- The Washington Times - Monday, May 18, 2015

Rarely do small inventors and business owners go to such great lengths to lobby Washington lawmakers, but new patent legislation is proving to be so controversial that small innovators across the country are banding together to form a new lobbying voice.

But the issue is also proving divisive for the entrepreneurs’ natural political ally, as the Republicans in Congress have yet to unite behind a single position.

Supporters of the legislation, known as The Innovation Act, say it will update intellectual property laws to rein in “patent trolls,” mostly shell companies that buy up vague patent ideas and concepts, with the intent of suing other companies for infringement when they bring real products to the market.

But critics of the legislation warn it goes too far, targeting just a small number of abusers while raising the costs for legitimate patent holders to protect their legal rights under long-established law.

Some small-scale innovators say that the legislation only helps big companies like Google and Apple, and argue that provisions in the bill make it so difficult for innovators to protect their patents that it actually stifles American innovation.

“I’ve been fighting against bills that are bad for our patent system for some time now, and these bills all make it harder for the independent inventor to defend a patent,” said Randy Landreneau, founder of Independent Inventors of America.

Speaking at a Washington Times panel on patent reform legislation, Mr. Landreneau, an independent inventor and former president of the Tampa Bay Inventors Council, argued that “everything about [the bill] is bad for inventors.”

One of the most contentious aspects of The Innovation Act is a “fee-shifting” provision that attempts to discourage patent trolls by shifting the burden of litigation fees to the losing party in a legal dispute.

Opponents of the bill say the fee-shifting provision could be very damaging for small companies and start-up firms trying to protect their patents against patent trolls with larger legal teams and argue that the legislation isn’t needed because the courts themselves have already taken measures to stem litigation brought by patent trolls in recent years.

Not all small businesses oppose the bill, and supporters say that the legislation is essential to take down those abusing the patent system. The courts, they argue, have proven they can’t rein in the trolls on their own.

“That is a bogus issue that is raised largely by people who like the system exactly the way it is, either because they have portfolios of low-quality patents and they don’t want to endanger those portfolios or because they don’t understand what the legislation does,” said Beau Phillips a spokesperson for United for Patent reform.

“Abusive patent letters unjustly threaten small business owners and drive up prices for consumers,” Rep. Michael C. Burgess, Texas Republican and a main sponsor of the bill, said last month as the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved the bill. “… This is a necessary solution that balances First Amendment rights of legitimate patent holders and filters out letters that lack legitimacy.”

Mr. Phillips argued that none of the court rulings are reducing patent troll lawsuits and said that only a comprehensive legislative solution will solve the patent litigation problem.

According to Mr. Phillips, thousands of small business owners, from Realtors and homebuilders to convenience stores and gas station owners, have been harassed by patent trolls and have come together to support the legislation.

“This is a nuisance that costs them tens of thousands of dollars and they want it to go away,” Mr. Phillips said.

But the largest lobbying effort on patent reform by far has come from Google.

Last year, Google spent about $17 million on lobbying, and the majority of its efforts were focused on patent reform. In fact, Google spent more money than any tech company on copyright, patent and trademark lobbying last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign and lobbying expenditures.

• Kellan Howell can be reached at khowell@washingtontimes.com.

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