Patent News

Feb. 19, 2014

POLITICO: White House pushes forward with patent reforms, by Erin Mershon and Alex Byers

This article originally appeared in POLITICO on February 19, 2014. 

The White House on Thursday will unveil a handful of new actions designed to improve the patent system by stopping bad applications in their tracks, part of an ongoing effort against litigious “patent trolls,” according to several people familiar with the announcement.

This marks the next phase of the administration’s patent work, although final details remained fluid Wednesday. President Barack Obama mentioned patent reform in last month’s State of the Union — an address built around the idea that the White House was prepared to take unilateral action on important issues.

The announcements are set to come at an afternoon event with key economic and technology advisers, including Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling.

The administration will unveil an initiative with private-sector companies and, potentially, universities to make available more “prior art” — essentially making it easier for Patent and Trademark Office officials to determine whether or not a patent idea is original, the sources said. The administration also is working with companies to provide additional technical training to patent examiners, they said.

The president set his sights on patent trolls as far back as last February, but the White House push began in earnest last summer with several legislative recommendations and executive actions. The House of Representatives quickly passed a patent reform bill, the Innovation Act, last December. But activity is moving slower in the Senate this year.

Officials are expected to provide updates on the work started last June. For example, the administration is moving forward with an online presence to provide resources for recipients of patent demand letters, sources said — that idea was first revealed during last summer’s executive actions.

A spokeswoman for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy declined to comment.

Patent reform resurfaced as a Washington focus last year, even as Congress cleared patent legislation in 2011. Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has said clearing a bill is a priority of his, but legislators are still debating competing proposals — some of which are particularly controversial with parts of patent-dependent industries.

For reform supporters, the administration’s efforts certainly don’t hurt. But they don’t address issues that many see as crucial to meaningful reform, like fee-shifting — a rule that could make companies that lose patent cases pay the winner’s legal fees in some cases. Getting more comprehensive legislation through Capitol Hill, they say, is a must-do.

“It’s really encouraging to see the White House and the Patent Office involvement, and it’s particularly encouraging to see them taking actions that will help people who don’t regularly deal with the patent system,” said the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Julie Samuels, a patent reform advocate who testified on Capitol Hill last year. “But what we really need is legislation. We need the Senate to pass a bill like the Innovation Act that the president will sign.”

In addition to the White House’s afternoon announcement, industry representatives will meet with administration officials Thursday morning to discuss the White House actions, according to multiple invitees. A smaller set of groups on both sides of the debate is also set to discuss legislative action after the announcement with PTO Deputy Director Michelle Lee and other administration officials, several invitees said.