Clearer Signposts On The Road To A Patent

Under President Clinton's nominee for patent commissioner, Bruce A. Lehman, the stodgy U.S. Patent & Trademark Office is about to become more inventive. In the past, patent examiners have had to give thumbs up or down on applications in new fields, such as software or genetic engineering, without clear guidelines on what's patentable. Often, their early decisions have been second-guessed by the courts.

So Lehman plans to develop a mechanism for figuring out the appropriate sort of intellectual-property protection for new technologies. He plans to hold hearings and establish policies before unprepared examiners are inundated with applications. "That way," says a senior patent official, "we can be ahead of the curve, rather than having a policy thrust upon us." Lehman plans to hold early hearings on one of today's most controversial issues--how much researchers have to discover about the DNA sequences and functions of individual genes before they can win patent protection for them.

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