Patent reform tops list of tech concerns

Technology industry executives are pushing the U.S. Congress to reform the way patents are issued in order to process them more quickly while also making sure they are legitimate.

Patent reform was one of the major issues discussed at the Tech Policy Summit Monday in San Jose, California. Patent reform legislation considered, but not passed, in Congress last year is expected to be reintroduced. Among the key provisions sought is the hiring of more patent review specialists by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which one critic at the conference said has a backlog of as many as 1 million applications.

Another provision would make it more difficult for so-called patent “trolls” to acquire a patent, claim another company infringed on it and then force the company to pay a settlement in order to keep its business going.

Lastly, reform advocates seek an improvement in the quality of patents, pointing to cases where patents are issued for innovations that are not unique. They also propose a post-patent review process.

In a speech Monday night at the summit, Deborah Platt Majoras, chairman of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, endorsed the idea of post-patent review.

“Patents are not a driver of innovation, they are an impediment to innovation,” said Mark Lemley, a professor of law at Stanford University Law School, speaking at the summit.

“Everyone has an example of silly patents, such as the cat exerciser laser pen,” Lemley said, but the problems with the patent law are more serious than that. Often, one company asserts a patent right against another company and forces that company to stop production until the patent issue is resolved.

“The patent holdup forces the company to settle for more money than the patent is worth,” Lemley said.

There are also delays in the process of approving patents. SAP, the enterprise software maker, once had to wait 44 months until a patent application was approved, said Tim Crean, chief intellectual property officer and a member of the Coalition for Patent Fairness, an industry group advocating reform.

An official of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office said the agency is planning to hire 1,200 patent specialists in fiscal year 2008. The patent office receives half of its patent applications electronically and wants to increase that number. Last year it approved 350,000 patents.

But some at the summit want Congress to move cautiously on patent reform. A group called the Innovation Alliance was recently formed to protect companies that patent technology but don’t manufacture it.

Taraneh Maghame, vice president and emerging technologies counsel for Tessera Technologies, said attempts to limit the rights of companies to defend patent rights could harm legitimate patent protection efforts of some companies. Tessera develops chip packaging technology and licenses it to chip manufacturers, such as Intel. “Not all of the tech industry is behind patent reform,” Maghame said.

Close to 300 people, including tech executives, advocacy groups and government officials, were expected to attend the Tech Policy Summit, which continues Tuesday.

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