US Senate to consider House patent bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Legislation designed to curb the growth of patent litigation advanced on Tuesday when the Senate voted to take up a bill passed by the House .

Senate voted 93-5 to set aside its bill and begin debate on a measure that passed the House in June and also contains provisions to help the patent office clear a years-long backlog of applications.

The Senate is expected to pass the bill this week given that it approved a similar bill by an overwhelming margin in March. President Barack Obama is expected to sign it.

The Senate bill, which is being set aside, is marginally stronger in terms of patent office funding but there are very few other notable differences.

The bill would allow the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to set its own fees, to do the hiring and technical upgrades needed to beef up its review of patent applications.

Fees collected by the agency would go into a special fund for the patent office and Congress would have to formally appropriate the money each year. The Senate version did not require the appropriations process.

Supporters of the legislation said they hope the funds will help the patent office clear out a backlog of just under 700,000 applications that are awaiting approval or rejection.

The measure would also create a post-grant review process to allow challenges to bad patents before they are used in litigation.

It would also grant patents to the first inventors to file, rather than requiring inventors to show they were the first to develop an innovation. This is to make the process easier for companies applying for patents in a variety of countries.

The patent reform effort began more than five years ago at the urging of the tech industry, which had been bedeviled by large and growing numbers of patent infringement lawsuits.

There were 2,296 patent lawsuits in 2000 in U.S. district courts. That number rose 23 percent to 2,833 in 2010 and is on track to hit 3,000 this year unless the economy softens further, according to Joshua Walker, head of Lex Machina, which tracks patent litigation.

In addition, the number of defendants per lawsuit has risen -- from an average of two in 2000 to three in 2010.

Some tech industry experts believe that a better-financed, better-run patent office, which issues fewer bad patents, would eliminate some of these lawsuits. Half of the patents challenged in court now are invalidated, which means they never should have been issued, says Daniel Ravicher, who teaches at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. (Reporting by Diane Bartz; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)