Historic patent reform bill clears Congress

The Senate joined the House Thursday night in passing a bill that would give the nation’s patent system its first overhaul in more than 50 years.

The America Invents Act, H.R. 1249 — which cleared the Senate in a 89 to 9 vote — would change the U.S. from a first-to-invent to a first-to-file patent system, a move proponents say would bring the U.S. patent system closer to systems already used by most of the rest of the world.

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"We can no longer stand on a 1950s patent system and expect our innovators to flourish in a 21st century world," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), an author of the bill, argued from the Senate floor. "Let's unleash the genius of the American people and our inventors in the United States of America.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), however, took to the floor in the moments leading up to the vote to argue that the reform would stack the patent process in favor of large, well-funded corporations. 

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"This isn’t a patent reform bill,” said Cantwell, with frustration evident in her voice. “This is big corporation patent legislation that tramples on the rights of small inventors. ... It is siding with corporate interests against the little guy.”

Cantwell had offered one of three amendments to the bill, which were defeated earlier in the day. 

The most controversial of those amendments was put forth by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to, in effect, prohibit the federal government from using funds raised through patent fees for unrelated purposes. That language was included in a previous patent reform bill passed by the Senate earlier in the year, but was not taken up by the House.

Leahy, who was also the floor manager for the patent bill, opposed Coburn’s amendment, arguing that its addition would likely “kill” patent reform efforts because the House would not accept it.

“I’ve worked for years against fee diversion,” said Leahy, who added that he supports the content of Coburn’s amendment. “But it was already rejected by the House of Representatives and they have made it very clear they will not change.” 

Coburn, however, called fee diversion “immoral” and "close to being criminal," and argued that senators ought not to shrink from doing the right thing out of a fear of what lawmakers in the House might want.

“Why would we tell the American people we are not going to do the right thing … because someone in the House doesn't want us to? That we are not going to put these corrections in the House bill?” asked Coburn.

The Senate rejected an amendment offered by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), 47-51, pertaining to a lawsuit over patent term extensions, and an amendment offered by Cantwell concerning transitional programs for covered business method patents, by a vote of 13-85.

Because the amendments were rejected the bill the senate passed is identical to the bill the House approved in June in a 304-117 vote, so it will now go to the president for his signature