The Republican takeover of the Senate Tuesday night could revive congressional efforts to limit frivolous patent litigation, some technology groups said.
“It’s absolutely more likely that it’s going to happen,” said a spokesman for the Coalition for Patent Fairness, an industry group whose members include tech giants like Google and BlackBerry and that has been pushing for patent overhaul. He added, “It’s easier in the sense that the main, No. 1 obstacle is no longer leader.”
Earlier this year, the House passed a bill to take on patent trolls – that is, firms that hold a portfolio of patents and whose primary purpose is to file infringement suits. However, efforts to move similar legislation in the Senate were put on hold, and several of those involved in the bill negotiations pointed to Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., as the reason the bill was taken off the agenda.
But with the new Congress next January comes new leadership in the Senate. Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley likely would take the helm of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell is poised to steer the chamber as its majority leader.
Elizabeth Hyman, executive vice president of public advocacy at TechAmerica, said in an emailed statement to FedScoop, that Grassley has demonstrated a commitment to litigation reforms and that she expects Congress to take up patent litigation reform next year.
Indeed, Tim Sparapani, vice president of law, policy and government relations at the Application Developers Alliance, said Grassley comes from a state with a robust startup community that has been pounded by patent troll suits. At the same time, Sparapani argued that members will return to Congress with a stronger appreciation for the important of patent overhaul after spending time in their own districts.
“I think there will be more senators hearing this on the ground who will come to Washington understanding, maybe not understanding the intricacies of the patent system, but will understand the urgency for stopping businesses that only exist to gut other businesses of revenue,” he said.
Meanwhile, he said that tech groups pushing for changes to the patent litigation system lost an ally in Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., who fell Wednesday to a challenger in a tight race. “His losing this election is a really unfortunate blow,” Sparapani said.
But not all technology firms think the new makeup in Congress will make a difference in the prospects of patent reform. Brian Pomper, the executive director of the Innovation Alliance, an industry group of mostly research and development companies that license out their technologies, said patent reform likely have been taken up early next year, regardless of who is in power.
“It was pretty clear to all observers that Chairman [Patrick] Leahy would have brought this back in the New Year had he remained chairman, and I don’t know why that’s different with Chairman Grassley,” said Pomper, whose group opposed recent legislation to change the patent system.
But in the meantime, tech groups are hoping that the Senate will confirm Michelle Lee as chief of the Patent and Trademark Office in the lame duck session. A former senior staffer at Google and current deputy director of the office, Lee recently expressed the hope that patent reform moves in Congress next year. A staffer for the Senate Judiciary Committee said on background the committee has Lee’s paperwork, but the Senate must still receive Lee’s official confirmation before moving ahead with hearings.
“I think having Michelle Lee confirmed will provide a vital voice for reform and then implementing whatever reforms Congress enacts,” Sparapani said. “I certainly hope the Senate will take up her nomination quickly.”