Most Americans are unaware of a fundamental change in our patent system
resulting from the new General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade: Patents will now
expire 20 years after an individual first files an application, rather than 17
years after a patent is issued, the current law. Inventors, university
researchers, and venture capitalists are all crying "foul," arguing that the new
system robs them of the fruits of their labor and investments. They have a very
Supporters of the change say it will speed up the patent process and eliminate foot-dragging by inventors, but the fact is that most delays are caused not by inventors but by the patent office itself. "Most inventors want to get their patents approved as quickly as possible," says Don Banner, a former PTO Commissioner. He notes that the complexity of many new technologies frequently means that it can legitimately take years for a patent to issue.
Banner believes that, in its rush to adopt intellectual property policies prevailing in the rest of the world, the Clinton Administration is weakening the patent system. For example, the Administration favors replacing America's "first to invent" system with a "first to file" approach found in Europe and Japan. This change would make it very difficult for independent inventors and small companies to defend their technologies against large firms with the staff and resources to run roughshod over inventors' rights. In Japan, for example, large companies routinely pirate the work of inventors by submitting a barrage of related patent applications. Equally distasteful to inventors is the Administration's support of "prior user" rights, which would allow companies to escape licensing fees to inventors if they can show that they built a product related to an inventor's technology before he or she filed a patent.
These changes could deal a serious blow to a unique American patent system that, while by no means perfect, has made this country the world's innovation leader.