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IP Pros Fight to Save Patent Library

Patent professionals and entrepreneurs are fighting to save a patent library they say is an invaluable tool.

Sunnyvale, Calif., has poured millions into the Sunnyvale Center for Innovation, Invention & Ideas (SCi3), but now the city is ready to pull the plug. A coalition of entrepreneurs, however, has teamed with Cogswell Polytechnical College to try to move the library to the college and put operations into the black.

Howard Lieberman, a dean of Cogswell, a private, non-profit college founded in 1887, is putting out the word to inventors and patent attorneys, urging them to attend a March 29 meeting of the Sunnyvale City Council that could give the center new life or shutter it for good.

SCi3 began life as the Sunnyvale Patent Library, established in 1963 to serve the needs of technology companies in Silicon Valley. It became part of the Sunnyvale library system in 1965.

As part of the federal Patent and Trademark Depository Library (PTDL) System, the library offered access to USPTO databases, documents and information. It documented all the patents issued in the United States since 1790 and all registered trademarks, while providing access to a complete set of Official Gazettes of the United States Patent & Trademark Office.

The library was supposed to be managed by Sunnyvale, but as a self-supporting entity. However, while it was heavily used, drawing visitors from throughout the greater San Francisco Bay Area, it didn't generate enough revenue to meet expenses.

"The library drew up a plan involving fund raising and offering fee-based services," said Sunnyvale City Councilman Fred Fowler, a supporter of the plan to move the center to Cogswell. "We tried it, and it didn't work."

As the USPTO began publishing information on the Internet, the situation worsened, according to Bill Soby, a Sunnyvale entrepreneur and member of the SCi3 Foundation, the group hoping to take over management of the library.

"As a consequence of many things being available for free, the revenue of the library began to continually decline over the past five or six years," Soby said.

Even if Internet information has made some of SCi3's databases less necessary, Soby said it's an important resource for Silicon Valley. "Intellectual property can be essential if one is going to get venture capital," he said, and IP protection is an important element of a businesses' strategy.

According to the SCi3 Foundation, Silicon Valley inventors were awarded 8,809 patents in 2003 -- 10 percent of all patents awarded that year.

"SCi3 is very valuable, but it's also costly," Fowler said. "The amount of subsidy the city has pumped into it over the years is substantial. We're all in a budget crunch."

The city council voted in September to close the library this June at the end of the city's fiscal year. To do so, it will have to begin winding down operations at the start of April, Fowler said. So, the March 29 meeting is critical.

While the transition plan calls for the foundation to assume all future operating expenses, it asks the city to continue to pay the part-time salaries of one librarian and one assistant for the next six months, so the library can continue to operate while the foundation works out details.

Lieberman and the SCi3 Foundation board want to expand on the distance-learning and video-conferencing activities already available at the library. Inventors can pay $250 for a video meeting with a patent examiner, while USPTO-sanctioned classes help inventors understand how to use the patent system.

Lieberman said the classes already are generating most of the center's revenue.

"That's one of the reasons to move it into the school system," he said. "Schools are in the business of teaching; libraries are in the business of giving out information. That's been part of the problem."

"We only need six months to relocate, change management and have positive cash flow!!" Lieberman wrote in an e-mail to a group of intellectual property attorneys. It's a plea familiar to the Valley's venture capitalists and investors. With business booming there, maybe the city council will take a flyer.