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A new patent term of 20 years from the date of filing is a step backward and could discourage innovation that's badly needed to help the United States keep up in a rapidly moving technological world.

The rule, which went into effect in June, ends up providing inventors a shorter term of protection than the old patent term of 17 years from the date of grant of patent. That's because it can take much longer than three years - sometimes as long as 14 years - to process and grant a patent.Legislation is now pending to correct this mistake, an outgrowth of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which requires a minimum patent term of 20 years from date of filing. Though GATT provided 20 years only as a minimum, implementing legislation for GATT in the United States adopted it as a ceiling.

For some patents the difference is not significant, but for high-tech inventions and other cutting-edge innovations, it can be critical. Granting patents for those inventions can take much longer than average.

If the patent term starts at the filing date, the potential life of the actual patent could be so short it wouldn't make sense to invest in the venture.

The proposal to change the current limit would establish a patent term of 17 years from grant of patent or 20 years from filing, whichever is longer. It conforms to the spirit of the GATT agreement and rightfully restores the guaranteed term that has been in effect for more than 100 years.

We need to encourage - not discourage - innovators. The bill should be promptly and soundly approved.