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Bipartisan House votes against ‘patent trolls’ who file lawsuits against innovators
Even as it is under fire for lack of accomplishments, the House struck a bipartisan note Thursday by 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 have faced challenges over website design, Wi-Fi access and other efforts.
The 325-90 vote sends the bill to the Senate, where lawmakers are just as eager for a solution. As the House was voting, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced hearings to try to speed action on legislation.
Those who file the lawsuits often are called “patent trolls.” These companies buy up patents and then seek businesses to sue. They often demand settlements that are somewhat less than the cost of litigation, hoping companies will 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 E. Issa.
The California Republican has made a personal fortune from a car-alarm business that he said has been forced to defend patents.
An array of big-name companies has lined up behind the bill, which would give companies a chance to collect attorneys’ fees from those who file frivolous lawsuits and would change some of the rules governing how courts hear patent challenges.
Left out of the final House bill was a disputed provision that would have given companies an easier path to challenge patent lawsuits they think are frivolous.
Patent issues involve balance between inventors and companies that want to put their creations into play. Opponents said Thursday that the House bill tilts the balance too far toward the companies and away from inventors.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican, said the term “patent troll” was coined by major companies seeking to demonize 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 that “patent pirate” was rejected because it didn’t sound sufficiently evil.
“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 other congressional action in recent years, the vote Thursday didn’t break along party lines. Indeed, 195 Republicans and 130 Democrats voted for it, while opponents numbered 64 Democrats and 26 Republicans.
It’s unclear how much of a problem patent trolls are. One study put their cost to the economy at $29 billion in 2011, but other studies have found patent-assertion entities, as companies that buy up patents are sometimes called, are responsible only for a fraction of the patent litigation.
Indeed, many major users of technology are also major developers and have their own patents to defend through court challenges.
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