Bipartisan House votes to stop patent ‘trolls’

Even as it is under fire for lack of accomplishments, the House struck a bipartisan note Thursday, easily passing a bill designed to crack down on bogus patent lawsuits that lawmakers say are sapping innovation.

The issue, which was barely on the radar a few months ago, has become a major legislative force: President Obama, who regularly butts heads with House Republicans, cheered their efforts this week, as did many businesses who said they’ve faced challenges over everything from website design to adding wi-fi access to their stores.

Thursday’s 325-90 vote sends the bill to the Senate, where lawmakers are just as eager for action. Even as the House was voting, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced he would hold hearings to try to speed action.

Those who file the suits are often called “patent trolls.” They are companies that buy up patents and then seek businesses to sue. They often demand a settlement that’s somewhat less than the cost of litigation, hoping companies will choose to pay out rather than fight.

“This bill does one thing very well — it puts a little bit of teeth finally back into what trolls use as a tool - file a lawsuit, collect an amount of money,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican who made a personal fortune from a car alarm business that he said has involved having to defend patents.

A major array of big-name companies has lined up behind the bill, which would give companies that defeat frivolous lawsuits a chance to collect lawyers’ fees from those who brought the suit, and would change some of the rules governing how courts hear patent challenges.

Left out of the final House bill was a fought-over provision that would have given companies an easier path to challenge the actual patents they believe were frivolous.

Patent issues always involve striking a balance between the inventors and the companies that want to put technology into play, and opponents Thursday said the House bill goes too far.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican, said even the term “patent troll” was invented by major companies seeking to demonize the lawyers trying to help inventors. He said he spoke with an executive who was at a meeting where the term was coined — the executive told him they rejected “patent pirate” because it wasn’t sufficiently evil-sounding.

“Every time you’re hearing the word ‘troll,’ what you’re hearing is a manipulation of the debate by some very powerful interests,” Mr. Rohrabacher said.

“This is the biggest attack on the independent inventor in the 25 years I’ve been a member of Congress,” he said.

Unlike most action in Congress in recent years, Thursday’s vote didn’t break down along party lines. Indeed, 195 Republicans and 130 Democrats voted for it, while opponents numbered 64 Democrats and 26 GOP members.

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