Progress On Patents Is Pending

The future of many businesses, and perhaps even the competitiveness of U.S. industry, hinges on the amount and quality of patent protection companies can get. And patent questions are getting more complicated every day as companies, universities, and individual scientists attempt to gain protection for everything from individual genes to fundamental manufacturing processes.

The U.S. patent system is full of anachronisms and quirks that can hamper progress -- and sometimes give foreign industry advantages. The Patent & Trademark Office still clings to a policy of granting patents to those inventors who can prove they first cried "eureka!" Much of the rest of the world simply awards a patent to the first to apply, thus curbing costly litigation.

Everyone would benefit if ongoing negotiations aimed at harmonizing the world's patent systems were to bear fruit. There is hope for progress. After decades of intransigence, U.S. companies and the patent office appear to be willing to give up such American idiosyncrasies as "first to invent" in exchange for patent reforms in Japan and Europe. The Commerce Dept., which is responsible for the patent office, needs to use this newfound flexibility to insist on concessions from other nations, such as speeding up Japan's excruciatingly long patent examining time. The patent office also needs to rev up its automation efforts -- it still stores its patents in wooden boxes, for example. And the Bush Administration needs to make sure that the U.S. has enough qualified examiners to make the right decisions on increasingly difficult and high-stakes patent questions. Unless the U.S. moves to restore the patent system's health, there is a risk of snuffing out that crucial fire of innovation.

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