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Patent reform bill passes US Congress

patent6501.jpgUS inventors are set for an easier time getting and defending patents following the passage of a long-awaited patent reform bill by the US Senate. As the US House passed the America Invents Act in June, the bill now goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.

As Nature reported in April, the act will switch the US system — in which costly administrative procedures are sometimes required to establish who has priority on inventions — to a simpler “first-to-file” system in which patents are granted to the inventors who get their applications to the patent office first. “[The act] will encourage innovative companies to make research and development investments,” says Gary Griswold of the Coalition for 21st Century Patent Reform, a lobby group that includes GE, Procter and Gamble and Eli Lilly.

The new bill also includes a stipulation that the US Patent and Trademark Office should be allowed to keep the money it makes from inventors’ filing fees, rather than having those funds diverted to other parts of the US government. That provision has been watered down compared to an earlier version of the bill that passed the Senate on 8 March, so that Congress may still divert funds if it chooses to.

Both changes are expected to help the US patent office clear a growing backlog of applications (see graphic, from Nature).

Other stipulations in the new bill include a ban on patenting claims on a “human organism”, which has been patent office policy since the mid-1990s but will now be law. There is also a requirement for the patent office to study how exclusively-licensed patents on the use of genes for diagnostic tests are affecting patients’ ability to get a second opinion, which has been topical since a US appeals court ruled in July that genetics testing firm Myriad Genetics may enforce its exclusive patents on genes implicated in breast and ovarian cancer.

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