Consumers need protection from patent trolls

When the America Invents Act passed two years ago, there were large tech companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and big corporate interests at the table, lobbying for their desired changes in the patent system. This time around, there are new voices calling for reform. Voices of those who play a pivotal role in the patent world, but in the past have gone unheard. Voices of consumers.

It’s important to look at the consumer concerns associated with asserting overly broad patents. Certainty patent trolls have negative impacts on big business, but how do they affect Americans everyday?

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Here’s how. We live in a world where everything from the cell phones you use to the videos you stream implicate patents. Your smart phone may be covered by more than 250,000 patents. Wi-Fi routers have tons of patents associated with them, and they are used by not only you, but most of the places with which you do business.  So it’s easy to see how patents have real-life consequences on the ways we live our lives.

Abusive patent assertion and patent litigation raise the cost of necessary products and services. Time and resources wasted on fighting patent trolls and their low-quality patents translate to higher costs, fewer products, and fewer job opportunities for Americans.

When patent trolls use patents of questionable validity to target every day technologies, such as the Internet or smart phones, it is a direct affront to the public.

Congress has a tremendous opportunity to enact common sense legislation. One of those common sense pieces would be to reform the demand letter process. Right now a patent holder can send letters to a small business or consumer. These letters often disclose neither the name of the accuser nor the patent they feel is being infringed. Congress should use its power to bring transparency to the demand letter process. People should know who is bringing a case against them and then be able to defend themselves more effectively.

Other reforms on the table could greatly protect startups in litigation with patent trolls and protect consumers that are sued for using infringing technologies. Congress should introduce rules that would discourage patent assertion entities from entering litigation with broad patents. Congress should also protect end-users of technologies that are often sued by patent trolls. Small businesses and consumers who buy off-the-shelf technology products should be shielded from the complexities of patent litigation, when there is a willing manufacturer who is better equipped to handle the litigation.

We recognize that the civil justice system is important to protecting the public against corporate abuse and widespread harm. We fundamentally believe in keeping the courthouse doors open to everyone. But patent litigation is different from other types of litigation.  The public interest here lies in preventing the abusive assertion of overbroad patents, ensuring availability of justice to those facing improper infringement claims, and reducing the threat of monopolies that unduly take away from the public domain.

Patent policy is not just about big businesses and patent owners. New technologies play an important role in the daily lives of all people. Patent trolls and patent abuse create a chilling effect on those technologies, and it’s an unfair tax on people that want to use new products and services. Strong and comprehensive laws will enhance the patent system and protect consumers. No single provision will eradicate abusive patent assertion or deceptive litigation practices. We need comprehensive legislation that will attack the problems in our patent system at all angles, to discourage abuse, foster invention, and guarantee Americans access to technology.

Cox is the director at Public Knowledge.

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