Address Of Senator Patrick Leahy On World Intellectual Property Day

. . . . Senate Floor

As we finally begin to turn the corner on the coronavirus pandemic, the hard work of rebuilding our economy begins. One of the core engines of the American economy is intellectual property. From the smallest startup to the largest multinational company, intellectual property is central to creating jobs, boosting economic output, and protecting consumers. It is appropriate that today we celebrate World Intellectual Property Day, which recognizes the important role that intellectual property plays in promoting innovation, creativity and economic growth.

This year’s World IP Day theme celebrates the contributions of small and medium sized businesses to the global marketplace. These small enterprises make up 90 percent of the world’s businesses. Whether through protecting their brands with trademarks, or their inventions with a patent, intellectual property allows these small companies to grow and succeed. And yet here at home, far too many Americans with an entrepreneurial spirit find key elements of the intellectual property system out of their reach.

Last week, the Senate Judiciary Intellectual Property Subcommittee, which I am privileged to chair, held an important hearing to find ways to boost access and inclusivity in the patent system. We know that women and people of color are chronically underrepresented in the patent system, which results in a serious loss to our economy. I am particularly proud that this hearing featured testimony from Georgia Grace Edwards, a Middlebury College graduate and entrepreneur who realized after spending a summer in Alaska and eight to twelve hours at a time on ice that she was at a serious disadvantage when it came to answering nature’s call during her treks. Like so many innovators before her, Georgia Grace got to work and designed a new zipper that can be incorporated into a variety of women’s pants.

While Georgia Grace was ultimately able to successfully navigate the patent system and secure protection for her idea, she faced a number of barriers along the way. These barriers included the high cost to obtain a patent, particularly from legal fees; a lack of knowledge about how the patent system works, and the lack of representation of women throughout the system.

Ten years ago, Congress enacted the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act, which put important structures in place to increase access the patent system. These structures are well suited to help bring a more diverse set of inventors into the innovation economy. At our hearing last week, we heard specific ideas for building on our success from ten years ago. I intend to explore these ideas on a bipartisan basis in the coming weeks so that we can ensure that the very small businesses we are celebrating today have access to intellectual property protections, regardless of the owner’s background, zip code, or economic status.

As the President weighs who to nominate as the next Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, I encourage him to choose a nominee who shares my commitment to increasing access and inclusivity in the patent system. It is also important that the next Director respect the law, including statutory bounds set by Congress; the last Administration took steps to undermine the Leahy-Smith Act by acting outside of those statutory bounds. I have always sought to curb the potential for poor-quality patents to be abused, which drove much of the work we undertook ten years ago. I look forward to supporting a nominee for PTO Director who shares my view that it is important to weed out poor quality patents and avoid the potential for abuse, while at the same time reinforcing the protection provided to high quality patents.

We must also work to ensure that hardworking small business owners and creators who rely on copyright protections to make a living are able to protect their works online. While I appreciate the steps that some online platforms have taken to address the persistent problem of online infringement, much like the issue of diversity in the patent system, more work needs to be done. Last month I joined with Senator Tillis and other members of the IP Subcommittee in sending a letter to major online platforms outlining specific voluntary measures they could adopt to crack down on online infringement. I hope that on World IP Day, the leaders of these online platforms will take a moment to consider the plight of the individual songwriter or photographer, or the independent film producer, and give serious thought to steps they can take to ensure that creators can adequately protect their works online. For these small and independent creators, nothing short of their livelihoods is at stake.

Finally, I would like to recognize the important work our IP system does to protect consumers. The trademark system helps to guide consumers in finding which products are legitimate, and which are not. Unfortunately, fraudsters are relentless in exploiting opportunities to fool consumers into buying counterfeit products. This has been especially dangerous during the global pandemic. Just last month, authorities seized more than 65,000 counterfeit 3M N95 masks. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. As the Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I am committed to ensuring that Customs and Border Patrol has the resources it needs to respond to the ever-evolving counterfeiting threat.

A diverse, accessible and effective intellectual property system that rewards creativity and innovation is essential to our nation’s continued prosperity. I look forward to working with Ranking Member Tillis and the other members of the IP Subcommittee, as well as with the Appropriations Committee, to both celebrate the achievements of American inventors and ensure that their contributions are being protected.

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