Improve Patent Policy – Promote Energy Innovation

America will continue to depend upon innovation in the energy sector. With prices of oil and gas driven down by new technology, increased supply and availability of renewables, the public’s attention to our energy supply has diminished. But America will continue to depend for its security and prosperity on widely available energy, energy innovation, and the products that come from traditional sources of fuel. That is why changes to patent policy matter for America’s future.

Previously, Penley on Education and Energy has focused on the critical role of advances in energy research (See, e.g., Energy Storage Advances in Research). Now renewed attention should be given to potential patent policy changes that may support those advances. On February 15 2015 Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) reintroduced the Innovation Act in the House Judiciary Committee. Today, a follow-up hearing will be held on this important patent legislation. While the primary focus of the legislation continues to be on patent trial proceedings, this is an opportunity to make other important changes to American patent law and the patent process.

Among needed changes are means to increase the speed by which patents are processed and approved. Slowness in patent approval processes inhibits advances in the application of research, discourages innovation and limits American competitiveness. Providing additional revenue to the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is one means to increase the number of patent examiners and encourage the development of needed technology.

Absent increased funding, which would address the problem, there are other potential changes in policy that can be adopted says the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in a late 2014 report, Federal Policies and Innovation. They include giving the USPTO more flexibility in setting its fees. Fees are considered discretionary spending and are therefore subject to the 2011 spending caps. Congressional action could provide flexibility to the USPTO for setting fees and a Congressional appropriation could permit the USPTO to use the revenue it collects from fees for improving and speeding the patent approval process.

Why are changes necessary?

The answer is simple – to improve the application of innovative research. One example comes from research related to energy storage, important for increased use of energy generated by the sun and wind. Among the research in this area is the work of US scientists and engineers on lithium ion batteries. For example, West Virginia University Professors Hui Zhang, Xingbo Liu and their colleagues published research in 2013 on a means for increasing conductivity and decreasing the energy required for a chemical reaction in lithium ion batteries. A related patent is now before the USPTO where patents often languish due to inadequate resources of the USPTO.

But innovation in battery storage and renewables is not the only source of difficulty for American innovation. Recent patent applications include innovations in drilling, analyzing topographical data, separating chemical components of hydrocarbons, etc. These and related innovations affect availability and uses of traditional fossil fuels.

The Innovation Act is worthy of the public’s attention, and today’s hearing is just one step. Introducing needed changes to the USPTO’s patent processing will improve access to America’s innovation.   The Innovation Act before the House Judiciary Committee offers the opportunity. America will continue to depend for its security and prosperity on energy innovation. That is one very important reason for improving our patent policy.


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