Senators call for better patents to fight ‘trolls’

Five senators this week told the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to upgrade its examination of applications so that only the best patents go through.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (Ore.) and four other Democrats said in a letter Wednesday that better-quality patents would reduce the risk of patent “trolls” who profit by filing lawsuits against companies claiming their patents have been infringed.

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“It is critical that the USPTO do everything possible to use the administrative tools available to improve patent quality and the examination process,” Merkley wrote, along with Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.).

After a pair of Supreme Court decisions that tossed out some patents, the need for the Patent Office to act alone “is more important than ever,” they wrote.

Lawmakers in the Senate failed to pass patent reform earlier this year, in a major blow to businesses who had blamed the trolls for weighing down innovation by filing harassing lawsuits merely to extract a settlement.

But the senators wrote that the agency has some “additional tools” to act on its own right now.

For instance, the patent office should ensure that examiners don’t have incentives to approve ambiguous, low-quality patents; that they use crowdsourcing and data analysis to identify types of patents that could be troublesome; and make sure the public has access to as much information as possible.

The call for the Patent Office to act on its own was greeted warmly by reformers at the Main Street Patent Coalition, a group of retailers, bankers and food industry trade groups.

Coalition manager Michael Meehan said that more attention needed to be paid to poor patents.

“Main Street businesses are vulnerable until something is done to slow the growing pool of bad patents and to stop the patent trolls who continue exploiting those wrongly-issued patents,” he said in a statement.