We found out late last week that the Senate is pushing back a key vote on patent reform for the third time in a row. Early reports decried this as the beginning of the end of patent reform, but in fact the opposite is true. From everything we’re hearing, the Senators have reached a deal on the key provisions of comprehensive reform and plan to use their upcoming recess to smooth everything out.
Good news first: the bill looks likely to include the following strong provisions that generally align with the House Innovation Act:
Fee shifting: Meaningful fee shifting will discourage the most egregious actors — those without meritorious cases — from suing in the first place; and joinder provisions are necessary to make sure that the real party in interest — the one that really owns the patent — can be held liable for the trolling activities of shell entities are also essential. In other words, no more hiding behind shell companies.
Heightened pleading: Patent trolls benefit from asymmetry of information. They can file suits with vague and limited information, leaving companies with no choice but to consult a lawyer about the scope of the threat they face. Most startups don’t have an in-house lawyer at all, let alone one who specializes in patents.
Those bringing suits should set forth the basic framework of their case — who owns the patent, what product allegedly infringes the patent, and what parts of the patent are at issue. This would, at minimum, give startups a basic and common-sense understanding surrounding the threat, allowing them to make more informed decisions on how to proceed.
Discovery reform: Discovery is one of the most onerous and expensive parts of patent litigation. Reasonable limits on initial discovery will help incentivize startups to fight the trolls in court. This will, by default, incentive those trolls to only bring meritorious suits.
Demand letter reform: Patent trolls can legally send vague licensing demands, full of threatening legalese, and startups are again left with no information to understand the scope of the threat they face. Demand letters should include concrete information on the patent holder’s claim to give recipients needed information; and demand letters sent in bad faith should be actionable.
Customer stay exception: Startups can sometimes find themselves facing expensive litigation for a product they obtained from someone else, or they might find their customers facing suits for using their products. In either instance, startups need tools — like robust stays — so manufacturers and suppliers can step in and join the defense.
So far, so good. The not-so-great-news, however, is that the Senate is now out on a two-week recess — and two weeks is a lot of time for opponents derail what appears to be a really good deal.
Most opponents can be clustered into two groups: D.C. insiders who oftentimes know their way around the legislative process much better than the small businesses and innovators who are being targeted by trolls; and large, well-resourced businesses (including the trolls themselves!) that have invested significant resources in the current broken patent system and fear losing some of that investment value.
So, those of us who care about ending the reign of the patent troll need to speak up. Go to fixpatents.org, call your Senators NOW and tell them it’s time for real patent reform.
Finally, a word of caution: we’re reasonably optimistic that the bill we’ll see after recess will be a good one. But the process has been largely opaque and until we see final language we don’t know for sure what this deal will look like. We’ll be watching closely, however, and will keep you up to date in this space and on social media (Follow us on Twitter and Facebook).
Thanks to your help, we're closer than we’ve been in years to fixing a broken patent system that has been hurting inventors, startups, and the promise of technology. Now is the time to get this done.