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DON’T SAP THE PATENT OFFICE

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Utah has a potentially big stake in the current effort of Congress to pick the pocket of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

That stake grows out of the fact that on a per capita basis, Utah ranks eighth in the nation when it comes to getting patents for new inventions. The threat results from efforts to raid the patent office's self-generated revenue in the name of balancing the federal budget.As it is now, the PTO is one of the few federal agencies that not only pays its own way but also spurs technological and financial progress instead of imposing a drain on the economy.

This happy situation results because the agency requires no tax money but is entirely underwritten by fees from applicants for patents and trademarks.

But three years ago, Congress started diverting a portion of those fees to the general treasury. In fiscal 1995, for example, the PTO had revenues of some $600 million, and Congress diverted $20 million of it.

Up to a point, such diversion does little harm. Even the PTO itself admits it is able to live with what Congress has done so far. But now Sen. Phil Gramm is spearheading an effort to increase the diversion to $56 million, a move that understandably worries the patent office.

For one thing, the patent office was never intended by law to be a revenue-raiser. For another, there are sharp limits to how much its pockets can be picked without the PTO's losing ability to process patent applications as quickly as possible.

More delays can mean longer periods of doubt about what is unique and protected in key industries. Such doubt and uncertainty, in turn, can result in serious financial losses for firms relying on technological innovation.

The United States has the cheapest and in many ways the best patent review and granting system in the industrialized world. Without such an effective system, America will not be nearly as productive and innovative as it is now. It would be sheer folly for Congress to sap, let alone kill, this goose that lays the golden eggs.