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.
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.
For those left wondering why such opposition persists after some sensational headlines this morning, prospects for the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House are significantly damaged but the legislation is not “dead.” Rather, the legislation is shelved until ‘consensus is reached.’ I believe that the writer at the Examiner sourced Rep. Darrell Issa’s statement from late Friday night when he wrote that Rep. Cantor made a ‘surprise statement.’ There’s no such statement in the House Majority Leader’s social media accounts or at GOPLeader.gov. As of this afternoon, requests for a statement to Rep. Cantor’s office have not been returned.
Here’s what actually was released: “Majority Leader Cantor has assured me that we will continue to work to address outstanding concerns and work to build consensus prior to any anti-piracy legislation coming before the House for a vote,” said Rep. Issa in a prepared statement released late Friday night.
Seasoned security scribe Bill Brenner is more reasonable in his caution at CSO Online and at his blog, where he writes that:
“My Administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens,” wrote President Obama in a signing statement.
It’s the actions of presidential administrations in the future, given detention powers in the NDAA, that worry many observers, including the ACLU. Once such executive authority is granted, it will likely take years for the judicial system to provide a check or balance. And given that the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement division of the Department of Homeland Security has already been taking down websites for over a year, caution for this White House’s position here is warranted.
In one scenario, consider that a heavily amended version of SOPA and PIPA that do contain DNS provisions could make it through Congress, once “consensus is reached” in the House and a filibuster from Senator Wyden in the Senate is overcome.
In the absence of clearer guidance from the House Majority Leader’s office on what’s acceptable in the bill, it remains possible that a deal could still be made which legislative leaders then feel represents “consensus” — Rep. Smith has said he’ll pull the DNS provisions, for instance — and then SOPA could be brought to a vote. The President could add a signing statement and, well, you get the idea.
The Senate version’s of an anti-piracy bill (The PROTECT IP Act) is set for a potential vote next week. 14 Senators are currently publicly opposed to it. Without support from the House or the White House, of course, its prospects to become law in this Congress are damaged but not eliminated. Senator Leahy has indicated that he’d recommend study the impact of the DNS provisions after passage, not pull them entirely. Brad Plumer, who wrote that lawmakers are backing away from online piracy bills, offered this analysis:
Now, that doesn’t mean these bills, or their most controversial features, are dead and buried. Leahy, for one, was pretty clear that still supports passing a bill with DNS-blocking — he just thinks that feature should be studied carefully before it actually gets implemented. (As TechDirt’s Michael Masnick points out, that sounds like a compelling reason to slow down and reconsider before passing the bill, rather than enacting a provision that lawmakers don’t fully understand.)
UPDATE: On Tuesday, January 17th, Rep. Lamar Smith said that markup of SOPA would resume in February. So no, SOPA is not dead. Here’s the statement his office released:
Chairman Smith: “To enact legislation that protects consumers, businesses and jobs from foreign thieves who steal America’s intellectual property, we will continue to bring together industry representatives and Members to find ways to combat online piracy.
“Due to the Republican and Democratic retreats taking place over the next two weeks, markup of the Stop Online Piracy Act is expected to resume in February.
“I am committed to continuing to work with my colleagues in the House and Senate to send a bipartisan bill to the White House that saves American jobs and protects intellectual property.”
One of the most powerful politicians in the U.S House has publicly voiced his opposition to the bill, consistent with past opposition to regulatory burdens created in Washington. “The internet is one of the most magnificent expressions of freedom and free enterprise in history,” said Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI), in a statement opposing SOPA. “It should stay that way. While H.R. 3261, the Stop Online Piracy Act, attempts to address a legitimate problem, I believe it creates the precedent and possibility for undue regulation, censorship and legal abuse.”
He’s right. These bills would upend the predictable legal environment created by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, subjecting online innovators to a new era of uncertainty and risk. Legal experts from the top law schools in the country warn that they would damage free speech. Human rights experts warn that they would would force pervasive scrutiny and surveillance of Internet users’ online activities. Venture capitalists warn would chill the growth of social media and conscript every online platform into a new role as content police. The government’s own cybersecurity experts, at Sandia Labs, warn that these bills would damage DNSSEC, harming national security at a time when American government, businesses and consumers face attacks on their networks and computers every day. The founders of the Internet and World Wide Web warn that would lay the groundwork for an increasingly balkanized Internet, directly undercutting U.S. foreign policy advocacy in support of a single, global, open network.
While Wikipedia and other sites blacking out at this scale is an an unprecedented action, what happens offline is still critical. That’s where laws are still made, after all. While new means of collective action enabled by the Internet are increasingly important, particularly with respect to generating coverage of these bills by the broadcast media, the voices that Representatives and Senators listen to most are those of their constituents. If these bills are important to you, the most effective action that any concerned citizen that wants to talk to Congress can take remains to go see your Senator or Congressman in person, call them or write them a letter.
Last week, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Representative Zoe Lofgren sent out a “Dear Colleague” letter to the other members of the House of Representatives entitled “A bipartisan attempt to regulate the Internet?”
I’ve posted the letter below in its entirety, adding a link to the bill page for the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) (H.R. 3261) on Thomas.gov and a PopVox widget after it, and embedded my interview with U.S. Senator Ron Wyden about the PROTECT IP Act, the companion bill to SOPA in the Senate.
From: The Honorable Zoe Lofgren
Sent By: Ryan.Clough@mail.house.gov
We agree with the goal of fighting online copyright infringement, and would support narrowly targeted legislation that does not ensnare legitimate websites. We also believe that a consensus on the issue between the content and technology industries is achievable. As the attached article makes clear, H.R. 3261 unfortunately does not follow a consensus-based approach. It would give the government sweeping new powers to order Internet Service Providers to implement various filtering technologies on their networks. It would also create new forms of private legal action against websites—cutting them off from payment and advertising providers by default, without any court review, upon a complaint from any copyright owner, even one whose work is not necessarily being infringed.
Online innovation and commerce were responsible for 15 percent of U.S. GDP growth from 2004 to 2009, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. Before we impose a sprawling new regulatory regime on the Internet, we must carefully consider the risks that it could pose for this vital engine of our economy.
Last month, I interviewed Cisco CTO Padmasree Warrior about technology, gov 2.0 and open government. In the excerpt below, we talk about technology and business in Russia. Warrior traveled to Russia this past winter on a TechDel with the State Department, looking for connections through digital diplomacy.