GUEST POST by Ken Salazar, WilmerHale Partner & Former US Secretary of the Interior and Quentin Palfrey, WilmerHale Senior Counsel and Former Senior Advisor for Jobs & Competitiveness in the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy
Patent politics have not always been front page news. Last year, the hilarious faux newspaper The Onion quipped that “Expansive Obama State Of The Union Speech To Touch On Patent Law, Entomology, The Films Of Robert Altman”.
While still not exactly sexy, patent policy has steadily emerged as a major economic policy issue on the national stage over the past few years. After nearly a decade of debate, Congress passed the America Invents Act in in 2011 – a major piece of reform legislation that was also notable for the bipartisan nature of its backers. In addition to President Obama and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), America Invents benefited greatly from the support of a number of influential Republicans. At a time when entrenched partisan divisions have made meaningful legislative reforms nearly unthinkable in most areas, patent policy stands as a notable and nearly unique exception.
With the ink barely dry on the America Invents Act, President Obama remarked that “[o]ur efforts at patent reform are only about halfway to where we need to go.” Obama twice followed this statement up by issuing a series of executive actions and legislative recommendations in June 2013 and February 2014. While it is doubtful that the President was inspired by The Onion’s coverage, President Obama did indeed use the occasion of his 2014 State of the Union speech to call on Congress to “pass a patent reform bill that allows our businesses to stay focused on innovation, not costly and needless litigation.” Meanwhile, the House of Representatives passed a patent litigation reform bill at breakneck speed in December 2013, and the Senate has taken up a parallel measure.
Whatever the merits of various proposals, it is clear that patent policy and politics are experiencing a dynamic renaissance that creates challenges and opportunities for companies and individuals at every level of the economy. President Obama and Congress are not alone in seeing patent reform as an important policy area. Last week, Wisconsin joined Oregon and Vermont in passing a bill touted as a measure to crack down on demand letter abuses by patent trolls. The Federal Trade Commission has launched a study of patent litigation abuses and is reportedly pursuing investigations against entities it believes have committed unfair and deceptive trade practices. Beyond implementing the America Invents Act, the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office has launched a series of initiatives that it says will improve patent quality and provide tools to help those facing litigation abuses. Not to be overlooked are important U.S. Supreme Court cases such as CLS Bank and Octane Fitness that could significantly affect the patent litigation landscape by altering the circumstances under which software patents can be granted and fees can be awarded to prevailing parties, respectively.
Last month, our firm was proud to host a roundtable featuring Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell, who has emerged as a leader in state law enforcement efforts to combat unfair and deceptive trade practices in the patent space. Along with his colleagues from across the country, AG Sorrell has investigated and sued the notorious MPHJ Technology Investments, a company that reportedly acquired a number of scanner patents for the purpose of sending thousands of demand letters to small businesses and nonprofits. MPHJ claimed to hold a patent that covers scanning a document and attaching it to an email — a function common to numerous “off the shelf” technology products — and demanding a licensing fee of $1,000 or more per worker.
The state AG’s efforts in this space highlight the complexity of the patent policy efforts in this dynamic time. To understand developments that are proceeding at a dizzying pace, it is now imperative for policymakers, innovators, and the attorneys who advise them to constantly stay abreast of issues unfolding in all three branches of the federal government, at the state level, and even internationally.