Patent reform clears key hurdle in the Senate

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday sent a bill to the floor that aims to crack down on so-called patent trolls.

The committee voted to advance the bill 16-4, clearing a hurdle that proved impassable in the last Congress when senators clashed over the details of the legislation.

A number of senators backed the new bill with the qualification that it is not finished, and many promised to push for amendments on the Senate floor. Other members like Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Health Care: Trump eases rules on insurance outside ObamaCare | HHS office on religious rights gets 300 complaints in a month | GOP chair eyes opioid bill vote by Memorial Day HHS official put on leave amid probe into social media posts Trump, Pence to address CPAC this week MORE (R-Texas) voted against the bill but left open the possibility of supporting it on the floor. 

"I’d like to point out that, as this bill moves to the floor, there remain a few issues that need to be resolved," said Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyPavlich: The claim Trump let the mentally ill get guns is a lie Congress fails miserably: For Asian-Americans, immigration proposals are personal attacks Grassley, Dems step up battle over judicial nominees MORE (R-Iowa). 

Sens. Cruz, David VitterDavid Bruce VitterTrump nominates wife of ex-Louisiana senator to be federal judge Where is due process in all the sexual harassment allegations? Not the Senate's job to second-guess Alabama voters MORE (R-La.), Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinAmerica’s waning commitment to the promise of the First Amendment Senate rejects Trump immigration plan What to watch for in the Senate immigration votes MORE (D-Ill.) and Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsAfter Florida school shooting, vows for change but no clear path forward Democrats put Dreamers and their party in danger by playing hardball Sunday shows preview: Russian charges, Florida shooting dominate coverage MORE (D-Del.) all voted against the bill. 

Technology companies and retailers have pushed hard for the past few years to get a bill passed to address what they see as the growing abuse of the legal system, with trolls buying up patents solely for the purpose of extracting financial settlements.

The bill approved Thursday includes a number of substantial additions to placate companies in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. The underlying bill also contains a number of compromises compared to the House version, which is expected to be marked up in the near future.  

Lawmakers have engaged in a delicate dance to satisfy as many interests without blowing up the overall deal. From the start, lawmakers have said no industry will get everything it wants in the bill.

"We have gotten some flack from some of our allies in the tech community for making some of the changes from the universities, pharmaceuticals to the legal provisions in terms of who pays. But we're trying to seek balance here," said Sen. Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocrats now attack internet rules they once embraced Schumer: Trump budget would ‘cripple’ gun background checks Schumer: Senate Republicans' silence 'deafening' on guns, Russia MORE (D-N.Y.), who helped negotiate the bill.

The legislation makes a number of changes to the patent litigation process, dealing with pleadings and discovery standards, fee shifting, demand letters, and rules allowing end users to delay infringement lawsuits while similar cases are litigated against the manufacturer of technology. Companies say all of those tools are being used to bully them into patent settlements.

Coons and Durbin are critical of the legislation, arguing the changes would make it harder for people to defend legitimate patents.

A half dozen amendments by Coons were handily voted down, which tracked closely with his alternate patent legislation introduced earlier this year. At one point during the markup, Sen. John CornynJohn CornynLawmakers feel pressure on guns Kasich’s campaign website tones down gun language after Florida shooting Murphy: Trump’s support for background check bill shows gun politics ‘shifting rapidly’ MORE (R-Texas), who helped negotiate the deal, accused Coons of "piecemeal trying to upset the delicate balance we are trying to achieve here."

One amendment sponsored by Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinLawmakers feel pressure on guns Feinstein: Trump must urge GOP to pass bump stock ban Florida lawmakers reject motion to consider bill that would ban assault rifles MORE (D-Calif.) that was approved Thursday would bar demand letters from containing a specific monetary settlement request.  

"What I have seen is a shakedown. That's what these demand letters are," Feinstein said.

Recent debate has focused on additions to placate concerns from the the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries about trial-like proceedings in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), which were set up after Congress last passed a patent bill in 2011.

Those proceedings at the PTO — known as post grant and inter partes reviews — were meant to offer a faster and cheaper way to challenge the validity of a patent.

Supporters say the proceedings are important to weed out weak or vague patents. But critics argue the system is skewed too far against patent holders, and succeeded in getting a whole new section added to the reform bill dealing with the issue.

Those changes at the PTO have been derided by the technology community as having the potential to "significantly weaken" the process. But at least one major patent trade group, United for Patent Reform, representing major tech companies and retailers, has said the change won't cause it to oppose the bill.

Lawmakers still have a number of issues to work out with the PTO provision, including one that would exclude certain Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs from the proceedings.

This story was updated a 1 p.m.