President Obama signed the America Invents Act into law in late September. The measure, enacted with bipartisan support, aims to streamline the the process by which patents are granted.
The bill has provoked media gridlock. The press corps doesn't seem to know how to cover bipartisan legislation in the present adversarial climate. Some halfhearted attempts to criticize the law from liberal and conservative perspectives quickly faded. In Washington parlance, the objections have not gained "political traction." Other commentators viewed the new law simply as legislating more paper-shuffling, evoking images of government bureaucrats in accountant's eyeshades seated at back-office desks with their inkpads and rubber stamps. This reaction suggests the new law is not a big deal.
But it's a very big deal. The America Invents Act represents the most extensive patent law reform since the Patent Act of 1952, which expanded the number of patentable products and clarified old-fashioned language.
The new law overhauls how we encourage and protect innovation. For instance, instead of supporting the "first to invent" concept, it changes the criterion to "first to file." There is also a fast-track option that can expedite patent application processing to permit a decision in a year or less, rather than the three-year period that has become standard.
It is also designed to reduce the backlog of patents, from nearly 700,000 down to a more manageable number. And there are new provisions for better protecting a patent overseas. to make exporting easier, as well as clarifying some of the language and reducing the cost of litigation to defend a patent.
All in all, the new patent law may prove very advantageous to small and medium-sized companies with a knack for innovation. Will it create millions of jobs? Maybe and maybe not. If it does have an impact on jobs, it will take years to become evident. Nevertheless, it will certainly assist in bringing products to market more rapidly.
For such industries as bulk vending, the new law may attract new inventors. Dreamers and tinkerers toiling away in home workshops now have a shot at launching a product in a timely manner without a roomful of high-priced patent attorneys.
For well-heeled venture capitalists and large corporations, the multimillion dollar legal fees associated with patents were simply a cost of doing business that they hoped to recover somewhere down the road. However, for one-man shops and small industries, they were innovation-killers. Just the prospect of patent lawyer fees could stop an idea in its tracks. And investments in new not-yet-patented products, no matter how innovative, were tough to get. Bringing a product out of the garage workshop into production was always a daunting task. It's still daunting, but the new law makes it a bit easier.
For bulk vending, an industry in which basic machine design has not changed dramatically in more than half a century, the entry of new players into the field could really shake things up. For those with long memories, the last major innovations took place decades ago with the introduction of giant machines and spirals. Can we now look forward to renewed innovation? Again, maybe. There is a whole world of advanced and inexpensive technology out there today that didn't exist just a few years ago, as well as a whole new generation of engineers comfortable with using it.
Whatever changes are in store for the industry probably won't happen overnight. These things take time, but it will happen.