WASHINGTON - Crustless peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, a way to move sideways on a swing, a technique for exercising cats using a laser pointer - these are among the inventions patented in the United States over the years.
Now Congress is trying to cut down on poor-quality or downright ridiculous patents, and at the same time adapt the patent system to a high-tech era in which computers and other electronic devices may contain thousands of patentable parts.
Rather than the patent system being the incentive for 'so much of our innovation, it has become a constraint on innovation,' said Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., author of a sweeping patent reform bill that passed the House Judiciary Committee on July 18.
The Senate Judiciary Committee passed similar legislation the following day. The full House could take up the issue before leaving for summer recess Friday, though it's more likely to be considered in the fall.
Disputes between the high-tech industry, drug companies and other interest groups have stalled patent reform attempts in the past, and legislation introduced during the last session of Congress never made it out of committee.
Patents give holders ownership rights to their inventions for 20 years. That can mean hundreds of millions of dollars to companies, research universities and individual inventors.
Although not everyone believes the patent system needs to be changed, critics cite various problems.
There's a backlog of 750,000 patent applications at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which is recovering from years of underfunding and hopes to nearly double the number of patent examiners on staff, currently about 5,300.
Patent applications have shot up in recent decades with the boom in the high-tech industry, and they have gotten more complex. There's been a corresponding increase in patent infringement lawsuits, which the tech industry blames on so-called 'patent trolls' who get patents for products they never plan to make, just so they can sue for infringement if a company does turn out something similar.