Norman: Fireworks and Patents Are Two Important Sparks

Posted June 21, 2011 at 6:48pm

This July Fourth — as we celebrate 235 years since our forefathers signed the Declaration of Independence — here’s hoping anyone who cares about innovation will be celebrating another important moment: the first real modernization of the U.S. patent system since July 4, 1836.

Like the fireworks we use to celebrate July Fourth, patents represent a special spark — the type that can move our economy.

Patents protect sparks of genius — from the flicker of an idea to careful research and testing to a new invention such as a lifesaving medicine. Patents protect intellectual property, the ideas that our brightest minds create, by granting the innovator an exclusive, yet limited, period to develop and market an invention.

Many people would be surprised to know we still follow standards established by the Patent Act of 1836. The world has changed considerably since then, and it is time for our system to reflect the needs of the modern era and to keep our country competitive with the rest of the world.

The House is considering legislation that would modernize the system by streamlining the process for reviewing and challenging patents. This bill, like legislation passed by the Senate, would strengthen our system while protecting patent owners and the incentives that drive innovation and create American jobs.

These protections are essential. The United States has always had a competitive edge when it comes to innovation. However, as other countries invest in innovation and technology to stimulate their economic futures, our strong advantage has become more tenuous.

Modernizing our patent system will strengthen our natural advantages. Consider this: While our patent system promotes development of new innovations and technologies, the Patent and Trademark Office has a backlog of more than 725,000 applications waiting for review. That’s 725,000 potentially innovative ideas that are slowly becoming outdated before they are fully examined.

While the PTO has made strides in the past year to reduce the backlog, the bottleneck remains overwhelming.

Something must be done, and Congress has proposed important solutions.

 Patent reform legislation would change the process from a “first-to-invent” system to a “first-inventor-to-file” system, thereby awarding the application that is first filed while injecting fairness and clarity into the process.

The legislation also proposes a more consistent process for challenging questionable patents.

Inventors and consumers — such as patients with unmet medical needs — both win with a modern patent system.

The quest to deliver better solutions for devastating diseases such as cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease has required billions of dollars in resources. A stronger patent system that removes ambiguity from the process will help ensure that potentially lifesaving medications continue to be developed.

Patent protection drives job creation and protects innovation.

More than 650,000 people are employed by the biopharmaceutical sector — and more than 3 million jobs overall are supported by our work.

Intellectual property is at the heart of these jobs, and in a field where the development of a new medicine can take an average of 10 to 15 years and cost more than $1.3 billion, it is essential that intellectual property is given its due protection.

A broad coalition of universities, medical colleges, organized labor, health care organizations and businesses support the America Invents Act.

One hundred seventy-five years is a long time to wait. Let’s follow the leadership of our forefathers and send a bill to the president this July Fourth so we can celebrate a different kind of spark.

Douglas K. Norman is the general patent counsel for Eli Lilly and Co.