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Patently confusing: Vt. businesswoman testifies on tricky US patent system

Published: Apr. 21, 2021 at 12:12 PM EDT|Updated: Apr. 21, 2021 at 6:52 PM EDT
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WASHINGTON (WCAX) - A Vermont small business owner testified on Capitol Hill Wednesday about the nation’s slow and confusing patent process.

Georgia Grace Edwards, the co-founder of SheFly in Middlebury, spoke to the Intellectual Property Subcommittee about issues the female-led company faced through the U.S. patent system.

The Senate hearing was chaired by Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy with an agenda of improving access and inclusivity in the U.S. patent system.

SheFly makes outdoor pants with a specially made zipper to allow women to answer nature’s call without exposing their skin to the elements or other people.

Edwards says the patent process is long, clunky and opaque. She said, at times, her company spent well over 50% of their revenue on legal assistance.

“From a basic economic standpoint, the long-term upfront investment in IP is one that is often directly at odds with the short-term realities of startups and small businesses. Due to the high cost and low probability of reward through patent approval, entrepreneurs are not incentivized to pursue intellectual property in our current economy,” Edwards said. “Intellectual property rights do not come easily, especially for traditionally underrepresented groups. My hope is that by sharing SheFly’s experience, we can work together to make the patenting path a bit smoother for those who walk it next, especially for those who currently do not see themselves reflected in the process.”

Edwards called for legislation that addresses barriers like representation, knowledge and financing for small businesses.

A recent report by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office found just 22% of U.S. patents list a woman as an inventor and that women make up only 12.8% of all inventors.

Leahy says this disparity means the U.S. is not reaching its full economic potential. To rectify that, he wants to change patent laws to boost accessibility to women and people of color.

“For more than 200 years since our Constitution was ratified, we still haven’t reaped all of the benefits of having the greatest innovative economy in human history. That’s because we haven’t done enough to tap into the diverse segments of our society. They’re brimming with brilliant ideas to change the world,” said Leahy, D-Vermont.

The first patent issued in the United States was in 1790.

The first woman to get a U.S. patent came 19 years later in 1809.

The first African American granted a U.S. patent didn’t come until 1821.

And the first African American woman to be granted a U.S. patent wasn’t until 1884, nearly 100 years after the Patent Act of 1790.

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