Patent Privatization Pending

Proposals to privatize the patent office have investors and small businesses worried about the potential influence of big business

A coalition of inventors and small businesses are up in arms over White House and congressional plans to privatize the Patent and Trademark Office.

"I don't want to see the patent office in a situation where it could be co-opted by multinationals and foreign companies.... Whenever you have a private corporation, it opens that door," said Steven Shore, the Washington-based lobbyist for the Alliance for American Innovation, Inc. "Congressional oversight is absolutely imperative" to ensure that inventors and small companies can protect their technology from large U.S. and foreign companies, he said.

Republicans in Congress and officials in the Washington-based patent office, headed by Commissioner Bruce Lehman, are pushing the privatization plans.

Rep. Carlos Moorhead, chairman of the intellectual property subcommittee of the House Judiciary Panel, leads the Republican effort. Administration officials are still negotiating the terms of their privatization plan.

Administration officials said they expect to adopt a final privatization plan as soon as this week. The administration's plan is expected to be very similar to Moorhead's, said William Morin, a lobbyist with the Washington-based National Association of Manufacturers, which supports the privatization effort.

Under Moorhead's plan, "Congress will retain complete oversight.... It can run more efficiently and be more friendly if it is run like a private corporation," said Tom Mooney, who works for Moorhead.

But a patent corporation could be vulnerable to pressure from large companies that want to weaken patent protection for inventors and small companies; the latter are responsible for 60 percent of U.S. patents, said Shore. If patents are weakened, inventors and small firms will not be able to protect their ideas or win financial backing for development, he said. Such pressure would be increased by a measure in Moorhead's bill that would allow the privatized office to accept gifts from companies, he said.

"What a load of hooey.... It sort of boggles the mind that anyone can make such a charge," said Morin. "I can't imagine that Congress will get too far away from" proper oversight, he said.

Shore said his group cannot make a final decision to support or reject privatization without further study.

In the meantime, Moorhead's privatization bill, HR. 1659, the "Patent And Trademark Act of 1995," has become entangled in a fight between Moorhead and conservative stalwart Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif.

They are fighting over a Rohrabacher proposal to reverse a patent law adopted last year that limits patent terms to 20 years from when an application is first filed.

Rohrabacher wants to restore the previous patent law, which extends patent protection for 17 years after a patent is approved.

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