Patent Reform Faces a Fresh Fight in the Senate

With a bill intended to take a bite out of frivolous patent lawsuits tied up in the Senate Judiciary Committee, reported friction at the bargaining table—and the rise of new opposition—could stop its passage.

A bill intended to take a bite out of what some call frivolous patent lawsuits is currently tied up in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Now, reported friction at the bargaining table—and the rise of new opposition—could stop it entirely.

The long fight to weaken litigious “patent trolls” could be nearing some action with a bill in the Senate, but that progress comes at a time when patent industry groups appear to be coalescing in opposition.

There’s still plenty of support for patent reform targeting what many critics say are abusive lawsuits. The House passed its Innovation Act late last year.

Its Senate counterpart, the Patent Transparency and Improvements Act, is being worked on by the Judiciary Committee, though the panel said Tuesday it will delay consideration of the measure until at least Thursday. The legislation could face a final committee vote by the end of April, but there are several issues to be resolved, including a “fee-shifting” provision that would put the burden of legal costs on the plaintiff in the event a lawsuit fails.

The Hill notes that groups as diverse as the Consumer Electronics Association, the National Restaurant Association, and the Application Developers Alliance have offered their input on the bill both directly and through coalitions. In recent days, however, attention has shifted to opponents who are raising new concerns about its scope and the danger they say it could pose to the overall patent system.

And with the 2014 elections likely to divert attention from the effort by summer, the clock is ticking.

As it stands, many of the provisions assume that every patent holder is a patent troll.

Opposition Grows

A coalition of trade groups, large businesses, and others led by the pro-patent Innovation Alliance has pledged to fight the bill unless key compromises are made. They conveyed that message in a letter to the two top Judiciary Committee members, Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Charles Grassley (R-IA). Other signatories include well-known entities like the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), Monsanto, and General Electric.

“We are concerned that some of the measures under consideration go far beyond what is necessary or desirable to combat abusive patent litigation, and, in fact, would do serious damage to the patent system,” the group stated in the letter. “As it stands, many of the provisions assume that every patent holder is a patent troll. Drafting legislation in this way seriously weakens the ability of every patent holder to enforce a patent.”

Support for that stance appears to be growing. On Monday, a number of additional groups signed on to the letter, including the U.S. chapter of IEEE, the National Small Business Association, and the Texas Association of Business.

A Fresh Coalition

As the Innovation Alliance was getting its ducks in a row, a new group appeared ready to speak up in favor of patents. The Partnership for American Innovation, which counts heavyweights like Apple, Ford, GE, and Microsoft among its members, launched at a point when chatter over the patent bill was at its peak.

PAI appears to be arguing that an overly aggressive approach to patent reform could harm long-term innovation.

“To date, the conversation around patents has been dominated by those seeking to curtail America’s strong system for narrow, short-term gains,” the group wrote in a statement. “Companies like those in the PAI support a strong, balanced system and are working together to make sure the conversation is driven by facts, not rhetoric, and reason rather than emotion.”

This latest effort got mixed reviews from tech pundits such as ZDNet‘s Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, who said the partnership was “foggy on the details.” Julie Samuels, executive director of the tech entrepreneur group Engine, argued on VentureBeat that “we must not let these entrenched interests get in the way of fixing a broken system.”


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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