Congress's exclusive club of inventors

Congress's exclusive club of inventors

Among the farmers, lawyers and career politicians on Capitol Hill, there’s also a smaller, more exclusive club: the inventors.

A handful of lawmakers are responsible for contraptions as varied as a car alarm, decoy pepper spray that looks like a pager and a proto-iPad that measures golfers’ data.

Their voices will hold weight as Congress dives into a new debate over patent reform, an issue that cuts across party lines.

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Each of the patent-holding lawmakers contacted by The Hill said that their ability to create something new has had an impact on their ability to write laws. In some cases, the inventions have also made them rich.      

“I’d like to see more inventors in Congress,” said Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.). “They would appreciate our U.S. Constitution and the clause in there that sets out to protect intellectual property.”

Massie holds 29 patents that help designers digitally sculpt on a computer by using their sense of touch. The technology has been used by companies that make jewelry, toys, cars and reconstructive implants for wounded soldiers.

Only a few lawmakers have an educational background in science and engineering, which produces many inventors. In all of Congress, there are eight former engineers, one chemist, one microbiologist and one physicist. There are also five former software company executives, according to the Congressional Research Service. 

In contrast, 213 members of Congress hold law degrees, and 100 have worked in education, be it as a teacher, professor or in some other role.

The number of patent-holding inventors in Congress identified by The Hill is small. 

In addition to Massie, there’s Rep. Trent FranksHarold (Trent) Trent FranksOn The Trail: Arizona is microcosm of battle for the GOP Arizona New Members 2019 Cook shifts 8 House races toward Dems MORE (R-Ariz.), whose LP 1000 Life Pager looks like a pager but secretly contains pepper spray.

Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.) owns patents on a type of wire nut and software that reduces stress on wind turbines so that they can last longer. 

Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) came up with the design for a device that takes in different bits of information for different applications, processes it and spits it back in real time.

“I tell people I have the design on the precursor to the iPad,” Johnson told The Hill. “I get the bragging rights but Apple gets the money.”

Johnson came up with the idea while he was a volunteer baseball coach. He thought that it could better process players’ statistics, but eventually advertised it as an aide for golfers.

The record for congressional patents goes to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who holds 37 of them, including car alarm technology that uses his voice to ward off intruders.

Issa is helping to lead the charge in the House to pass patent reform legislation — an issue that splits the Capitol’s inventors, despite their similar backgrounds.

The Californian has said that his career before entering office helped form his opposition to patent “trolls,” who critics say bog down innovation with harassing lawsuits over suspected intellectual property theft.

He has been on both sides of patent infringement litigation through the company, Directed Electronics Inc., which helped make him the wealthiest member of Congress, with an estimated net worth of more than $350 million. 

Issa may hold the record for patents in Congress, but a number of them are now expired, and he has questioned the validity of others. He has jokingly jostled about his patent record with Massie.

“I understand some of yours are still valid and mine are mostly expired,” Issa said during a hearing late last year. 

“Well, some of yours were never valid, but we will leave it at that,” Massie replied.

Massie is one of the most outspoken critics of the patent reform push.

The Kentucky Republican, who began inventing while he was an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, fears lawmakers’ efforts could prevent researchers from finding breakthroughs.

“I think this bias in the proposed legislation against NPE’s — or non-practicing entities — is a very, very dangerous thing,” he said. “It’s like telling somebody that your career as a writer is illegitimate unless you own a printing press.”

Congressional inventors are split on the long-simmering dispute, which will rear its head into two separate House hearings this coming week.

On Tuesday, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office director Michelle Lee will testify in the House Judiciary Committee, as it considers a major piece of legislation meant to clamp down on lawsuits from the “trolls.” On Thursday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will take up a bill that aims to reduce the amount of abusive letters sent by companies that suspect their patent rights are being violated.

McNerny, who invented the modification for wind turbines, opposes broad patent reform legislation, saying it could hurt inventors like him.

“I was an individual inventor,” he said. “I wasn’t really working for a corporation when I did these inventions. So I felt like a little guy, and I certainly want to see the rights of the little guy protected.” 

Johnson, whose proto-iPad device never made it to market, was more critical of people who file lawsuits against bigger, successful companies.

Because of his design, he has been told he “probably has a case” against companies that made tablets, he told The Hill. But he has declined to take them up on it.

“I’m proud of the idea and the progress that we’ve made, but somebody else that has the wherewithal actually brought it to market and I’m okay with that,” he said.

“I have a real problem with somebody that sits around and thinks up an idea, doesn’t have the equipment, and then when somebody else does, they think that somebody owes them something. I don’t agree with that.”

Patent reform cuts across party lines and has also been embraced by the White House.

As the effort gets going in coming weeks, members with a patent or inventor background will be able to weigh in with their unique perspective, said Michael Rosen, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. 

“I think it’s very helpful, just as in the way during that during the ObamaCare debate, some of the members of Congress — in particular, I think it tended to be Republican opponents of ObamaCare — sort of had an added sense of credibility if they themselves were doctors,” said Rosen, who is also an intellectual property lawyer at Fish and Richardson.