Since before taking office, President Barack Obama urged Congress to pass patent reform into law. The president finally got his wish when Congress passed the Leahy-Smith American Invents Act. President Obama signed the bill into law shortly thereafter on Sept. 16, 2011. Its passage marks the first major patent reform since 1952.
The law makes a number of changes to how the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office operates. It changes, for example, the system of who receives the patent from first-to-invent to first-to-file. This puts the United States in line with how most countries around the world issue patents. A statement of Obama administration policy summarizes the rationale for this change: "By adopting a first-inventor-to-file system, the bill simplifies the process of acquiring intellectual property rights. This provision provides greater certainty for innovators, reduces legal costs that often burden small businesses and independent inventors, and makes it easier for innovators to market their inventions in the global marketplace."
The legislation also gives the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office greater power to establish and levy its own fees. Congress hopes this will reduce the backlog of approximately 700,000 patents awaiting review at the time of the legislation's passage. For example, the office can now charge an appropriate fee to fast-track an application toward approval. This fast-track option guarantees a 12-month turnaround for all patent applications, rather than the typical three-year waiting period.
But the legislation has also come under harsh criticism. "This is not a patent reform bill, this is a big corporation patent giveaway that tramples on the rights of small inventors. It changes 'first to invent' to 'first to file,' which means if you are a big corporation and have lots of resources, you will get there and get the patent," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. While companies like Microsoft, IBM, Apple and Google support the legislation, some entrepreneurs and Internet start-ups oppose it for the same reasons Sen. Cantwell specified.
So not everyone is happy with the bill Obama signed into law. Nevertheless, it represents a significant overhaul of the patent system, as Obama promised. We rate this Promise Kept.