updated 08:20 pm EDT, Thu September 8, 2011
Senate clears America Invents Act
The US Senate passed in an 89 to 9 vote a bill originally put through Congress that could theoretically curb patent troll lawsuits. It will let the USPTO get more control over its fees and reduce the instances of its budget being diverted somewhere else. The bi-partisan vote was made with the hope of recruiting more examiners and modernizing equipment, both to speed up the process and to prevent overly broad patents from slipping through and being used to sue for dubious reasons.
Currently, it takes about 34 months for a patent to be approved in a 700,000-patent backlog. The time window can create problems by making it harder to gauge whether it's safe to develop a product as well as increasing the temptation by officials to rush approvals. Over $800 million in funding has been diverted away from the USPTO in the past 21 years.
The measure would also take on a variation of Europe's faster first-to-file system and would let third-party companies dispute patents both during and just after a patent's granting process. Supporters have seen these as ways of preventing protracted disputes over who invented a technology first as well as questionable patents that describe obvious or already invented technologies.
Apple, Google, Intel, and others endorse the bill as they're often the targets of patent trolls, many of whom didn't even invent the patents they use to sue.
Some small business groups, including the National Small Business Association, have opposed the bill. They warn that it might favor bigger companies over smaller ones and could hurt jobs by preventing small outlets from getting their businesses off the ground in the face of patent disputes. Outside critics have also attacked the law for not addressing whether or not software patents should stay legal, since these often describe basic calculations and concepts.
InterDigital and Tessera, companies that thrive more on patent licenses than real, creative output, have also objected. Both have a motivation in keeping the status quo, however, as they depend on lawsuits and broad patents for their profits.
Bigger companies like Apple and Motorola have lately been wielding patents against each other. Many, though, point to a near-constant string of tenuous lawsuits from small outlets that are threatening to rapidly drive up the prices of hardware and software solely to offset royalty payments.