GOP prepares assault on 'patent trolls'

Congressional Republicans see legislation advancing “early this year” to address the problem of “patent trolls,” and advocates are gearing up for the fight. 

Republicans are bullish on their chances of passing changes to the legal system to combat so-called "patent trolls" who are accused of extracting settlements with threats of frivolous litigation.

Legislative action has support from both parties and President Obama, raising the prospect that a bill could become an early bipartisan achievement of the new Congress.

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"At a time where there are a lot of differences between the political parties here in Washington, it seems to be one area certainly among others, where the White House, where Republicans and Democrats all agree that we need to pass legislation," Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynHouse passes bill to expedite financial disclosures from judges McConnell leaves GOP in dark on debt ceiling Congress's goal in December: Avoid shutdown and default MORE (R-Texas) said last week, during the nomination hearing for President Obama's pick to lead the U.S. Patent Office. 

The Texas senator said he looked "forward to moving legislation early this year" under the leadership of new Judiciary Chairman Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyGOP blocks bill to expand gun background checks after Michigan school shooting GOP ramps up attacks on SALT deduction provision Graham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks MORE (R-Iowa). 

Cornyn teamed up with Sen. Charles SchumerChuck SchumerHospitals in underserved communities face huge cuts in reckless 'Build Back Better' plan GOP infighting takes stupid to a whole new level Progressive groups urge Schumer to prevent further cuts to T plan MORE (D-N.Y.) last year to try to work through a compromise on patent trolls, but the effort stalled. That proposal is expected to be a jumping off point for new legislation, and his office said staff-level discussions are ongoing. 

In the House, Judiciary Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteFight breaks out between Jordan, Nadler over rules about showing video at Garland hearing The job of shielding journalists is not finished Bottom line MORE (R-Va.) pushed bipartisan legislation through the lower chamber last Congress and recently said he hoped to work with the Senate to pass something "as quickly as possible."

Advocates off Capitol Hill are readying themselves for the fight.

Patent reform advocates including technology companies, retailers and restaurant associations teamed up this month to lobby members on Capitol Hill, in their home states and through media campaigns. The coalition, known as United for Patent Reform, includes Google, Facebook, Amazon and Verizon.

Beth Provenzano, a co-chair of the group, told The Hill that the dynamics on Capitol Hill are "working in our favor," and the group recently sent a letter to the leaders of the House and Senate Judiciary committee outlining their priorities. 

The Internet Association, another trade group representing a series of technology giants, said it would be flying in patent experts from its member companies over the next few months to present its case. 

"Patent trolls are a drag on innovation and the broader economy, and our patent system is in dire need of comprehensive reform," said Noah Theran, the group's spokesman.

Opponents of the legislation warn the reforms could end up harming the patent system, inhibiting research and innovation while also discouraging legitimate patent infringement cases. Some of the main opposition to Senate reform last year reportedly came from the pharmaceutical industry as well as trial lawyers. 

Last Congress, Goodlatte's bill — the Innovation Act — overwhelming passed the House. It would have increased the amount of information plaintiffs have to present when filing patent lawsuits, as well as forced the losing party in patent infringement cases to pay the winning party's legal fees, among other things. 

The changes were meant to discourage companies from buying up patents solely for the purpose of threatening litigation and scoring hefty settlements from companies.

Some advocates suggested the Goodlatte bill is a good start but said can be improved. 

The Obama administration also remains committed to a legislative fix, said Michelle Lee, the president's nominee to lead the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

A year ago, Obama gave patent reform a shoutout in the State of the Union, and some advocates were disappointed it did not get another mention this year. Still, Lee said the omission was not an indication of a policy shift at the White House.

"For patents to get two mentions two years in a row would be fantastic, but the president obviously has many competing demands on his time," she said at the Brookings Institution last week. "But it is not at all a reflection of his priority, or change in priorities.”

Other Senate Democrats, however, are echoing warnings from biotechnology, research and other companies that the patent landscape has fundamentally changed, following recent Supreme Court decisions and past legislative changes just now taking effect. In a letter organized by the Innovation Alliance last week, a group of 240 businesses noted patent litigation has dropped 40 percent from 2013 to 2014. 

"I agree we need to find a way of working together to clamp down on abuses. But I would urge a little caution as we consider any changes,"  said Sen. Chris CoonsChris Andrew CoonsHouse passes bill to expedite financial disclosures from judges Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Dems seek to preserve climate provisions Democrats wrangle to keep climate priorities in spending bill  MORE (D-Del.), another member of the Judiciary Committee.