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House leaders asked to referee patent fee fight

Nine House committee chairmen and several other House Republicans submitted a letter Wednesday urging Speaker Dennis Hastert. R-Ill., and Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, to allow a floor vote this year on legislation that would increase the Patent and Trademark Office's user fees and prevent congressional appropriators from diverting any PTO fee revenue to unrelated programs.

"America is on the verge of a robust and vigorous economic period of growth, but the potential inability of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to handle new patents could limit that growth," the lawmakers, all members of the House Republican High-Tech Working Group, told Hastert and Delay.

A spokesman for Hastert said that the speaker had not yet had a chance to comment on the letter. A DeLay spokesman could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The bipartisan "Patent and Trademark Fee Modernization Act," which the Judiciary Committee approved in July, would raise various PTO user fees by an average of 15 percent. It also would require all PTO funds to be credited to a PTO account within the Treasury Department, while authorizing the PTO director to use all fee revenue for agency operations.

Judiciary Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property Subcommittee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the bill's chief sponsor, said the lawmakers had sent the letter because high-tech companies had indicated that they would not support the legislation unless it included language ensuring that the fees would be used for technology-related purposes within the PTO.

Appropriations Committee leaders oppose that language, because it would eliminate the requirement that congressional appropriators set the agency's funding levels.

"We will encourage our members to vote against the bill," an Appropriations Committee spokesman said Wednesday.

The Appropriations spokesman said the PTO had done "quite well" in terms of budget allocations from the committee, and argued that although the agency generated its own revenue, its budget should not bypass congressional appropriators.

"It's a slippery slope," the spokesman said. "Once you take the PTO off-budget, where do you stop?"

But Ralph Hellmann, the Information Technology Industry Council's senior vice president for government relations, said that, unlike most other federal agencies, the PTO did not receive general Treasury subsidies.

"This is 100 percent funded by the companies who pay the fees," Hellmann said. "We think it's a bit of a different bird."

Smith, who organized the letter to DeLay and Hastert, said supporters of the legislation "hope to reach an agreement with the Appropriations Committee to allow PTO fees to be used for PTO purposes."

Fifteen other House Republicans signed the letter, including Judiciary Chairman John Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., Energy and Commerce Chairman W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, R-La., Science Chairman Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., Homeland Security Chairman Chris Cox, R-Calif., Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., Rules Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., Agriculture Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., International Relations Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., and Resources Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif.