Promoting Innovation and Competitive Markets through Quality Patents
By Quentin Palfrey
Thank you for your petition asking the Obama Administration to direct the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to stop issuing software patents and to void existing software patents. We are committed to reforming the patent system in a way that puts patent quality first and promotes innovation and competitive markets.
On September 16, 2011, President Obama signed the America Invents Act, which will help American entrepreneurs and businesses get their inventions to the marketplace sooner so that they can turn their ideas into new products and new jobs. The America Invents Act was passed with President Obama's strong leadership after nearly a decade of effort to reform the Nation's outdated patent laws. It will help companies and inventors avoid costly delays and unnecessary litigation, and let them focus instead on innovation and job creation. Congress recognized that more needs to be done to review and weed out overly-broad patents that have been issued in the past, and the recently enacted legislation provides important tools to invalidate certain overly-broad patents that might inhibit innovation, including those involving software. For example, the new transitional post-grant review program will help the USPTO take a closer look at certain business method patents, including a number of software patents. Other tools for cost-effective and speedy in-house review of granted patents will also become available in less than a year under the new law.
The America Invents Act directly addresses certain categories of patents, like patents involving tax strategies, but it did not change the law regarding the patentability of software-related inventions. There's a lot we can do through the new law to improve patent quality and to ensure that only true inventions are given patent protection. But it's important to note that the executive branch doesn't set the boundaries of what is patentable all by itself. Congress has set forth broad categories of inventions that are eligible for patent protection. The courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have interpreted the statute to include some software-related inventions. Even before the legislation passed, the Administration took other important steps to ensure that only high-quality patents are issued, and that we curb or invalidate overly-broad software patents. For example, the USPTO recently issued guidance to its examiners that tighten up the requirements that inventors fully describe, specify, and distinctly claim their inventions so that vague patents are not issued. We've also issued new guidance to examiners to help ensure that patents cover only "new" and "non-obvious" inventions.
As we begin to implement the new law, patent quality will be at the top of our minds. As Director Kappos recently explained, "[w]hile speed is essential to a well-functioning USPTO, patent quality is the sine qua non of our success, and we are all deeply committed to ensuring patent quality." We will tackle a number of important questions in the coming months, and we invite you to work with us to implement the new law in the most effective way possible. To help facilitate that dialogue, we have set up a public implementation website at http://www.uspto.gov/aia_implementation, and we'd love to hear your comments by email, postal mail or in person at a number of public events that are listed on the implementation site. Through that process, you can help us work through important questions on how to implement provisions of the new law, like inter partes review, post grant review, and covered business method patents.
We understand that the concern about software patents stems, in part, from concerns that overly broad patents on software-based inventions may stifle the very innovative and creative open source software development community. As an Administration, we recognize the tremendous value of open source innovation and rely on it to accomplish key missions. For example, the U.S. Open Government National Action Plan recently announced that the source code for We the People and Data.gov would be open sourced for the entire world. Federal agencies are likewise spurring innovation through open source energy. For example, the Department of Defense issued clarifying guidance on the use of open software at the Department. And, the Department of Health and Human Services has become a leader in standards-based, open sourced policy to power innovations in health care quality and enable research into efficient care delivery. The tremendous growth of the open source and open data communities over the years, for delivery of both commercial and non-commercial services, shows that innovation can flourish in both the proprietary and open source software environments.
Quentin Palfrey is Senior Advisor to CTO for Jobs and Competitiveness at the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy