume Jerry conceives of the same mousetrap on January 10, 2006, and diligently files a patent application on the new mousetrap on January 20, 2006. Under the first-to-invent system, Tom is entitled to the patent on the mousetrap, because he conceived the mousetrap before Jerry and still worked diligently to reduce it to practice by filing. Actual and constructive reduction to practice should be distinguished. Filing a diligently prepared application constitutes constructive reduction to practice only and can be antedated by evidence of an actual reduction to practice. If both Tom and Jerry claimed the same invention, the USPTO would institute an interference proceeding between Tom and Jerry to review evidence of conception, reduction to practice and diligence.
As a further extension of the example, assume Tweety conceived of the same mousetrap on December 31, 1990. Tweety never told anyone about the mousetrap and did not work on reducing the mousetrap to practice for many years due to financial reasons. Tweety finally actually reduced the mousetrap to practice on February 15, 2006. Because Tweety did not diligently work to reduce the invention to practice in the period before others’ conception of the same invention, he is not entitled to a patent over Tom or Jerry.
Proponents believe that this transition will serve to rid the confusions of patent ownership leading to interference proceeding, which take away from both USPTO funds as well as degrade the overall efficiency of the US patent system. Under this first-to-file system, the argument of who initially invented the innovation is moot, thereby allowing USPTO funds and time to be diverted towards further review of the influx of patents. The trainstion also enters the US into the same system that many of the worlds leading nations (UK and Japan), which relieves a major complication to a transition to a more internationalized patent system.
However, there are plenty of potential drawbacks to this system transition. Having a firs-to-file system gives incentive for inventors to file patents for innovations which may not be at a quality high enough to deserve a patent. From a practical standpoint, if emphasis is placed on the speed at which a patent can be filed, the overall quality of the innovation may decrease as a factor of speed. The bill has not been passed yet, so only time will tell if the pros outweigh the cons, hopefully it doesnt turn patent seeking into one big rat race.