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New hopes for US patent reform

Written by Jane Coyle on 25 April 2007

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A bill that would revolutionise US patent law has been introduced in the US Congress. Though recent attempts at reform have failed, a recent reversal in the political climate in Washington could make change likely on this attempt.

The reforms are generally backed by the software and IT industries but opposed by the pharmaceutical sector, a situation which has blocked the passage of new laws in recent years. The changes reduce the awards given for patent violations in a bid to return patents to their original purpose of spurring, rather than stifling, innovation. Under US law a patent violation which is deemed to be 'wilful' qualifies for a tripling of the damages due to the patent owner. The proposed law makes it harder to prove that a violation was willful. The new law would also have the effect of reducing damages because it insists that pay outs are connected to the actual technology infringed and not to the value of the market for the larger products in which they might be used.

The law would also bring the US up to date with most other countries by awarding patents to the first person to file an application for a technology, not the first person to invent it. That, it is hoped, would cut down on the time and expense of companies vying to be judged the first to invent a technology. Washington observers have said that the likely fate of the bill has changed since Democrats, who are sympathetic to the IT industry and patent reform, won a majority in mid-term elections last autumn. The Republicans have historically been closer to the pharmaceutical industry. The legislation was introduced by a bipartisan group of politicians from both houses of Congress, the Senate and the House of Representatives. Led by Howard Berman, the group's mix of politicians from both parties and both houses could represent the bill's best chance of success. Similar legislation was introduced last year but stalled as the Senate awaited a vital patent decision from the Supreme Court.

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