Virginia Click was breathing heavily as she carted two white plastic bins the size of milk crates from her car into the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office here Wednesday afternoon.
"It's normally nothing like this," said Click, who works for an Alexandria, Va., law firm that prepares applications for clients ranging from small inventors to big businesses.
But as was apparent from the hundreds of patent applications in her two bins, this is not a normal week at the patent office. The volume of patent requests has tripled as anxious applicants have rushed to beat new rules--which took effect at midnight Wednesday--that they fear will shorten the length of time their various innovations and breakthroughs will enjoy protection from imitators.
The new rules were established under legislation that carries out the new international trade agreement that took effect this year.
Under the old rules, patent protection began on the date a patent was granted and lasted for 17 years. The new rules grant protection for 20 years--but the clock begins ticking the day the application is filed.
Richard Maulsby, director of public affairs at the patent office, said he believes that many people are unnecessarily worried about the changes. The patent office takes an average of 19 months to grant a patent from the date of application, he said. If this holds true, a patent holder would then have more than 18 years of protection under the new rules.
But based on past experience, many applicants believe that they will fare better under the old rules because the patent office may take more than three years to process their applications.
The patent office often takes four, five or even 10 years to decide for biotechnology or other highly technical fields, said George Gates, a partner with Merchant & Gould, a law firm specializing in patent law.
Help may be on the way for those who liked the old system. California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) proposes to make the patent protection effective 17 years from the date of granting or 20 years from the date of application, whichever is longer.