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What's New in Technology for March 2007

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Technology: Lawmakers Aim To Revamp Patent System
Though disagreements among powerful industry groups have derailed previous efforts to revamp a patent system that many business leaders decry, hopes are high that a new panel, headed by Representative Howard Berman (D-California), will succeed. The new House Judiciary Subcommittee chairman made it clear that he considers patent reform a high priority by launching this effort with a panel event, "American Innovation At Risk," featuring a line up of speakers with a track record of urging changes to the way patents are granted and contested. Chairman Berman assumes the leadership role on the intellectual property panel previously held by Republican Representative Lamar Smith.

An overhaul of the patent system has attracted support from both parties. Previous efforts failed not because of partisan issues, but rather because various key industries disagree on how certain issues should be addressed. Here's a short overview of 2 key points that have bogged down previous would-be reformers:
  • How damages to patent holders are calculated
    High tech companies want to see damage assessments based on only the value of the patented item - not the value of the entire final product. Their viewpoint is not surprising when you consider that each technology product may involve hundreds of different patented components. On the other hand, pharmaceutical companies oppose this, arguing that this approach would not provide appropriate protection for inventors working to develop new medicines and pharmaceutical products.


  • Equitable ways to handle business method patents
    A controversial class of patents that provides protection to processes, business-method patents continue to attract lively discussion. Amazon.com attracted wide-scale attention for disputes surrounding its "one-click checkout system." The issue remains contentious, with some opponents to the current laws seeking to restrict or outlaw this type of patent in any new legislation. Others caution against adopting a patent system with specific standards designed for different types of patents.
The new House Judiciary Committee has yet to disclose what will be addressed in their first initiative, although Berman has indicated that a new patent bill is forthcoming. Whatever happens next, the panel leaders have indicated that they believe the success of any overhaul will rely heavily upon securing funding sufficient to allow the patent office to employ appropriate examiners and staff.

Others also believe that in addition to sufficient staffing, the system needs an overhaul to allow examiners to get the information needed to determine what is truly new and innovative and what is derivative. Some leaders in the legislative and educational sectors also believe that proposed patent applications should be made public several months before filing to allow other individuals to submit objections or evidence that the "invention" may be predated by earlier ideas or inventions. Critics of the current system point out that there have been too many questionable patents issued because examiners lack the time and resources to properly assess applications.

Whatever their position, lawmakers and those involved in technology and other interested industry sectors agree that there is no quick fix ahead.

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