• U.S.

Patents: Reform Pending

3 minute read

Americans are an inventive people, a fact that is both the pride and despair of the U.S. Patent Office, the hard-pressed clearinghouse for some 85,000 new patent applications each year. Last week the office announced that it will hike its fees to applicants (from $60 to $125, plus a new $50 maintenance fee) so that it can better afford to improve and automate its service. And it needs improving.

Before granting a new patent, 1,000 examiners now have to dig laboriously through more than 10 million U.S. and foreign patents that fill the agency’s grey granite building in Washington.

The system has become so complex and overburdened that the backlog of applications has risen to 200,000, and the average patent now takes at least 3½ years to struggle through the maze.

This week the Senate is expected to confirm the newly appointed commissionerof patents, the 39th since the days when Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson personally handled the 200 applications made by Americans each year.He is Edward J. Brenner, 40, a reserved, rugged patent attorney and engineer for Esso, who will need all his own inventiveness to keep from foundering in a morass of words, charts and pictures.

No Rube Goldbergs. In the patent field, the day of an Eli Whitney, a Cyrus McCormick—or even a Rube Goldberg at work alone in a basement workshop—is largely over. Today, big corporations and the Government account for 70% of all patents issued.

Among corporations, General Electric holds the most (12,000), followed by A.T. & T., RCA, Esso, Westinghouse and Du Pont. The individuals who hold the most patents are also connected with corporations: Raytheon Scientist Percy Spencer alone holds 225, and Polaroid’s chairman, Dr. Edwin Land, has well over 100.

The patent, which grants a person or company the exclusive right to an invention for 17 years, is a vital industrial weapon. Patent logjams can slow research and development—a company is reluctant to go ahead until it knows that it is protected—and result in costly litigation. Only three weeks ago, after 17 years of hearings, examinations and appeals, Sperry Rand was finally granted a patent for the first logic system or basic system of its electronic computer.

Now the company must decide whether to sue other computer makers who use the same system.

Individualistic Inventions. Once, mechanical inventions dominated; the electromechanical telephone (Pat. No. 174,465) is still considered the most valuable invention ever patented. But the fastest-rising area of patents in recent years has been in chemicals and electronics; chemical patents now account for 20% of all new filings. Inventors nowadays are also hard at work in such areas as automated text reading, desalinization of seawater, freeze-dryingtechniques and the development of new drugs.

The patent office still gets bids for such individualistic inventions as eyeglasses for chickens and coffins with periscopes. And the little man, despite the predominance of the large corporation can still score. A mechanical clam catcher dreamed up a few years back by a onetime airplane pilot has grown into a $5,000,000 business around Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay.

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