AZ Central: Inventor to Congress: Keep me out of the crossfire, by Karren Moreland
This article originally appeared in AZ Central on March 7, 2014.
Karren Moreland of Phoenix is owner and president of KMOR Innovations.
I’m an independent inventor. I share a fear with many other small inventors that a speeding freight train is heading our way that could ruin our dreams.
There is a bipartisan plan in Washington to change patent laws, and it has support from both parties in Congress, the president and a lot of industry lobbyists. Bipartisan agreement might seem like a blessing these days, but in this case it is not.
The White House, Senate and House are pushing proposals to crack down on “patent trolls” — companies that buy up patents and then sue lots of other companies for infringement.
I am not a patent troll. I’m strongly against frivolous litigation, which saps productivity and innovation. But patent protection is crucial to me and to thousands of other legitimate inventors. In the rush to stop the trolls, lawmakers are pushing bills that would make it much harder for small inventors to keep our work from being copied and stolen.
President Barack Obama wants Congress to move faster on patent trolls. The House has already passed the so-called Innovation Act, and Senate lawmakers are weighing a similar bill right now. In late February, 42 state attorneys general — including Tom Horne of Arizona — signed a letter urging Congress to keep up the pace.
The problem is that nobody is listening to independent inventors. The House passed its bill last November with only one hearing and no testimony from independent inventors. It was as if we didn’t exist.
I invented, patented and sell a product called Holiday Light Sliders. Have you ever struggled to string Christmas lights on your house? Have you spent hours teetering at the top of a 20-foot ladder, wondering whether this just might be your last holiday season? I invented the solution: a simple way to slide your lights into place in minutes. I worked for years to design it and work out the details. I went to the expense of obtaining three patents and struggled to get it to market.
Now, the proposed changes to patent laws threaten to make my patents more difficult to protect. It would be easier for a big company to copy my products without worrying about the consequences, because inventors like me wouldn’t be able to afford the long legal fights.
I understand that my invention won’t change the world, but simple inventions like mine make a much bigger contribution to our quality of life and to the economy than you might think. Look around your house, and almost anything you touch — a light bulb, a coffeemaker, even an egg tray — has been re-invented in some way in the past couple of years. This kind of innovation happens constantly, and independent inventors are responsible for a lot of it.
So, why am I worried about Congress? Because lawmakers are inadvertently lumping inventors in with the bad guys.
The House bill is packed with new requirements for people who file patent-infringement lawsuits. Some of them make sense, but many of them create opportunities for deep-pocketed corporate infringers to obstruct and complicate a dispute. Delay and complexity play to the strengths of corporate players. The longer a case drags on, the more the little guys get swamped in legal bills and the longer the big companies profit off our inventions.
Here’s just one tiny example of the trouble: Under current law, a company accused of infringement can challenge the validity of the patent at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. If the patent office confirms the patent is valid, the company can’t challenge that validity again. Seems fair, right? But the House bill would let companies challenge validity again and again, just by conjuring up new theories. It’s double jeopardy, and it could stretch a case out for years.
There has to be a better way. Congress needs to move cautiously, and listen to inventors. We don’t deserve to be collateral damage.