You may remember that last fall, there was an incredibly weak attempt at patent reform known as the America Invents Act. This was the result of a nearly seven-year-long fight over patent reform, with nearly every good idea from early proposals being watered down to completely useless, and a few bad ideas ramped up for good measure. Nothing in the AIA actually dealt with the problems of patent trolls or patent thickets. One of the ideas that survived the years-long culling was flipping the US patent system from a “first to invent” system to a “first to file” system. I’ve long argued that this is a very bad idea for a variety of reasons. First, it encourages inventors to file for lots of patents as early as possible to beat anyone else to the Patent Office, rather than making sure that the invention is actually worth patenting. It also seems to go against the basic principle of the patent system, if it’s supposed to reward actual inventors. Finally, switching to a first to file certainly seems likely to favor large companies with big legal staffs that can focus on rushing out as many patent applications as possible. Smaller entities might be in trouble.
To be fair, the arguments in favor of this switch are basically (1) everyone else does it (mostly true) and (2) proving who was first to invent is a total pain in the ass and can be slow and costly. Thus switching to a first to file system could save a lot of wasted time and money in the cases where there’s a dispute. That may be true, but I’m not convinced it’s a good reason.
That said, it doesn’t much matter what I think: it made it into the bill and is now the law. The US Patent Office is now seeking comment on how it should go about implementing this new rule. It’s put out two requests. First, it wants to know how it should change the examination guidelines for patent examiners (pdf and embedded below) to take this new rule into account. Second, it wants comments on how it should amend the “rules of practice,” regarding this change — since the current rules are based on the old “first to invent” system.
For those thinking of participating, this is not the place to argue why “first to file” is a bad system (or even why the patent system is broken). I imagine any such filings will be (correctly) deemed off-topic and discarded. However for those patent holders and patent lawyers (and scholars) for whom this change is a big deal, now might be the time to share some thoughts with the USPTO for how it can implement this change with as little damage as possible.