San Jose Mercury News - Mercury News editorial: Rein in the patent trolls to keep innovation alive

January 30, 2014
In The News

If Silicon Valley were being named today, it would probably be Innovation Valley. It's innovation, not silicon, that makes this region go.

And one of the biggest problems in recent years for valley innovators is patent trolls -- shakedown artists who cost the tech industry an estimated $29 billion in 2011. They acquire strategic patents from small companies and then look around for other companies -- app developers are a favorite target -- they can threaten to sue for infringing on those patents. Faced with the threat, valley companies often choose to pay off patent trolls rather than take on a fight that distracts from their core business and spend precious capital on attorney fees.

It's a form of extortion that Rep. Zoe Lofgren would like to stop. The San Jose Democrat on Wednesday introduced a bipartisan patent litigation reform bill designed to put an end to the abuses while also protecting inventors with legitimate patent claims.

"Republicans in the House historically have a tough time working collaboratively with Democrats," Lofgren said. "But I am game to work with them to solve a real issue that causes concern without regard to party registration. ... The idea is to make it not lucrative to engage in shakedowns."

Joining forces with Lofgren are House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.; Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C.; and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, is one of seven co-sponsors. The bill will be heard next week in the House Judiciary Committee, which should move the legislation forward as quickly as possible.

Lofgren acknowledges the problem of getting people to focus on a complex and esoteric issue like this. It can even make valley veterans' eyes glaze over. But if innovation is the key to getting the nation's economy roaring again, every member of Congress should pay close attention.

The key provision of the legislation is aimed at abusive patent litigation. Lofgren hopes that limiting discovery at the outset to just essential points and requiring specificity in the original allegation of infringement will help weed out bogus or overly broad claims.

Goodlatte notes that patent litigation is a drag on everyone, from independent inventors to startups to mid- and large-size businesses. Money wasted on patent suits, he argues, is better spent on researching and developing new technologies.

Congress has tried for years to strike the right balance between protecting inventors and reining in abuses. If Lofgren's legislation can discourage the trumped-up patent lawsuits that have drained valley businesses, it will be a game changer for tech companies.

Then if she can just unlock the funds irrationally held up by the sequester to open the promised regional branch patent office here -- speeding the time from research to production -- there will be no stopping the valley economy.