Patent Reform Stalls
Rep. Rohrabacher holds up patent reform bill, prepares for debate in 1997
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., has stalled the patent reform bill, boosting chances for passage next year of his rival measure that helps small inventors at the expense of large, multinational infotech companies.
"We had thought [the patent-reform bill] would be up before Congress went [on vacation Aug. 2]. We remain hopeful that it will be considered next year," said Jack Krumholz, Microsoft Corp.'s representative in Washington.
Companies such as Microsoft and IBM Corp., as well as the Clinton administration, are backing the patent reform bill sponsored by Rep. Carlos Moorhead, R-Calif, who chairs the intellectual property panel of the House Judiciary Committee. Moorhead's bill would streamline the Patent and Trademark Office by converting it into a government-owned corporation funded by patent application fees.
It also would ensure publication of applications 18 months after they are filed.
On June 11, the House Judiciary Committee unanimously approved Moorhead's bill, HR 3450, the Inventor Rights Protection and Patent Reform Act of 1996.
In contrast, Rohrabacher's bill, HR 359, the Patent Restoration Act, bars the Patent Office from publicizing U.S. patent applications before they are approved. It also reimposes the patent policy created before the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which protects patents for 17 years after they are granted, even if the patent application process takes several years to complete.
Rohrabacher's bill is needed to protect the interests of small inventors whose inventions could be protected for less time under GATT's 20-years-from-filing provision, said Dale Neugebauer, a spokesman for Rohrabacher. Also, their inventions could also be pirated by large companies once they are publicized after 18 months, he said.
More than 200 of the 445 House members support Rohrabacher's bill, he said.
But U.S. companies would gain from a privatized office, which could speed up the patent-award process, said Tim Hackman, a Washington-based lobbyist for IBM Corp., Armonk, N.Y.
Also, Moorhead recently modified his bill to give inventors at least 17 years of patent protection, despite the GATT provisions, according to a statement from Moorhead's office.
Rohrabacher's bill would undermine international cooperation and gives foreign companies an unfair advantage, Hackman said.
For example, U.S. patents filed overseas are automatically publicized by many foreign countries, including Japan, Hackman said. U.S. patent applications are not publicized, making it difficult for U.S. companies to track technological trends, he said.
Moorhead has not been given a date by Republican leaders for a floor vote on his bill. "We're not sure [about a date]. We hope to get time on the floor" after the summer break, said Moorhead's spokesman, David Joergenson. Congress returns after Labor Day and will likely stay open until early October.
Moorhead can't risk a debate on patent reform for fear that Rohrabacher will instead win passage of his bill, said Gary Curran, Rohrabacher's chief of staff.
If Moorhead's bill does not pass this year, "there will be a compromise next year," said Rohrabacher, who has been battling Moorhead for two years over their rival patent-reform bills.
Rohrabacher's clout will be increased by the retirement of Moorhead and Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., the chief Democrat supporting HR 3460. "That changes the playing field dramatically," said Neugebauer.