In response to these issues, Congress passed the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (AIA), which became law in September 2011. It prescribes three major reforms: First, to try to improve the quality before a patent is issued, it has allowed more third-party input so USPTO examiners might get more relevant “prior art” as they judge whether an incremental gap in technology warrants a patent. This adds a crowd-sourcing aspect to patent examination, says Gregory L. Maurer, partner and patent attorney at Klarquist Sparkman LLP, a global intellectual property (IP) law firm in Portland. “It allows somebody to surface information they would otherwise overlook. Part of the hope is competitors would do that, but there’s also public interest groups,” he adds, that could provide feedback on pending patents.
Secondly, the AIA increased opportunities for post-grant review so challengers can dispute an already issued patent directly to the USPTO for a fee, instead of having to go to court. Stephen J. Joncus, a Klarquist Sparkman partner and IP litigator, likes this process and uses it frequently “because both sides get to argue.” It was designed to improve patent quality and divert some of the litigation surrounding disputed patents.
The third and most anticipated AIA change takes effect in March and will align U.S. policy with that of other countries. The patent system will move from first to invent as it’s been for more than 200 years, to first to file, so whoever files a valid patent first receives it whether or not they actually developed the technology. Joncus is skeptical that it could reduce litigation: “I don’t think I’ve ever been in a litigation where the first to practice was an issue.”
In the shadow of these AIA reforms, Oregon startups are busy innovating under the radar, relying on their attorneys to sort out legal details. But they still value patents and are concerned about the policy shifts.