Patented foolishness

Yet another raid on fees raised by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, this one to the tune of $100 million, offers one more bit of evidence as to why Congress has become a national joke.

Apparently, its 17% public approval and 77% disapproval ratings, according to Gallup, aren't enough to make this crowd look in the mirror, but to place another roadblock in the way of innovation, even though the economy of the present and the future depends on an efficient patent approval system. It makes you wonder why there isn't complete turnover every two years.

Not only is Congress again weakening the agency as it exists today – unfortunately, the patent office has become accustomed to congressional raids of the fees it charges for reviewing patents – but it promises to derail needed reforms.

For example, the office was developing a fast-track process in which patent applications, for an additional fee, could be reviewed in one-third of the usual time – one year as opposed to three years. Why should the PTO bother with process improvements? That money is more likely to be pilfered than to be used to expedite patent examinations, or hire additional examiners, or open satellite offices to reduce a large and growing backlog of patent applications.

The latest siphoning of funds was part of the bill designed to avert a government shutdown. That means the Obama administration, which should know better, was in on this, too.

The impact of these raids on technology transfer could be significant. Many applications are filed to patent discoveries made at research universities like UW-Madison (such as James Thomson's embryonic stem cell research), and the securing of a patent is a key factor in attracting angel or venture capital after the idea is spun into a commercial venture.

This process takes long enough under ideal circumstances, but raiding the funds raised by the patent office only prolongs the commercialization of potentially life-enhancing – and job-creating – innovations.

In a sense, the patent office is being punished for its own success in being a rare profit center for the federal government. The office is largely self sufficient because it can charge fees for its services rather than rely on taxpayers for its annual revenue stream.

One would think it would be celebrated, but no, our Congress just can't help itself. I hope the Wisconsin congressional delegation, starting with Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, is ready to defend our state's interests here. The patent office is a giver, not a taker. I wish I could say the same for the congressional raiders.

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