Patent Reform Act clears the Senate

The Senate passed the Patent Reform Act 95 to 5 on Tuesday night setting the wheels in motion for the nation's first major patent processing overhaul in more than 60 years.

The major component of the bill would modernize the U.S. patent system, moving it from a first-to-invent system to a first-to-file system. That change, aimed at reducing patent litigation costs, would bring the U.S. system in line with those of almost every other country in the world. The bill would also take measures to improve the operations of the U.S. Patent and Trade Office and to prevent the government from using the money collected to process patents from being used for other purposes.

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The patent bill has been pending before the Senate since last Monday but its progress was severely hampered as senators attempted to alter it with amendments that were not germane to the underlying legislation. It also experienced delays as the Senate wrestled with legislation to prevent a government shutdown.

Last week several Republican senators consumed hours of floor time as they attempted to attach an amendment to the bill that would express the "sense of the Senate" that the Constitution should be amended to force the government to balance the budget. That amendment was defeated by a two-vote margin.

The bill also survived an amendment offered by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that would have stripped language switching the nation’s patent system to a “first-to-file” system, gutting the bill of one of its most fundamental actions. The Senate voted to table that measure 87-13.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who managed the floor debate for the bill, often noted the slow progress the non-controversial bill was making through the upper chamber. Just minutes before the vote began an argument between party leadership on budget issues threatened the immediate future of the vote, causing Leahy to express some concern.

The Senate Judiciary Committee began considering several versions of the Patent Reform Act starting in 2005 but ran into opposition and various obstacles along the way.

The five no votes were cast by Sens. John Ensign (R-Nev.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho).

The bill will now be sent to the House for consideration. 

The Senate adjourned at 7:03 on Tuesday and is scheduled to return at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday. At 10:40 a.m. some senators will gather in the chamber to proceed to the House for a joint-session of Congress in order to welcome Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Two budget votes are scheduled for 4 p.m.