Think it's time to change our patent system? So does Congress. Yesterday, the Senate approved the America Invents Act by an 89-8 vote that could bring about the most drastic changes to the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in five decades. Under the bill, which the House approved back in June, patents would be awarded not to the first person to invent a technology, but to the first one to actually file with the USPTO, bringing US policy in line with protocol adopted in most other countries. It also calls for a streamlined application process and would allow the USPTO to charge set fees for all apps. The revenue generated from these fees would go directly to a capped reserve fund, allowing the office to retain the lion's share of the money, rather than funneling much of it to Congress, as had become the norm.

Supporters say this extra revenue will give the USPTO more power to chip away at its backlog of some 700,000 patent applications, while a new third-party challenge system will help eliminate patents that should've never received approval in the first place. Opponents, meanwhile, criticized the bill for not eliminating fee diversion altogether (an amendment that would've placed more severe restrictions was ultimately killed, for fear that it would jeopardize the bill's passage), with Washington Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell questioning the legislation's impact on small businesses, calling it "a big corporation patent giveaway that tramples on the rights of small inventors." But Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who sponsored the bill, argued that yesterday's approval marks a major and historic inflection point in US patent policy:

The creativity that drives our economic engine has made America the global leader in invention and innovation. The America Invents Act will ensure that inventors large and small maintain the competitive edge that has put America at the pinnacle of global innovation. This is historic legislation. It is good policy.

The America Invents Act will now make its way to President Obama's desk, where it's expected to receive his signature. For more background on the legislation, check out the links below.