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Reaction mixed to changes in rules governing patents

| Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office awarded a patent on Tuesday to three California inventors for their visual prosthesis, a camera that can send messages to retinal tissue behind the eye. It was one of more than 5,100 patents issued during the day, and the 8 millionth in American history.

But even as the office passed that milestone, by its own estimate 700,000 patent applications lay awaiting review.

The patent system has changed little since 1952, and supporters of legislation to overhaul it say that the measure could create high-paying jobs and protect businesses' advantage in high-tech and other industries. Both houses of Congress back versions of the America Invents Act, which would bring the patent system closer in line with other countries, and President Obama has held up patent restructuring as a bipartisan issue, an increasingly rare creature in Washington.

But with the Senate expected to hold a final vote on the bill early next month, many inventors and small businesses worry that it would give big companies an unfair leg up.

Under the system, if multiple people apply for the same patent, it's awarded to whomever can prove he invented the product or idea first. The bill would change the system to what's called "first to file" in which patents would go to the applicant who filed earlier, placing businesses with the resources to file patent forms quickly at an advantage.

Patents are tremendously valuable to big business, signaled by Google's $12.5 billion acquisition this week of Motorola Mobility, the holder of 17,000 patents and 7,500 still under government review.

For small companies, applying for patents can be a costly process, said Andrew Meyer, the president and owner of Beginnings Technology, based in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. In May, the company won a patent for a diesel fuel injector that Meyer said could be used to develop cost-effective, cleaner engines.

The four-person company spent more than six months and $50,000 drafting the application, and after filing in 2009 waited two years to learn the result.

"We can't patent every idea," Meyer said.

Most countries use "first-to-file" systems, and supporters of the bill say the switch would promote international cooperation.

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