Congress to introduce patent reform bills todayApril 18, 2007

In a press conference scheduled for 2:30 2:15 pm EDT this afternoon, Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), with Representatives Howard Berman (D-CA) and Lamar Smith (R-TX), are expected to announce introduction of identical bills in both the House and Senate in an effort to reform the patent system. [Update (4/19): see this post for more detail on the proposed legislation.] Senator Leahy is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senator Hatch also serves on that committee. Representative Smith is the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, and Representative Berman is the chairman of that committee's subcommittee on Courts, the Internet, and Intellectual Property. The committees have held hearings regarding possible revisions to U.S. patent law earlier this year.

Last year, Senators Hatch and Leahy introduced the Patent Reform Act of 2006, and in 2005, Representative Smith introduced the Patent Reform Act of 2005. Both of these bills would have substantially changed much of United States patent law, such as by changing from a "first to invent" system to a "first to file" system, adding a post-grant opposition period for recently-issued patents, as well as changing how damages are calculated in patent infringement cases.

These types of reforms typically pit software and technology companies (who are typically for weaker patents) against pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies (who are typically for stronger patents) in a lobbying battle. The reason for the difference in positions stems from the amount of R&D investment required to take a product to market in the varying fields: it's comparatively easy for a software engineer to develop a new software concept, whereas it often requires years of research and millions of dollars to develop a single pharmaceutical. Also, tech companies are more often defendants in patent cases, whereas pharmaceutical companies are more often plaintiffs.

Because these same members of Congress have been involved in these past efforts at patent reform, it is reasonable to guess that this year's effort will be similar to those proposed in previous years. However, we'll have to wait until this afternoon to see what the future may hold for patent law this year.

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