January 05, 2006, 10:31 AM — As several technology trade groups call for patent reform from the U.S. Congress this year, some individual inventors say changes to patent law will hurt them while helping huge companies.
Groups such as the Business Software Alliance (BSA) and the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI) advocate changes to the U.S. patent system, including a change to current legal precedence requiring courts to issue injunctions against accused patent infringers in most patent lawsuits. For many technology vendors, injunctions require them to stop selling the product containing the infringed patent.
The Patent Reform Act, introduced by Representative Lamar Smith in June, would require courts to consider whether the patent holder would suffer "irreparable harm" without an injunction. Smith, a Texas Republican, said in June the bill would "eliminate legal gamesmanship from the current system that rewards lawsuit abuses over creativity."
The quality of patents has been a big issue in the IT industry for years. In 1999, Amazon.com Inc.'s patent for a one-click shopping service was questioned by many Internet activists.
But some small inventors say changes proposed by Smith and several tech trade groups will make it easy for large companies to ignore them when they try to enforce their patents. "(Large tech vendors) don't like independent inventors nipping at their heels," said Ronald J. Riley, president of the Professional Inventors Alliance. "Companies went to Congress and said, 'Because we can commercialize faster than the inventor, he's a low-life or a troll.'"
The issue of patent injunctions has been in the news recently after BlackBerry handheld maker Research in Motion Ltd. (RIM) was sued by NTP Inc. over NTP patents related to wireless e-mail over mobile devices. The case is ongoing, but one possible outcome is that RIM could be forced to stop selling BlackBerry devices in the U.S.
In March, executives from Microsoft Corp., a member of both BSA and ITI, called for patent reform, saying the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) needs more funding. The number of patent lawsuits in the U.S. has risen from about 1,000 in the mid-'80s to more than 2,500 in 2002, Microsoft said.
Riley's group agrees the PTO needs more money, and his group has joined tech trade groups in calling for Congress to stop patent fee diversion from the PTO to the U.S. government general fund. Other than fee diversion, "there's nothing in their agenda that in my feeling has merit," Riley said of the tech patent proposals.