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Harry Reid's retirement is good news for patent reform

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY)
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY)
Win McNamee/Getty Images

The big news in politics today is that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is retiring from Congress at the end of the current term, and has endorsed Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to succeed him as Democratic leader in 2017. One group that's surely celebrating this announcement is advocates of patent reform.

In 2013, the House of Representatives passed the Innovation Act, which would make it easier for companies to defend themselves in patent lawsuits. The legislation was designed to combat the problem of patent trolls — companies that make their money by threatening patent lawsuits rather than by making useful products. The idea enjoyed the support of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and several senior Republicans in the Senate.

But last May, Leahy announced that he was shelving his patent reform bill, and insiders told me he did this at Reid's request. Reid has a close relationships with trial lawyers' groups, who opposed the bill. Plaintiffs' lawyers were concerned that the bill's "loser pays" provision — which allows winning defendants in patent cases to collect legal fees from plaintiffs — could later be expanded to apply to non-patent cases.

By contrast, Schumer is an advocate of patent reform and was one of Leahy's key allies in the patent fight. That makes sense given his constituency; New York is home to both Wall Street and a lot of technology startups, and both groups are frequent targets of patent trolls.

On a lot of issues, it doesn't really matter who the party leaders are because their caucuses already have strong opinions. Harry Reid was personally pro-life, but he's been forced to reflect the views of his overwhelmingly pro-choice caucus. But patent issues aren't like that. There are Democrats on both sides of the issue, and a number of senators who don't have a strong opinion on the issue one way or the other. So who leads the Democrats can have a big impact.

Of course, if Republicans pass a strong patent reform bill this year — which they might — then this could be a non-issue by the time Reid's successor takes over in 2017. But given how slowly the legislative process moves, there's a good chance this will still be a live debate if and when Schumer takes charge.