After the last time I blogged about patent reform in late 2007, the House went on to approve the Patent Reform Act. The bill unfortunately got bogged down in the Senate the following year. Since then the problems of the current system — and the need for reform — have only grown.
Consider this: Of the 20 patent lawsuits filed against Google since late 2007, all but two have been filed by plaintiffs who don’t make or sell any real product or service — in other words, by non-practicing entities or “patent trolls.” Most of these cases seem to feature the same small set of contingent fee plaintiff's lawyers asserting patent claims against the same small set of companies. We've also noticed a more disturbing trend: in many of these cases, the patents being asserted against us are owned by — and in a surprising number of cases, are even “invented” by — patent lawyers themselves.
Unfortunately, the temptations and opportunities for abuse have gotten too high. Lawyers and plaintiffs have seen the potentially huge payoffs available in patent litigation. Before 1990, there had been just one patent damage award of over $100 million. Since 1990, there have been at least 15, with at least five topping $500 million.
That's why I'm excited that patent reform legislation is slated to be reintroduced today by Senators Patrick Leahy and Orrin Hatch and Representatives John Conyers and Lamar Smith. Once a driver of creativity, our patent system now poses a hurdle for innovation. All too often, Google and other companies face mounting legal costs to defend against questionable patent claims from speculators gaming the system to reap windfall profits. And those lawsuits make it more difficult and costly to introduce the next revolutionary product.
I wrote a bit last Congress about the reform provisions that Google cares the most about. The most pressing of those is ensuring fair damage awards. The current system too easily allows damages to be assessed based on the value of the whole product often containing many features — not just the value of the innovation of the allegedly infringed patent — which means the threat of potentially massive awards forces defendants to settle. Balance should be restored by requiring damages to be based on the value of the innovation's contribution to the product.
As members of the Coalition for Patent Fairness, we're optimistic that patent reform faces better odds in 2009 than it has before — not least because President Obama has pledged his support. Passage of patent reform is long overdue.