Senate staff hears tech groups, PTO on weak software patents

Tech companies met with Senate staff Friday, arguing for and against expanding a patent review process to software patents.

As the Senate Judiciary Committee considers a patent reform bill from Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), it is weighing proposals from other committee members, including one from Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), which would create additional scrutiny for low-quality software patents.

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Under a provision in the America Invents Act — the previous patent reform bill from Leahy that went into effect in 2011 — companies being sued for patent infringement can ask the Patent and Trademark Office to reevaluate the patent if the patent is for a “Covered Business Method,” relating to financial products.

Schumer and certain parts of the tech sector want to expand that review process to software patents to address low-quality software patents used by “patent trolls” to threaten and bring meritless lawsuits. Other lawmakers and tech companies have expressed concerns that the expanded review could weaken intellectual property rights overall.

Friday’s Judiciary staff briefing focused on existing methods to ensure patent quality and included two tech groups — the Application Developers Alliance and The Internet Association — arguing in favor of expanding the review process and IBM and the Association for Competitive Technology arguing against expansion.

According to attendees, representatives from the Patent and Trademark Office, including newly appointed Deputy Director Michelle Lee, also presented at the briefing and indicated the Obama administration’s support for expanding the patent review process to software patents.

Ultimately, the participants agreed that Congress needs to do something to address the problem of low-quality patents being used against innovators, presenters said.

“There was definitely common ground on the need to deal with the poor quality patents and patent trolls,” Jonathan Zuck, president of the Association for Competitive Technology, said, adding that many staffers appeared open-minded about the debate over whether to expand the existing patent review process to software patents.

“The real disagreement was about whether or not" expanding the current review process to software patents "is a viable way to do it," Zuck, who argued against the patent review expansion, said.

“There’s a real reason for optimism” that the two sides can find a compromise to tackle the bad patents, said Tim Sparapani, vice president of government affairs at the Application Developers Alliance. Sparapani argued for expansion of the patent review process to software patents.

 While there may be disagreement over the solution, "everyone agreed that we have a patent quality problem," he said.

-- This post was updated at 6:07 p.m. om 2/1/14.

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