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Patently offensive

by Jane Chastain

Posted: July 26, 2007

1:00 a.m. Eastern

My father-in-law, John Chastain, had the privilege of observing one of America's greatest inventors. As a young man, he worked at a grocery store in Ft. Myers, Fla., where Thomas Edison had a winter home.

Pop, as we affectionately called him, would tell us about seeing Edison in his twilight years going to and from his laboratory in the wee hours of the morning, as he made his way to the grocery store to sweep the floors and restock the shelves before customers arrived. The man who invented the light bulb and whose power stations brought electricity to hundreds of communities never stopped working. At his death in 1931, Edison had amassed 1,093 U.S. patents. (By 1931, Pop owned his own grocery store. He was, no doubt, influenced by Edison's work ethic.)

Thomas Edison and other energetic inventors helped make the United States an industrial world power. Most inventors never achieve fame. However, there are thousands, perhaps millions, of American inventors working away in their shops and garages on ideas that will improve our lives and keep America on the leading edge of technology. They will spend countless hours to prove out their ideas with the hope of getting a patent that will make all those hours worthwhile.

What do you think would happen if there were no way to protect those inventions? Would our inventors keep working away if we take away this incentive? Of course not!

Believe it or not, there are sinister forces at work in Congress to undercut the nation's inventors and small tech firms that depend on a limited number of patents for their livelihood. Some of the same large corporations that tried to undermine our immigration laws now are working to undermine our patent laws to make it easier to steal ideas. These multinational corporations have plenty of money with which to develop their own products or pay inventors royalties for the use of their patents. However, their game plan is to cut the high cost of development by scavenging off the ideas of others.

The vehicle that would allow this to happen is H.R.1908 in the House and S.1145 in the Senate. A key provision in these so-called patent reform bills is that they require that patent applications be published and available on the Internet only 18 months after they are filed. Bear in mind it takes about 31 months for a patent to be issued. Patent applications are tricky. One idea is made up of multiple parts and it often takes multiple filings to protect an idea. The U.S. operates under a "first to invent" principle, while most of the world operates on a "first to file" principle. If evidence exists that you were the first to come up with an idea, it is very difficult for a corporation to take your idea and look for some small detail that has not been patented in order to uncut your invention. These House and Senate Bills would turn our system upside down.

Imagine that you have a great idea and, using your own resources, you file a patent application to protect that idea. A large corporation, with a battery of lawyers, takes a look at your invention – before or after the patent or patents have been issued. It then files a plethora of patent applications based on your idea to undermine your right to the invention.

Would you have the resources to fight Microsoft, Cisco Systems and IBM – three of the multinational corporations pushing this bill – if one of these giants went after your invention? Most individuals and small businesses would not!

One of the arguments of the proponents of this bill is that we need to "harmonize" our patent laws with those of other countries. Absurd!

This is not the first time this scam has been tried, but it is the first time this stealth bill has made it past the committee process. Proponents are trying to get a floor vote before the August recess.

In 1997, these multinational corporations were derailed by a small band of congressmen and senators and a handful of citizens like you. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, RCalif., is the chief opponent of the bill in the House. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., is leading the charge against it in the Senate. These men need our help.

Alert your favorite talk-show hosts and put in some calls to your representatives in Congress.

Our representatives in Washington have pulled the rug out from under our manufacturers. They have torpedoed the workforce by bringing in foreign workers, and now they want to give away American technology. Have they no shame?