Patent Office Chief Defends Effort to Restructure Agency

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U.S. Patent and Trademark Commissioner Bruce Lehman defended Congress' efforts to revamp the 207-year-old patent office yesterday and lashed out at opponents who claim the restructuring will make it easier for foreign competitors to steal U.S. inventions.

In an address to intellectual property lawyers in San Diego, Mr. Lehman said "millions of Americans" were being misled by critics who claim a restructured patent office would hurt independent inventors and small business owners.

The House of Representatives recently passed legislation that would convert the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office into a government-owned corporation similar to the U.S. Postal Service. The legislation also includes a provision requiring that patent information be made public 18 months after the patent application is filed - whether the patent has been approved or not.

A similar bill has passed the Senate Judiciary Committee and is awaiting a vote by the full Senate.

"These bills are not `Pearl Harbor in slow motion' . . . these bills will not be `bugle taps for the American dream by undermining our job base, preventing new companies from forming or limiting our future growth,' " said Mr. Lehman, quoting some of his critics. "Let's not make public policy on the basis of fantasy."

As a government agency, the patent office faces cumbersome hiring and equipment purchasing limits. Under the proposed legislation, it would enjoy much greater flexibility in hiring patent examiners and purchasing more modern computer equipment, which supporters say would vastly improve the agency's efficiency and save as much as $50 million a year.

Unlike most government agencies, which are supported by tax dollars, the patent office is funded chiefly by aplication fees for the more than 200,000 patent applications processed annually. …