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President Obama today signed into law what’s being called the “America Invents Act” — described as the first major reform to U.S. patent law in six decades. A major focus is reducing the backlog of patent applications at the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office.

“Right now, there are about 700,000 applications that haven’t even been opened yet. These are jobs and businesses of the future just waiting to be created,” Obama said today at a signing ceremony, according to Politico. “Somewhere in that stack of applications could be the next technological breakthrough.”

The new lawcomes at a time of heightened controversy over the nation’s patent system, as Google, Microsoft, Apple and others amass huge patent warchests to wield in courtrooms and over negotiating tables. Microsoft has expressed its support for the reform, with vice president and deputy general counsel Horacio Gutierrez outlining these reasons in a previous blog post

  • Ensuring that the USPTO, a user-fee funded agency, has access to the funding it needs to continue to improve patent quality and reduce application pendency;
  • Moving the U.S. to adopt a “first inventor to file” system, enabling greater harmonization of patent processes with those of other countries that already follow this approach; and
  • Establishing additional administrative tools, including a new post-grant review procedure, to help eliminate questionable patents.

That “first to file” provision is perhaps the most controversial aspect, replacing the previous “first to invent” protocol in determining who has the rights to a particular patent.

Commenting on William Carleton’s recent guest post on the patent reform bill, one GeekWire reader noted in the comments that the change “means that if I realize that no one has patented toast yet, and I file my patent, then soon I will own the IP around toast.” (Update: See the discussion of this in the comments below.)

That’s an extreme example, but it helps demonstrate just how big the change is. The question is whether it’s the right change. One way or another, this new law means we’re destined to find out.

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