News

Top U.S. intellectual property official vows to clear patent backlog

A top Commerce Department official Tuesday vowed to unclog  the country’s beleaguered patent office, linking efforts to clear hundreds of thousands of patent applications to creating jobs and reducing America’s trade deficit. In an interview with MedCity News, David Kappos, Undersecretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property who directs the United States Patent and Trademark Office […]

A top Commerce Department official Tuesday vowed to unclog  the country’s beleaguered patent office, linking efforts to clear hundreds of thousands of patent applications to creating jobs and reducing America’s trade deficit.

In an interview with MedCity News, David Kappos, Undersecretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property who directs the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), said the Obama administration hopes to add more than 2,200 patent examiners over the next three years and overhaul the office’s aging computer systems.

“Innovation has become the centerpiece of the American economy,” Kappos said. “And patents are the currency of innovation. We’re not going to be a low-cost manufacturing economy. People understand the one thing that protects innovations and that’s intellectual property.”

Kappos was in the Twin Cities Tuesday to meet with medical technology companies and speak at William Mitchell College of Law. 3M Cos. and Medtronic Inc. are two of the largest patent filers in the United States.

Large companies and start-ups have long complained about long delays at the USPTO. The office has yet to decide on 750,000 patent applications.

“It’s taking much too long,” Kappos said. “That number needs to be taken down substantially.”

To speed the process, Kappos plans to hire an ombudsman to mediate disputes between companies and examiners, although the official will not have the power to overrule the office. He also said the USPTO will recruit examiners with experience in intellectual property law instead of college graduates with science and technology backgrounds. The office will also double the length of provisional patents to 24 months from 12 months .

However, a major push to reform the country’s 50-year-old patent laws has repeatedly stalled in Congress. Last month, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) , the chairman of Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Orin Hatch (R-Utah), the committee’s top Republican, jointly proposed legislation to streamline the patent system, including limits on damages in royalty disputes and establishing a tougher legal standard for “willful infringement” of patents.

Major technology companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft support the legislation, arguing they spend too much time and money defending themselves from frivolous lawsuits from so-called “patent trolls,” companies that do nothing but enforce patents. But some say the bill could harm start-ups and entrepreneurs trying to legitimately protect their inventions.

In 2008, the Supreme Court upheld the ruling of a federal appeals court that substantially limited the amount of damages that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Convolve Inc. could seek in their patent infringement lawsuit against Seagate Technology, the big disk drive maker that has major operations in Bloomington, Minn. and Shakopee, Minn. Experts say the ruling will make it considerably more difficult for plaintiffs to win substantial damages from companies suspected of violating patents.

Kappos declined to comment on the legislation except to say today’s patent laws need to be updated to reflect rapid technological changes.

“I personally believe, without endorsing any legislation, that our nation’s patent laws can benefit from updating,” Kappos said. “Fifty years seems like a very long time. Technology has changed. Why not our laws?”

However, Kappos was formally the top IP attorney for IBM, which strongly supports the Senate bill.

“The first significant update to the nation’s patent laws in more than 50 years will bolster American competitiveness in the global economy and help stimulate innovation,” the company said in a statement last month.

Kappos says patent reform is especially crucial to the Twin Cities’ medical device community.

“It’s an incredibly important industry because it creates jobs and saves lives,” he said. “The most important thing we can do is to champion the needs of [medical device companies] and ensure they are successful as they can be.”