Lawmakers pursue more money to guard intellectual property

Reports accompanying spending bills signal appropriators are troubled by growing backlog of patent applications and the time it takes to process them.

Intellectual property protections for U.S. inventors and businesses would get a modest boost in fiscal 2008 if the House and Senate agree to the funding levels proposed for various programs across several agencies and departments.

The Patent and Trademark Office would receive $1.9 billion -- the full amount requested by the Bush administration -- under the House-passed appropriations bill and the measure awaiting a vote in the Senate. The agency got $1.7 billion in fiscal 2007.

But appropriators in both chambers also offered a stern warning. The committee reports accompanying the bills, S. 1745 and H.R. 3093, indicate that lawmakers are troubled by the growing backlog of patent applications and the time it takes to process them.

"The PTO's operations are not keeping pace with innovation," the Senate report said. The House report requests that PTO submit a study detailing current and planned hiring efforts, the affect that additional staff would have, and the impact of the backlog on American competitiveness.

Mike Kirk, who heads the American Intellectual Property Law Association, lauded PTO's likely full-funding. "It's been a long struggle to convince Congress that this was a priority," he said.

For four years, appropriators have allowed the agency to keep fees collected from patent and trademark applications instead of diverting them to unrelated projects. That benefit should be made permanent, Kirk said. The change would "give the PTO a better opportunity to make long-term plans to address the problems they face," he said.

The bills also would give the multi-agency task force charged with enforcing U.S. intellectual property law the same funding as prescribed by the administration's budget proposal -- $1 million -- amid mounting concerns about the impact of global IP infringement. The figure would be a small increase from the $990,000 the White House requested for the National IP Law Enforcement Coordination Council.

NIPLECC has faced criticism from lawmakers and IP experts in recent years. The Government Accountability Office's Loren Yager told a Senate committee in April that the council has trouble "providing leadership despite enhancements made by Congress." A related presidential directive, the Strategy Targeting Organized Piracy (STOP), "could disappear after the current administration leaves office," Yager said.

Sens. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and George Voinovich, R-Ohio, introduced a bill earlier this year that would preserve much of the program's work.

Under the Senate Appropriations Committee's recommendation, the Justice Department also would get $13 billion to curtail domestic and international IP crime, which would include the creation of an FBI unit dedicated to multi-district and global cases.

The House committee report requests an increase in the number of FBI agents assigned to computer hacking and IP field units, and those at headquarters who support the criminal division's computer crime and IP section.

The same report recommends $48.4 million for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, $4 million more than the administration's request. The boost is intended for an increased focus on intellectual property, among other provisions.

The committee noted that piracy issues strain U.S. relationships with China, Russia and other countries. Lawmakers urged the office to "continue to prioritize such issues in bilateral and multilateral trade negotiations" and write a report on Russia's progress.

Solveig Singleton of the Progress and Freedom Foundation said she is concerned that lawmakers are "throwing money at institutions that aren't well-designed."