Congress can’t keep its hands out of Patent Office cookie jar 

Most people are aware that Social Security would actually be in pretty good shape today if Congress had not continually raided the trust fund and spent the money on other things over the years.

Workers paid payroll taxes for the specific purpose of funding their Social Security retirements, but the only thing Congress saw was a pile of money. As a result, today there’s nothing in the Social Security Trust Fund but a pile of IOUs.

But they didn’t stop there. Congress has also made a habit of raiding another lesser-known budget and diverting the money toward other spending.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is that rare government agency that doesn’t ask a dime of American workers and taxpayers. Instead, the Patent Office is entirely funded by the voluntary fees paid by those who file patent and trademark applications.

In turn, the Patent Office has a very clear idea who its customers are. USPTO employees know their customers are the inventors who use the system and who have an interest in seeing an efficient and functioning patent system in the United States.

And that’s important in a country that depends on innovation to drive our economy and our global competitiveness. In today’s knowledge economy, our economic growth is almost entirely dependent on innovation and creativity, and on the commercialization and export of that creativity. An efficient and effective patent system is critical to fully leveraging and commercializing American innovation.

You would think Congress would recognize the importance of USPTO to our economy and make sure the Patent Office has the funding it needs in order to efficiently and promptly serve the needs of U.S. innovators.

But you would be wrong. Since 1992, Congress has diverted more than three-quarters of a billion dollars in USPTO user fees into unrelated and almost certainly wasteful spending, according to a recent study from the Institute for Policy Innovation.

The result of Congress’ raid on USPTO user fees is that the Patent Office doesn’t have sufficient funds to hire enough patent examiners and to pay them well enough to retain them after they’ve gained valuable expertise.

So the length of time it takes to get a patent granted has grown longer — inexcusably long for an economy dependent on innovation.

But it gets even worse. Several years ago, patent filers agreed to pay higher application fees in exchange for a promise that Congress would stop raiding the USPTO budget. Congress agreed to raise the fees, but never followed through on its promise to stop diverting patent filing fees.

So one of the several much-needed improvements for the American patent system contained in proposed patent reform legislation currently before Congress is a provision designed to keep Congress from raiding USPTO user fees.

The legislation has passed out of  Senate and House committees, but some in Congress are getting nervous about having their hands kept out of the Patent Office cookie jar.

Remember, these aren’t even taxpayer dollars. USPTO raises enough funding via filing fees to entirely fund its operations.

Tom Giovanetti is president of the Institute for Policy Innovation and represents IPI as a non governmental observer at the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva.

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Tom Giovanetti

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