RealTime IT News

No Obvious Solutions for IT Patent Reform

BERKELEY, CALIF. --- Executives of a group of top-tier technology companies plan to roll up their sleeves to help solve problems at the U.S. Patent Office.

FTC Commissioner Mozelle Thompson closed a high-level conference on reforming the patent process Friday with the announcement of a new technology industry working group that will cooperate on making the patent system more responsive to technical innovation. Cisco, Intel, eBay, Symantec, Chiron, Microsoft, and Genentech said they will work with regulators and legislators on patent reform.

Mozelle gave the news to attendees at Ideas Into Action, a conference on patent reform sponsored by the University of California's Berkeley Center for Law and Technology. Mozelle brokered the formation of the still-unnamed group during the course of the conference, Chiron vice president and chief patent counsel Robert Blackburn told internetnews.com.

The conference, co-sponsored by the Federal Trade Commission and the National Academy of Science (NAS), let academics, attorneys and business leaders comment on two reports on how to reform the system, one by the FTC released in 2003 and the NAS', to be released Monday.

The U.S. patent process is deeply broken, according to the IT companies. As the number of patent applications has exploded, the quality has gone down. The result is boom times for lawyers and a lifetime of litigation for corporate counsel.

Jay Monahan, associate general counsel for eBay, said patent problems for his company began about three-and-a-half years ago, when it began getting mostly frivolous letters asserting claims.

"It's driven eBay's costs up. I spend more of my time on patent issues than any other single issue," he said.

Companies that use complex technology -- semiconductors, Internet software, biotechnology and nanotechnology among them -- have a strong focus on patents.

"Our industry is characterized by a rapid product development lifecycle and incremental innovation," said Michael Schallop, Symantec senior corporate counsel. "Competitors develop similar features or even improve on them, so you have an incentive to patent as many of your key product features as you can."

The lack of time examiners spend on individual patents seems shocking. The 3,000 examiners handle 350,000 applications a year. They only spend an average of 17 hours on any particular application -- spread out over as much as three years. Many panelists agreed that the quality of U.S. patents issued has gone down.

Continue to page 2: Is Congressional Action Needed?