Vast changes to U.S. patent law—the most sweeping since 1952—are rolling into effect through 2013, and for small business owners and inventors with patents, it’s time to get in the know. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is working under a new law, called the America Invents Act of 2011 (AIA). It was signed into law on September 16, 2011, with some elements taking effect immediately and others being phased in over an 18-month period.
John Boyd is a patent attorney in New York and he also holds five patents himself that he sold to Apple in 2010. Historically, the first-to-invent system relied on various methods to prove the date of the invention. “This is no longer the case,” says Boyd, a partner at Rimon Law PC in New York. “Now it’s whoever files first, and this harmonizes us with international law,” he says.
Indeed, getting the U.S. in line with the times was a key motivator behind the patent law reform, seen by many technology firms as long overdue. Supporters of the new law included the likes of 3M, Apple, Dell, eBay, Facebook, General Electric, Google, IBM and the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council representing more than 100,000 members.
“There’s been a lot of concern in the small business world about the changes to patent law,” says Boyd. As an inventor and an attorney, he is not only interested in the current law changes, but can see the pros and cons clearly from different perspectives.
The core AIA change to patent law is to do away with the old system that gave preference to first-to-invent dates and adopt the international standard of first-to-file. This means for all patent applications having a filing date on or after March 16, 2013, the new patent law takes effect and the first person or entity to file will be granted the patent regardless of who can prove they invented it first.
What’s to like in the new law for small businesses
Judith Szepesi has been a patent attorney for 15 years and is a partner at Blakely Sokoloff Taylor & Zafman LLP in Sunnyvale, Calif., in the heart of Silicon Valley. She works primarily with start-ups and small businesses and focuses on intellectual property protection in the software, hardware, security, and telecommunications industries. And for fun, “I do write the occasional bicycle seat, manual toy, or other mechanical device patent,” she notes.
Szepesi follows patent law carefully for her clients large and small, and points to one piece of good news for small businesses. The AIA has added a micro-entity status for very small inventors with no more than four patents (not including those assigned to an employer) and with gross income of less than triple the national median household income. Although a 15 percent patent fee increase went into effect with the new law on September 16, 2011, Szepesi says a file fee reduction of 75 percent is on the way for micro-entities, pending further definition by the fee setting authority of the U.S. Patent and Trade Office.
One part of the AIA law that has already gone into effect—which, according to Szepesi, can be an key advantage to small inventors—is that the Patent Office now permits virtual marking of products. “Previously, whenever a new patent was issued or a patent expired you would need to change your packaging to reflect the updated patent coverage,” she explains. “Under virtual marking, the product can be marked with a URL (such as the company’s website) and the company can simply update the website when patent coverage changes.” This can be a big plus for a small manufacturing company, as they would no longer have to spend money reworking or buying all new dies when their patent coverage changes.
Some in the patent industry, however, worry that the impact of this patent reform might weaken the rights of patentees and, as a result, patents owned by startup companies, research institutions, and solo inventors might be easily encroached upon by large corporations. Alexander Poltorak, CEO of General Patent Corporation and founder of the American Innovators for Patent Reform, suggests small inventors and small business owners have their patent attorneys regularly review their current inventions to determine which will require patent protection, and then file a provisional application as soon as possible under the new first-to-file law. And if a small business does suspect a patent infringement Poltorak says it’s imperative to hire a good patent attorney who is experienced in litigation.
Additional links from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
For more information regarding specific patent law changes and potential impacts to your business, you should consult an experienced patent attorney.
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