'Patent troll' fighter predicts a win

It took the leaders of the new United for Patent Reform coalition about 15 minutes to come up with the name, but their fight to rein in “patent trolls” has been ongoing for years. 

Beth Provenzano, one of the public faces of the organization, is confident this is the year to get legislation to President Obama’s desk. And she thinks it can move before the August recess.  

“I think there is momentum on both sides of the Capitol to get this done,” she told The Hill in an interview.  

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The month-old coalition, composed of retailers, technology giants and others, formed to lobby Congress to reform the patent litigation system, to cut down on “trolls” who buy up patents with the intention of extracting settlements by threatening to sue.

Provenzano is co-chair of the new group, which includes technology companies Oracle, Facebook, Amazon and Google, as well as retailers JC Penney and the National Retail Federation. Provenzano, serving as the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) vice president of government relations, now splits her time between the two groups. 

“It is very involved on the patent side, I spend a lot of time on the coalition priorities, the retail priorities that mirror the coalition priorities, and I am still spending time on the other issues I handle,” she said from the National Retail Federation’s 12th floor offices near CityCenterDC. 

Since launching in mid-January, the patent group has hired a number of lobbyists and consultants and is preparing advertising campaigns and events in lawmakers’ home states. Its member organizations hold six to a dozen meetings a day on Capitol Hill regarding the issue, according to the group. 

Preparations to organize the broad coalition began late last year after it became clear that legislation would not make it to Obama’s desk last Congress, Provenzano said. Retailers and technology companies already had some experience teaming up on the issue. 

“We worked together last Congress,” she said. “It was a lot more loosely, but we did have that shared goal of alleviating the patent troll problem. So it just seemed like a natural move to formalize our relationship.”

The “fairly obvious” name soon followed, Provenzano said. 

“It was like a 10 [or] 15 minute conversation when we went in, and it all sort of came together,” another leader of the group, Paige Anderson, said about the name. Anderson, who works with the National Association of Convenience Stores and sits on the patent group’s executive committee, also sat in on the interview. 

“If you look at the members that are part of this, you would think it would be very unwieldy,” Anderson added. “We are a very diverse group of companies. But the reality is because we are facing the same challenges and same obstacles by these patent trolls, it is actually relatively easy to get things done.”

Provenzano and the NRF have largely been the public face of United for Patent Reform during its infancy. Oracle’s Dejan Pavlovic is the other co-chair of the group, which currently lists about 35 companies and organizations among its ranks. 

Provenzano came to the NRF in 2011 after a stint on Capitol Hill, working as the deputy chief of staff for the secretary of the Senate and various other rolls in the offices of retired Sens. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.).

“It was not intentional. I thought I would go back,” she said about her undergraduate degree in broadcast journalism. “But you know the Hill is a very appealing and fun place to work, and you work with very smart, capable people, so I stuck around for a lot longer than I planned.”

She was working on the patent issue last year for the retail federation when it became clear that legislation was dead in the Democratic-led Senate. A bill had already overwhelmingly passed the House when then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) announced he was pulling his proposal from consideration. 

Then-Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had informed him that he would not allow the bill to make it to the floor, partly due to objections from the pharmaceutical industry and trial lawyers. Critics have said legislation could discourage companies from bringing legitimate patent litigation, and they have cited a recent drop in patent litigation as one reason to proceed cautiously. 

When the news reached Provenzano, she was in meetings with House staff working on further legislation related to demand letters, a first step in patent litigation when a company outlines its patent infringement complaint and threatens litigation. Advocates have called to crack down on the proliferation of deceptive demand letters. 

“We were actually on the House side, lobbying on the demand letter bill” when the Senate pulled the legislation, Provenzano said. “So we still had a lot of work to do. So that is how we viewed it. It was disappointing, of course. But we were eager to get it done this year.” 

The NRF has been keeping a database of demand letters for the last decade. And it began lobbying members of Congress for a broader legislative fix after noticing an explosion in litigation. 

“Although it was a problem in the mid-2000s, it really exploded [in] 2010, 2011,” she said, adding, “I think the patent trolls figured out there are so many more of us using the technology and there were therefore more targets, so we were a very target rich environment.”

But the patent coalition’s priorities extend past demand letters. The group lists seven keys to reform on its website. Those include things like increasing the level of detail required in initial court pleadings, stopping unnecessary discovery and forcing the losing party to pay for the winning party’s legal fees after frivolous litigation. 

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) reintroduced the Innovation Act last week, which overwhelmingly passed the House last Congress and has the group’s support. Provenzano said her group would be closely watching one provision aimed at protecting so-called end users, who many times include retailers who use patented technology. The provision — known as “customer stay” — is meant to delay lawsuits against end users until litigation against the actual manufacturer of the technology has finished. 

“I think with every new Congress and every new bill, even if it has passed before, there will be conversations about [the details],” she said. “There are a lot of new members on the committee. So there is an educational effort.”