I doubt that it’s news to many people that the US is changing from a so-called first-to-invent priority system for awarding patents to a first-(inventor)-to-file system. And that pending change (March of 2013) has a lot of people running around as if the sky were falling. It’s not. You aren’t really in a race to the patent office to beat another inventor.
For most inventors this switch, per se, will have no effect on their patent applications. The chances that you and another inventor more or less simultaneously invent and file the same invention is small. After all, there are currently just a handful of “interference” procedures to sort out who was the first to invent. And in those procedures, the first inventor to file usually comes out on top anyway.
That’s not to say the switch will not have an impact on you. The collateral damage from the switch to first to file is that the scope of problematic prior art is significantly increased. In the present system you can “swear behind” a piece of prior art by presenting evidence that your date of invention was earlier than the date of the prior art.
Such swearing behind only makes sense when the date of invention is important (as it is now). Essentially you are proving that you had fully conceived your invention before the piece of prior art was known to the public; even if it took a year of diligent work to reduce your invention to practice (during which time the prior art became public) you are still entitled to the patent.
Under first-to-file, the idea of using the date of conception to provide priority goes out the window… all first to file cares about is, not surprisingly, when you file. But even this change is not a totally new concept to wrap your head around. If you’ve even been interested in getting a patent outside the US you have seen this issue before. In virtually the rest of the world, “absolute novelty” reigns; if your invention has been disclosed to the public, you lose.
Admittedly, under the new US rules things are even more difficult since prior art can be invalidating for both novelty AND obviousness, but the basic principle of needing to file before someone else makes a public disclosure is the same.
So, after March 16, 2013, there’s no race to beat another inventor to the patent office but there is an imperative to file before some (academic sort?) publishes something that will destroy your right (and everybody else’s) to get a patent. But right now, before first to file, you should make a concerted effort to file (at least a provisional application) on any potentially patentable invention you’ve been working on.
If you don’t, the piece of prior art you can swear behind on March 15th will be invalidating on March 16th.