Over the objections of much of Silicon Valley and warnings from California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer that the legislation could harm small inventors, the Senate overwhelmingly approved a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. patent system on Tuesday.
The America Invents Act, six years in the making, passed the Senate on a 95-5 vote as both parties joined the Obama administration in arguing that an antiquated and litigation-riddled patent system is hobbling innovation. Feinstein voted for the bill, despite losing a vote on a critical amendment, while Boxer opposed the entire bill.
In Silicon Valley, the nation's nucleus of invention, small inventors and huge tech icons have lined up against the legislation, each for different reasons.
A key element of the bill, which Feinstein and Boxer tried to kill, would award a patent to the first person to file a patent application, a change from the current practice of awarding a patent to the first person to invent a product.
Feinstein had supported a first-to-file system but she said she became convinced that was a mistake after listening to small inventors and venture capitalists in California. Her amendment lost 87-13.
Apple, Adobe, Cisco, Dell, Google, Intel and other tech giants who banded together in the Coalition for Patent Fairness took no position in the first-to-file debate, but they said the overall bill does not do enough to reduce litigation.
They say their engineers waste time in court defending frivolous patent-infringement lawsuits by "patent trolls," businesses that exist solely to sue for alleged patent infringement.
The tech giants contend that the number of these suits has soared in recent years. In the most notable case, patent holding company NTP Inc. won a $613 million settlement in 2006 against BlackBerry maker Research In Motion.
Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said moving to a first-to-file policy would bring the United States into agreement with most patent laws in the rest of the world, and provide a simple, clear date to establish a patent, rather than a costly process of proving that one was the first to invent something.
It takes an average of three years to secure a patent, and the U.S. patent office has a backlog of more than 700,000 applications. A record 209,000 patents were issued last year. President Obama considers patent reform part of his "win the future" agenda that is designed to position the United States as a leader in the world economy.
Obama said he was pleased by Senate passage of the legislation, calling it the "most significant patent reform in over half a century."