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Tech Giants Team Up With Pharma to Protect Software Patents

Apple, Microsoft and other tech giants are teaming up over concerns that software patents are under attack.

Stuart Miles/Shutterstock

Concerned that the value of their patents could be in some danger, Apple, Microsoft and IBM have teamed up with major pharmaceutical companies and manufacturers to launch a new industry group to talk up the value of the current patent system and defend some types of patents.

General Electric, Ford Motor Co., DuPont and Pfizer joined the tech giants in launching the Partnership for American Innovation Thursday. “Despite their differences, all of these companies are unified because they depend on America’s world leading patent system to safeguard their investments,” the coalition’s website says.

Tech and pharmaceutical companies have often been on opposite sides in previous battles over patent legislation, but they’ve joined together as Washington is on the verge of possibly enacting new legislation to crack down on patent trolls and the Supreme Court is looking at whether software is even patentable.

Senate lawmakers have been working to find a compromise on legislation designed to stop non-practicing entities (or patent trolls) from sending abusive demand letters. They’re also considering shifting the burden of paying legal fees to the losers in order to create a disincentive for filing lawsuits to enforce poor-quality patents. The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to begin consideration of patent legislation today, but that effort will likely stretch into next week.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court heard arguments Monday in a closely watched case involving software patents which could result in new limitations on how some computer-based business methods are patented. The court’s decision is expected in June.

Taken together, these developments have some of the country’s largest companies (with the largest and most valuable patent portfolios) a little nervous about what could be coming their way.

The new patent advocacy group was formed because “these companies have come to the view that there is a growing, palpably negative vibe, an anti-[intellectual property], anti-patent sentiment in the public discourse,” said David Kappos, a long-time IBM patent attorney and former director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office under President Obama. He is a senior adviser to the new industry group.

The group points to one recent example of anti-patent sentiment. Some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley including Twitter, Netflix, LinkedIn and Yelp filed a brief in the Supreme Court’s software patent case arguing that patents aren’t necessary to support innovative software development. The companies wrote they “believe that innovation happens despite software patents, not because of them.”

Some “extremists” have called for the abolishment of the patent system and “others have made declarations that legitimate and highly innovative technologies such as software should not be patentable or should be treated with undue suspicion,” wrote Manny Schecter, IBM’s Chief Patent Counsel in a blog post Thursday.

While IBM supports reforms to curb abusive behavior, “we urge caution when there are calls for weakening our patent system, especially calls for devaluing [only] patents relating to specific technologies,” he added.

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