WASHINGTON (AP) _ The House passed legislation Wednesday that would overhaul the Patent and Trademark Office and speed up publication of patent applications. But opponents also scored a major victory with language to shield small-scale inventors from its consequences.

In a surprising turnaround, critics of the bill pushed through by 220-193 an amendment that exempted small businesses, universities and independent inventors from provisions requiring that patent applications be made public after 18 months, regardless of whether the patent has been granted.

The amendment, proposed by Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, also takes out language making it easier to seek re-examination of a patent office decision.

The chief sponsor of the bill, Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., said the amendment ``weakens the bill ... but the damage is not irreparable.'' He said he was confident the Senate would restore the original language when it takes up the bill.

Supporters of the bill, which passed by voice vote, said it represented the most important changes since the current filing process for intellectual property began in 1836.

The legislation makes the trade office, now under the Commerce Department, a wholly government-owned corporation financed by patent fees.

It brings the United States in line with European and Japanese practice of publication after 18 months. Currently, publication doesn't come until the patent is issued, on average 20 to 22 months after filing.

``These reforms will help America maintain its competitive advantage by ensuring it remains a world leader in technology,'' Commerce Secretary William Daley said in a statement expressing administration support for the legislation.

But the 18-month provision was fiercely opposed by lawmakers linked with small-scaled inventors. Rep. Michael Forbes, R-N.Y., said it often takes five or six years for high-tech inventors to get patents approved, making them vulnerable to economic predators. ``I really believe that there's few singular acts that Congress has done that will be more undermining to the American economy,'' he said.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., the most vociferous opponent of the bill, said the Kaptur amendment exempting small-scale inventors was ``the ultimate victory of the little guy over the big guy.''

The bill's backers said 18-month publication would make it easier for inventors to attract investors to market their products and stop the practice of ``submarining,'' in which people delay final action on their patent applications for years and then slap huge lawsuits on those who unwittingly come out with similar products.

But Rohrabacher argued that big U.S. and foreign corporations would use the early publication date to steal ideas from independent inventors. ``I believe there are people who are out to destroy us economically,'' he said, saying the original bill was a ``monstrous threat to America's prosperity and security.''

Patent lawyer Donald Dunner, former president of the American Intellectual Property Law Association, said that submariners have been able to ``hold hostage an entire industry'' and that despite the opposition's intense lobbying, ``certainly the mainstream of the intellectual property community is overwhelmingly in favor of the bill.''

But George Margolin, an independent inventor from Newport Beach, Calif., said that with instant Internet dissemination of published patents, ``18 months is a horror. ... It's like giving them the blueprint for how to steal from your invention.''

The bill's sponsors last week tried to answer some of the concerns by inserting language ensuring that patent applicants would be entitled to royalties if their ideas were used between publication and patent granting. They also added an amendment allowing small businesses and independent inventors to delay publication.

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The bill is HR 400.