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Questions and answers about new law Obama signed streamline, speed up patent approval process
WASHINGTON (AP) ' President Barack Obama says a bill he signed Friday overhauling the U.S. patent system will "put a dent" in a towering stack of nearly 700,000 applications still waiting to be reviewed, making it faster and easier to turn innovative ideas into new jobs and new businesses.
Some questions and answers on how the new America Invents Act would help accomplish that:
Q: Why are there so many applications sitting around the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office?
A: It's primarily because of insufficient manpower and funding. The patent office doesn't have enough examiners to keep up with the filings, which have increased slightly under Obama. The agency has a backlog of 1.2 million patents pending, including nearly 700,000 applications alone that are waiting to be reviewed. The agency is funded entirely by fees but Congress has tapped its funding stream over the years.
Q: How long typically until an application is reviewed?
A: Nearly three years, on average. Obama said inventor Thomas Edison's application for the photograph was approved in seven weeks.
Q: How will the America Invents Act make the process better?
A: In several ways. The agency will be able to set its own fees and, with congressional oversight, keep all the money it collects. Plans call for hiring between 1,500 and 2,000 examiners during the budget year ending Sept. 30, 2012. Congress currently sets the office's annual budget and the fees it can charge. David Kappos, the patent office director, told Congress that change would raise an additional $300 million, which could be used to increase staffing and upgrade computers and other information technology.
Applicants also can pay extra for a faster review process that is supposed to cut the average wait to one year, down from three. Small businesses would get a discount on the fee for that special process. New guidelines clarify and tighten standards for issuing patents. The law also switches the U.S. from a "first-to-invent" system to a "first-to-file" system, a change designed to help reduce costly legal battles and even the playing field with other industrialized nations.
Q: What about the backlog?
A: Kappos said the changes could help cut that in half, to 350,000 applications.
Q: How many jobs would be created?
A: Kappos told Congress that "millions of jobs are lying in wait," without being more specific.
Q: How soon will the changes take effect?
A: It depends. Some parts of the law take effect immediately. Other parts will require a year or 18 months.
Q: How is it that Democrats and Republicans in Congress were able to agree on overhauling the patent process when they can't seem to agree on much of anything lately?
A: Both parties have long recognized that the patent system was inadequate to meet the needs of 21st century innovators and the groups pressing for change represent the entire political spectrum, from manufacturers and drug companies with ties to Republicans to high-tech companies and academics more often associated with Democrats. Still, the issue went unresolved for years, a result of the sheer complexity of patent law and resistance from some groups, particularly smaller businesses and private inventors who feared they would be disadvantaged by the changes. This year, the stars were aligned after several court decisions settled litigation questions that had held up the bill. Increased concerns about losing the patenting edge to China and other foreign competitors, and the pressure on both parties to produce legislation that could actually put people to work also were factors.
Associated Press writer Jim Abrams contributed to this report.