Government Squanders 'Our Brilliance'

June 30, 1991|By HELEN DELICH BENTLEY

WASHINGTON — Washington.-- Our patent system is being undermined by a federal government that does not understood the important role of patents in developing the United States' industrial might. The small inventor who traditionally has been the initiator of modernization and change in this country is being spurned in favor of rules changes that will benefit only rich and powerful corporations -- and foreign governments.

Many people are surprised to learn that 17-year patent grants are no longer automatically given. Now, patents are based on a 4-year grant. With payment of additional fees, they may be extended to 17 years. Nine years ago the initial filing fee for a patent was $65, plus $177 if the 17-year patent were granted. Now the filing fee is $315, plus $1,405 in fees for a 4-year patent or $3,095 for a 17-year patent.

The government is planning to increase ''small entity'' applicant fees by an additional 86 percent. These ''small entities'' are individuals and small companies employing fewer than 500 people. They file 44 percent of U.S.-origin patent applications, and 34 percent of all applications filed.

These fees are being charged in an attempt to make the system pay for a faulty futuristic computer system which already has cost $300 million. The fiscal-year 1992 user-fee increase is $315 million, for 1993 another $100 million -- if inventors continue to file.

From its inception over two centuries ago, the American patent system never was intended to serve as a fountain of money, nor as a government business enterprise. The purpose of the patent system is to protect and provide the ideas and products to

furnish employment and improved living standards for American workers.

Patents are not maintained when the fees become prohibitive for the inventor. Since the 1986 change reducing the patent period from 17 to 4 years, more than 50 percent of government patents and 40 percent of small-entity patents have lapsed. The ''little guy'' and the government give up their patents because of the cost, and these patents then are essentially for sale to companies and foreign governments. The reason is simple: The monetary risk is too great when only one in 10 inventions is ever produced, and only one in 100 ever makes money.

In 1964, as the government and Patent Office moved to raise patent fees from $30 to $65, a letter to the editor in the trade publication Product Engineer argued that ''our economy has gained more from patented ideas that the Patent Office has cost. . . . Does not this in effect make the Patent Office self-supporting? Incidentally, the expense of operating the Patent Office is peanuts compared to the cost of some agencies which do not make comparable returns, if any, to the economy.'' This letter could have been written today.

Our stiffest business competitors benefit from these ill-conceived actions. Japan understands completely the importance of the American patent system. Indeed, at the turn of the current century, it was a Japanese official, Korekiyo Takahashi, reported after a trip to the U.S. that ''We have looked about to see what nations are the greatest, so that we asked ourselves, 'What is it that makes the United States such a great nation?' We investigated, and found that it was patents, and we will have patents.''

A decade ago, the Japanese conducted a series of seminars and concluded that the patent system is the key to U.S. industrial might. Today, 48 percent of the patents filed here are of foreign origin, and of these, 21 percent have been filed by the Japanese.

Historically, societies have treated patents as vitally important. In 1474, the city of Venice adopted a patent system, and in 1594, Galileo received a patent for raising water and irrigating land. Patent policy had an important role in making possible England's 14th-century cloth-manufacturing industry. The Massachusetts Bay Colony granted the first American patent in 1641 to Samual Winslow for a ''method of making salt'' just 21 years after the Pilgrims first landed in the New World.

Everything that we make or use has a patent, and the ''right to patent'' is fundamental. Our Founding Fathers recognized the importance of patents and trademarks in that only inventors as a class were protected in the Constitution. The Patent Office was created in the second session of the First Congress, on April 10, 1790, in an ''Act to Promote the Progress of the Useful Arts.''

Our system has traditionally served America well. In the 1960s, fTC Edwin Land, founder of Polaroid, said in a speech: ''The only thing that keeps us alive is our brilliance, and the only way to protect our brilliance is our patents.''

Making the system too expensive for the small inventor works against the best interests of Americans. We should restore the patent system so that it works for the small inventor, not just for the privileged corporations and foreign governments.

Helen Delich Bentley represents Maryland's 2nd District in Congress.

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