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We Need a Patent System That Works for All Innovators

Today I’m introducing legislation in the U.S. Senate that targets abuse in focused and effective ways while strengthening the patent system as a whole.

opengovfoundation.org

The heart and soul of American innovation has always been the individual inventor — that special, inspired person who toils for days, months and even years in a garage, at a computer, or in a laboratory to create the next product, service or cure that will change the way we live our lives.

These remarkable people are found throughout America today, helping us achieve things nobody thought possible when Thomas Edison was issued patent #223,898 for the light bulb. That same patent system — grounded in a Constitutional recognition of the importance of individual rights to inventions for a limited period of time — has provided the necessary underpinning for billions of dollars invested in cures, technologies and scientific advancements.

Today, the value and importance of intellectual property to the U.S. economy is astonishing. IP-intensive industries comprise one-third of our GDP ($5.5 trillion), generate 27 million jobs and pay employees more than 30 percent more than other industries. Where other countries rely on IP theft to keep up, our best minds continue to redefine what’s possible. We’ve gone from the light bulb to harnessing the power of the sun, and this steady advancement through invention and innovation has been seen across an incredible breadth in all sectors of the economy.

Our innovation ecosystem must foster invention across wildly diverging business models and sectors, not abandoning one for the other. If you’re in an industry where your innovation cycles are short and the race to market is paramount, your view of patent protection is likely much different than if your industry requires years of development for each product, hundreds of millions of dollars in high-risk investment and heavily regulated clinical trials to get a single product into the hands of consumers.

What all of this means is that when we talk about reforming our patent system, as Congress will resume in the coming weeks, we need to view the wide landscape of American innovation with an equally wide lens. We need a system that works for software developers and Web-based companies as well as those who make next-generation computer chips and life-saving drugs. Our goal should not be to make trade-offs that benefit one innovative sector at the expense of another — we should instead work carefully and cautiously to strengthen the system for all.

Abuse of the patent system hurts everyone and threatens the innovation economy that makes America a beacon of hope for the world. Whether by a patent-owning troll sending frivolous demand letters to extort settlements from young startups, or a short-selling hedge fund attacking a biotechnology company to score a quick profit on depressed stock valuation, abuse of the system is morally corrupt, and we should put an end to it.

Some reforms that have been marketed as fixes to the trolling problem — particularly those that make it much harder to enforce a valid patent against a larger company or foreign copyist — would do far more harm than good by weakening the entire patent system. These proposals may aim at a worthy goal, but they’ve been crafted with only a partial view of the American economy. While they are sometimes sold as protecting small inventors, the truth is that weakened patent protections stack the deck in favor of big companies with established manufacturing and distribution networks (and large legal departments).

Many hopeful young companies can only attract investors if they have a patent to their inventions, and that patent is only worth the paper on which it is printed if it can’t be reliably enforced in court. If we weaken patents, the capital for new inventions will only be invested in already-large companies, isolating individual app developers and the brightest technologists, and exposing their inventions to outright theft. That simply isn’t the American dream, and it isn’t how we’ve achieved tremendous breakthroughs to date.

Today I’m introducing legislation in the U.S. Senate that targets abuse in focused and effective ways while strengthening the patent system as a whole. It’s called the Support Technology and Research for Our Nation’s Growth (STRONG) Patents Act, and it focuses on achieving five things:

  • Crack down on abusive demand letters by empowering the Federal Trade Commission to target firms that abuse startups rather than invent anything.
  • Ensure that pleading standards for patent-infringement cases match the standards used for all other forms of civil actions, creating a significant barrier to frivolous lawsuits before any funds are spent on discovery.
  • Eliminate fee diversion from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office so we can ensure that those who examine patents have adequate training and dependable funding.
  • Ensure balance in post-grant proceedings at the PTO, so that this expedited form of patent litigation is both fast and fair.
  • Analyze the impact that our patent system has on small businesses, both from the perspective of startups reliant on patents and those small businesses facing allegations of infringement.

All inventors — be they scientists, developers or ordinary dreamers — want the same thing: The freedom to create and the ability to turn their ideas into reality. All have an important role to play in moving our country forward, so Washington should ensure we have a system that works for all of them.


U.S. Senator Chris Coons is a Democrat from Delaware. A member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he worked for years as an attorney at one of the nation’s largest manufacturers, W.L. Gore. He has introduced a number of bills designed to protect American intellectual property, whether from trade-secret theft, counterfeiting or global infringement. Sen. Coons is also a member of the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, introducing bills to allow startups to take advantage of the R&D Tax Credit and get the capital investment they need to grow. He has also built a record as a privacy hawk, working to protect consumers from unwanted tracking, update privacy laws to reflect technological advances and to ensure that the government’s security efforts don’t violate Americans’ privacy rights. Reach him @ChrisCoons.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.