Will patent law changes help businesses grow?

Businesses have faced years of delays getting their inventions patented due to a backlog in the U.S. Patent Office. But patent law is about to change and speed things up.

It took just seven weeks for Thomas Edison to get a patent for inventing the light bulb. But the average wait for a patent now?

"I typically budget about three years," answered inventor Jerry Waterland at VSP Technologies in Prince George.

Waterland has received twelve patents for designing special gaskets that seal parts inside engines, such as those inside F-16 aircraft.

"From what I understand, there is such a backlog of patent applications that an examiner doesn't even take a first look at your application for at least almost a year," Waterland told us.

The America Invents Act is supposed to change that. It changes the system from "first to invent" to "first to file," which most other countries use. That means, even if you were the first to invent the light bulb, the patent will go to the inventor who applied for the patent first.

Explained patent attorney John Thomas of Thomas & Karceski, PC, "Whoever files that patent application first will win the race for that invention. But understand it's very infrequent. It doesn't happen very often."

There are pros and cons to the "first to file" system. The pros: it will reduce lawsuits over who had the idea first.

The cons: "This has got to force people to rush into filing patents," said Waterland. "And I think people who are accustomed to the old system or want to put together a more detailed high quality patent application, can possibly be burned by this."

The patent office is now hiring up to 2000 additional examiners, plus 100 more judges to handle appeals.

Said Thomas, "So they can handle applications more quickly. Maybe we'll see some of that, maybe the pendency will come down."

Application fees will be cut by 75% for small businesses. Fees range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars right now, depending on the complexity of the invention. But the new law lets inventors pay an extra $2400 to $4800 to fast track their patent approval process to a year.

Waterland says getting patents faster will make a big difference for his company. He says other companies have tried to copy every gasket he's designed.

"If its a formal U.S. patent that has been received for that product, that's much more of a barrier for people to infringe than merely a patent pending status," he told us.

Just in the last ten years, the number of patent applications has tripled. 244,000 were approved in 2010. The new patent law takes effect March 16, 2013.