Lawmakers call for change to Patent and Trademark Office's fees

Lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee slammed their congressional appropriators on Wednesday for repeatedly diverting money away from the Patent and Trademark Office and leaving the team with a massive application backlog.

As the number of unreviewed applications continues to grow -- perhaps as large as 1.2 million, according to one estimate -- lawmakers said during a hearing Wednesday that reform to the office's funding structure would be crucial to ensure innovation. As many as 49 percent of all patents originate in Silicon Valley, noted Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.).

"The enemy is not on this committee; the enemy is on the appropriations committee and on the other side of the Capitol," said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.). "However, fiscal 2010 is another story. We may have a fee diversion of as much as $160 million. This is completely unacceptable, because as the economy gets better we're going to have more patent applications..."

"You need the additional money to be able to cut the backlog," the congressman added.

One such idea would allow the office to set and collect fees on its own, in an attempt to discourage lawmakers from expropriating the office's money to areas totally unrelated to patents.

Many members of the House Judiciary Committee signaled they would be open to exploring that approach, especially while more robust patent reform makes it way through Congress.

"What if there was an invention sitting on the shelf at the PTO... that could help clean up oil spills?" asked Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) in his opening statement. "Fee-setting authority would no doubt give the PTO more flexibility, which I support, but I want to make sure any additional fees would go to worthwhile purposes."

[Update, 11:45 a.m.] -- Wednesday's hearing grew somewhat testy, after PTO Director David Kappos failed to answer clearly whether he would support a fee fix done seperately from robut patent reform.

As that legislation makes its way through Congress, lawmakers mused whether an independent bill granting the agency more fee authority would prove amenable. But Kappos repeatedly declined to say whether he would support it, stressing comprehensive reform is still possible. He ultimately backed down and noted, "I truly think it'd be preliminary to comment on that now."

That frustrated Rep. Lofgren, who described Kappos' remark as "stunningly disappointing" and stressed the tech community would likely be displeased.