This morning, President Obama moved to curb suits from “patent trolls,” entities that many observers of the technology industry have been warning have increasingly been harming innovation across the United States. As it turned out, those concerned parties have been right to decry the trend: a report (PDF) contained a startling statistic: the number of lawsuits brought by patent trolls has nearly tripled in the past 2 years, now accounting for 62% of all patent lawsuits in America. As Edward Wyatt pointed out in the New York Times, this surge in patent lawsuits is directly related to the passage of a 2011 law that was designed to address the trouble.
The White House announced several executive actions today to take on patent trolls, including a series of workshops, scholarship opportunities, a consumer-facing website and a review of exclusion orders. The administration will also begin a rulemaking process at the U.S. Patent Office to that would “require patent applicants and owners to regularly update ownership information when they are involved in proceedings before the PTO, specifically designating the ‘ultimate parent entity’ in control of the patent or application.”
One interesting additional outcome of the day’s news is that White House Google+ Hangouts matter. Entrepreneur Limor Fried’s unexpected question to President Obama on patent trolls during a White House Hangout in February 2013 led to a frank answer and contributed to the White House’s action today, a connected directly made by the @WhiteHouse Twitter account. Here’s what the president said, back in February:
A couple of years ago we began the process of patent reform. We actually passed some legislation that made progress on some of these issues, but it hasn’t captured all the problems. And the folks that you’re talking about are a classic example. They don’t actually produce anything themselves, they’re just trying to essentially leverage and hijack somebody else’s idea and see if they can extort some money out of them. And, you know, sometimes these things are challenging, because we also want to make sure that the patents are long enough that, you know, people’s intellectual property is protected. We’ve got to balance that with making sure that they’re not so long that innovation is reduced. And, but I do think that our efforts at patent reform only went about halfway to where we need to go. And what we need to do is pull together, you know, additional stakeholders, and see if we can build some additional consensus on some smarter patent laws. This is true, by the way, across the board when it comes to high tech issues. The technology’s changing so fast. We want to protect privacy, we want to protect people’s civil liberties, we want to make sure the Internet stays open. And I’m an ardent believer that what’s powerful about the Internet is its openness and the capacity for people to get out there and just introduce a new idea with low barriers to entry.
I hope President Obama does more Google+ Hangouts and is asked more tough questions regarding drones, patents and other issues on the minds of the People, far outside of the DC media bubble.
Hangouts aside, as Greg Ferenstein pointed out at TechCrunch, the administration is going to need Congress to effectively curb these abuses: the president can’t simply declare an end to this mess: Congress must be involved.
Five relevant bills have been introduced recently, as Michelle Quinn noted out at Politico and Joe Mullen emphasized at Ars Technica, and while the legislative reforms suggested by the White House could make a real difference in curbing the worst of patent troll abuses, it’s not at all clear what this Congress is capable of passing through both chambers at this point.
Timothy Lee, newly ensconced at Wonkblog at the Washington Post, isn’t convinced that such legislation, even if passed, will effectively smash patent trolls. Lee would like to see the federal government fix a broken patent system. Unfortunately for that aspiration, Washington recently passed an America Invents Act and is now moving forward on implementation. It’s not at all clear how soon substantial reform will end up on a president’s desk again soon.