Patent Office Bill Advances

A measure to overhaul operations at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office breezed through a House subcommittee markup on voice vote Wednesday, LEGI-SLATE News Service reported.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., apparently has undergone significant behind-the-scenes negotiations, enabling Judiciary Courts and Intellectual Property Subcommittee members to make quick work of the markup session. Coble is chairman of the subcommittee.

Coble's bill, based on a popular bipartisan measure in the 104th Congress, would make the PTO a government corporation with more flexibility to manage its operations and budget. The PTO, however, still would remain under the "policy direction" of the commerce secretary, according to Coble.

The measure also would ensure user fees collected by the PTO are not diverted by Congress to unrelated programs, as has happened in several of the last sessions of Congress. Since 1990, the PTO has relied on user fees, not tax dollars, to finance its operations.

But millions from the user fees the PTO had collected has been spent by Congress for other uses, dramatically reducing the agency's operating budget at a time when patent applications have been rising, Coble has argued.

To maintain the PTO's budget, Coble amended his legislation to allow the agency to continue to levy user fees for its services and to keep that money in a special account for its use only. Congress still would have to release the funds to the PTO, and the agency would be limited to collecting $119 million in fees in FY99 and each year thereafter, under the amendment.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., claims Coble's bill will enable foreign countries to pirate U.S. intellectual property. He says provisions allowing the publication of patent applications 18 months after those applications are filed, even if the patent has not yet been granted, will allow others to capitalize on a patent-seeker's ideas.

The panel killed a separate bill by Rohrabacher that would have guaranteed inventors that their patents last for 17 years.

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