When Thomas Edison applied for a patent for his light bulb on Nov. 4, 1879, it took the Patent Office 78 days to grant patent No. 223,898. When Apple's Steve Jobs began seeking patent No. 7,966,579 for the iPhone in 2007, it took 31/2 long years.
A new, regional Silicon Valley Patent Office was supposed to speed things up and break the logjam of 640,000 applications holding back innovation and business development. But the sequester put the project on hold.
Fortunately, Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, Mike Honda, D-San Jose, and Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, have introduced legislation to exempt the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office from the sequester. President Barack Obama should get behind fast-tracking the bill so he can sign it into law as quickly as possible.
Silicon Valley is leading the national recovery, but to accelerate its growth, or even hold its ground, the tech industry has to be able to beat its global competitors to market on the next big breakthroughs. The regional patent office would have as many as 150 examiners and could cut the patent application backlog in half, speeding products to consumers and justifying more investment in research.
Congress set aside $150 million of the Patent Office's revenues as part of the sequester. Talk about counterproductive: Not only would more patents increase tax revenue, but the money spent on the office comes entirely from fees paid by applicants.
Denying businesses and entrepreneurs -- job creators -- speedy service for their fees is the ultimate insult from this Congress.
Lofgren says Congress has recognized that some other agencies funded by user fees don't belong on the sequester list, and the Patent Office shouldn't be there either.
Silicon Valley won the competition for a regional patent office because it's the No. 1 generator of patents in the nation: one of every eight registered patents originates here. California accounts for 25 percent of the nation's patents.
Today, when a company applies for a patent, it has to send attorneys to Virginia for days to explain the application to patent examiners. It's costly and inefficient, and it stifles innovation, especially for startups. A regional office would allow valley inventors to talk face-to-face with examiners at a moment's notice, making for better, quicker decisions. Until the sequester struck, the valley office was expected to open in 2014.
"The sequester is a stupid way to do the budget," Lofgren said last week. "Even those who favored the sequester didn't think it would be used for fees. I don't know anyone who thinks holding up the regional patent offices is a good idea."
We hope she's right. This is a case in which industry really needs government action to drive economic growth.