The Senate opened its fall session Tuesday by taking a step toward passing a patent bill that has been a rare example of bipartisanship in this year's divided Congress.
The 93-5 procedural vote on moving the bill to the Senate floor gave supporters hope that the legislation to streamline and modernize the patent application system could clear Congress soon. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he wanted to see final passage in the next few days.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is trying to steer the bill, passed by the House in June, through the Senate without amendment so it can go directly to President Barack Obama for his signature. Last March the Senate passed legislation similar to the House version on a 95-5 vote.
The legislation has the strong support of the administration and is being hailed as a job creator at a time when Congress and the White House have been unable to find common ground over how to address the nation's high unemployment. The argument is that making it faster and smoother for inventors to get their innovations to market will spur economic growth and lead to more hiring.
The measure would switch the United States from the "first-to-invent" system now in effect to the "first-inventor-to-file" system for patent applications used by all other industrialized countries.
The objective is both to put American inventors on the same playing field as other innovators around the world and to bring certainty to patent ownership. The current system, where multiple inventors may be working independently on similar complex products, can lead to costly disputes and litigation over who was the original inventor.
The first-to-file system, said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., "creates a rule that is clear and easy to comply with and that avoids the need for expensive discovery and litigation over what a patent's priority date is."
Opponents say that first-to-file will work to the advantage of big corporations that have the expertise to file applications rapidly.
The second major element of the bill is giving the Patent and Trademark Office greater control over the fees it collects so that it can hire more examiners and make inroads in the patent approval backlog. It now takes an average of three years to get a patent approved and there's a backlog of 1.2 million pending patents, including 700,000 that have yet to be reviewed.
"Who knows what's in that pile of patents?" Reid said. "Could it be another Google? Could it be another software system that will revolutionize different parts of our society?"
The original Senate bill would have let the patent office keep all the fees it collects. The House bill sets up a reserve fund for any fees collected in excess of the money the agency receives from Congress but maintains congressional control. Leahy, while preferring the Senate approach, is ready to accept the House version and is seeking to defeat amendments that would require the bill to return to the House for another vote.