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Shortchanging Our Inventors Is Slowing Our Economic Recovery

Congress' delay in ending patent-fee diversion is costing America jobs at a time when we desperately need to be getting more Americans back to work. We need to fight for the power of good ideas.
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America is full of good ideas.

In fact, Americans have so many good ideas that they created a record backlog of patent applications at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, presenting both an opportunity and a serious problem for our economy.

Experts say that a single patent can create between three and 10 new jobs, but businesses whose growth depends on the granting of patents for their inventions are being forced to wait over two years before a patent examiner might even pick up their applications. They must wait another year for a final determination to be made.

The pace of American innovation far exceeds the pace of American bureaucracy.

Tasked with ending the logjam, PTO Commissioner David Kappos unveiled an innovative idea: the "Track One" expedited patent examination pilot program.

Businesses with inventions critical to obtaining capital investment and creating jobs would be given the option to skip the line and get an up-or-down determination on their applications within one year. The privilege would cost an additional $4,000 per application -- enough to pay examiners' overtime and hire more staff.

The solution was simple and fair. Inventors with time-sensitive applications could obtain faster consideration without slowing down the processing of applications on the normal track. It would have expedited as many as 10,000 patent applications this year and brought in an additional $40 million in fees.

After working for eight years at a manufacturing company where patents were the lifeblood of our business, I know that Track One would have made a real impact on our economic recovery and the workforce-in-waiting of engineers, tradespeople, laborers, and others ready to get to work.

The program would have started this week if Congress hadn't gotten in the way.

Although PTO finances its operations using the fees it collects on patent applications, PTO must ask Congress for a budget equivalent of what it thinks it will collect in fees that year. Most years, Congress allows PTO to expend up to that amount of money so long as that money comes in. But when PTO takes in more money than it planned for in its budget request, that money gets diverted to the Treasury, preventing PTO from increasing its competency and capacity, slowing down the patent-approval process.

That means, for an innovative program like Track One, PTO had to request a Fiscal Year 2011 budget that already included that $40 million in order to implement the program as it had planned to launch this week. Though it did just that, the continuing resolution passed by Congress last month only funded PTO to its Fiscal Year 2010 level, shortchanging the agency by $85 to $100 million and forcing Commissioner Kappos to pull the plug on the Track One program last week.

If you were looking for ways to limit economic recovery, stifling PTO's ability to grant patents would be pretty high on the list. Fee diversion is effectively a tax on innovation, punishing the very people we ought to be empowering. Congress has indulged in this practice for far too long.

The America Invents Act, which I co-sponsored and which passed the Senate in March by an overwhelming 95-5 vote, would end fee diversion and give PTO the ability to reduce the 700,000-long backlog of patent applications awaiting consideration.

Now America is waiting for the House to pass its own version of the measure, H.R. 1249, which cleared the House Judiciary Committee last month.

Congress' delay in ending patent-fee diversion is costing America jobs at a time when we desperately need to be getting more Americans back to work.

We need to move more good ideas from the PTO's inbox to the marketplace.

I hope Speaker Boehner moves quickly to bring H.R. 1249 up for a vote on the House floor. Every day we fail to act is another day that hundreds of thousands of innovations - and the millions of jobs they can create - remain nothing more than unread good ideas on paper in someone's inbox.

The loss of Track One is proof of that.

Chris Coons is a United States Senator for Delaware.