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A bill back before Congress would reduce the time automakers could enforce design patents on crash parts such as bumpers, hoods and fenders to 30 months from 15 years.

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The legislation would enable aftermarket parts makers to produce precise copies much sooner. But automakers claim the reduced patent protection would be unfair because they spend so much money on research and development for their parts programs.

Trade lobbies for the aftermarket parts industry, independent service shops and insurance companies, along with some consumer groups, support the proposed Promoting Automotive Repair, Trade and Sales Act, or PARTS Act.

Bipartisan sponsors introduced a revived version of the measure in the House and Senate this year; no hearings are scheduled. It is the fifth try since a bill along similar lines was introduced in 2009, according to congressional records.

Previous versions died in each house of Congress without a vote of the chamber’s judiciary committee.

The bill’s advocates say shorter design patents for the most frequently replaced crash parts would make less-expensive aftermarket parts available sooner, and create more competition to consumers’ benefit.

“If someone chooses to go to a dealer and use OEM parts, that’s fine with us,” says Sandy Bass-Cors, executive director of the Coalition for Auto Repair Equality, or CARE, a lobbying group in Alexandria, Va. “We just think consumers should have affordable options.”

Property claims

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The bill’s opponents include automakers, many of their Tier 1 suppliers and the National Automobile Dealers Association and other dealer lobbies.

Over the years, these groups have invoked intellectual property rights to help block similar legislation.

They argue that design patents for crash parts should continue to last 15 years — the standard length for such patents in all industries. Before a change in patent law that took effect in May 2015, the standard term for design patents was 14 years.

Car companies and their allies also question the safety, performance and durability of aftermarket parts.

“Our members invest $100 billion globally in research and development every year,” says Daniel Gage, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group in Washington.

“There are 30,000 components in a car and they all rely on each other,” Gage told Fixed Ops Journal. “After you have a collision in that vehicle, those replacement parts all have to work in sync. A fraction of an inch may not sound like a big deal, but it is.”

Skin deep

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The bill would apply only to exterior parts, such as hoods, fenders, taillights, side mirrors and quarter panels.

It would not affect interior components or systems such as airbags, according to the text of the measure.

Such exterior parts are mainly “cosmetic,” and don’t play a significant role in crash protection, according to an analysis of the bill by the Quality Parts Coalition in Smithfield, R.I., which supports the legislation.

Advocates maintain that Congress intended design patent protection for an entire vehicle to prevent copying by other automakers — not for individual parts. They say car companies are overextending design patents and limiting competition by aggressively pursuing protection for separate exterior parts.

In response to a previous version of the legislation, automakers and their allies said in a 2015 letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee that aftermarket parts makers can succeed without making exact copies of crash parts.

“The underlying premise for the PARTS Act is that competition requires copying,” the letter said. “This premise is false.”

Aftermarket manufacturers produce exterior parts that are “interchangeable” with OEM parts, without copying their exact exterior appearance, the letter asserted. The letter suggested that automakers are resigned to that reality.

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“This type of activity by aftermarket companies is a form of fair competition that respects and comports with existing patent protections,” the letter said.

“Seen in this light, the PARTS Act is a solution in search of a problem.”

Gage of the Auto Alliance says that many of the same organizations are preparing an updated letter to Congress that will repeat earlier arguments against the bill.

You can reach Jim Henry at Media

Have an opinion about this story? Click here to submit a Letter to the Editor, and we may publish it in print.

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