In a rare display of bipartisanship, the House passed the Innovation Act aimed at defending the patent rights of inventors and easing development of tech devices by curtailing patent litigation.
The bill, which passed the House on Thursday with a 325-91 vote, would protect tech innovators and small businesses from "patent trolling," a practice where an entity uses a patent not to build or improve an invention, but to threaten businesses with infringement lawsuits to extort a settlement as an alternative to expensive litigation. Patent trolls sometimes use a poorly defined or expired patent on consumer technology to extort an out-of-court settlement from small businesses using that gear.
The bill advanced quickly after being introduced in October by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.
"In recent years, we have seen an exponential increase in the use of weak or poorly-granted patents by so-called patent trolls to file numerous patent infringement lawsuits against American businesses with the hopes of securing a quick payday," Goodlatte said in a statement. "Everyone from independent inventors, to start-ups, to mid and large sized businesses face this constant threat."
The White House supports the bill, following its release in June of legislative measures for Congress to curb patent trolling. Democratic members including House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers, Mich., attempted to amend the bill in November because it seeks to deter patent trolling by requiring the losers of a patent lawsuit to pay the winning party's legal fees, with certain exceptions. When the bill's counterpart is debated in the Senate, Democrats may voice concern that the fee provision could limit the power of a court to exercise discretion about whether to shift expenses to the loser of a patent case.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, introduced a companion bill called the Patent Transparency and Improvements Act of 2013. Leahy on Thursday announced that a hearing to debate the bill is scheduled for Dec. 17.
"Supporting American innovators and protecting those who are being targeted by patent trolls is a bipartisan priority," Leahy said. "I look forward to hearing testimony on this important issue and working to pass meaningful legislation this Congress."
This momentum on the issue reflects the growing influence of Silicon Valley companies in Washington, D.C., as technology companies lobbied hard for new laws to combat patent trolling. Companies spend millions on lawsuits that could otherwise be spent on research, development and hiring, according to a statement from Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah.
"Small businesses and start-up companies, who are working to create jobs and grow the economy, are being suffocated by these egregious lawsuits," Chaffetz said.
Supporters of the bill include Mozilla, the National Association of Broadcasters and the Internet Association. Michael Beckerman, president of the Internet Association, whose members include Google, Amazon and Facebook among others, is optimistic about the bill's chances in the Senate.
"The momentum in the House on that bipartisan bill is likely going carry over to the Senate," Beckerman says. "I think there is a good chance that there will be legislation on the president's desk by the end of 2014."