Illustration by Dan Matutina
Odds & Ends

The Innovation Act: Bad for Patent Trolls, Great for Engineers

I think we as engineers prefer to focus on the technical side of the business, coming up with new ideas and solving problems. Or at least I would fall into that category. But occasionally it’s important to look outside our discipline at the systems supporting what we do. And one of those systems is patent law. Most inventors and companies are pretty protective of their ideas and technologies – inventors want their ideas used in the way they intended them to be used. And that’s, at the heart of it, why I think patent trolls make a lot of engineering blood boil.

So, what’s a patent troll? Patent troll is a term used for individuals or companies who acquire a lot of patents and then use this as leverage against other companies. They don’t actually build or create anything with their patents, they just use them to file suit against companies that they find in violation of any patent they hold. Usually trolls hide in plain sight, using smaller companies to file their suits, claiming that they help out the little guys this way. This leads to the underlying question in the whole debate: Is it right to allow companies to hold patents merely to defend the rights of those patents which they never intend to use? Is this ethically wrong? Are the legal costs of time and money hurting our economy? Congress has a recently taken on the issue of patent trolls with the creation of the Innovation Act. On December 5th, the bill passed the House of Representatives with 325 votes to 91. The bill has received support from major tech companies such as Google that are hoping to keep focused on creating new goods and services rather than fighting legal battles. When you look at what the main action steps of the Innovation Act are, it seems pretty reasonable:

  1. Requiring that when one company files a suit against another for patent infringement, the company doing the suing needs to be explicit in telling the other why they are suing.
  2. Allowing the winner of the suit to make the loser pay for legal costs.
  3. Allowing large technology creators to defend end users. Sometimes patent trolls go after the users of a certain technology rather than the creators of the technology. For these small scale users it almost never makes financial sense to fight. The Innovation Act allows the creator of the technology to step in to oppose patent trolls on behalf of these end users.

As an engineer, I can’t help but favor the Innovation Act because the idea of using a patent to inhibit someone else’s creation, while doing no creating yourself, just seems wrong. But at the same time, I can see why some people may be skeptical. At the heart of it, the Innovation Act slightly endangers the main purpose of the patent system: protecting ideas no matter what. Once you file a patent and it is accepted, you should be allowed to uphold that patent whether you are currently using that idea or not. Just because you get a patent for something and don’t start using it immediately doesn’t mean you won’t use it in the future. In some ways it seems that the Innovation Act is trying to cure a symptom rather than tackling the underlying issues of U.S. patent law. At the end of the day though, I’m more concerned about patent trolls stopping ideas from making it out into the world than I am about the Innovation Act making it easier for competitors to violate each other’s patents. Healthy competition can spark creativity and force companies to optimize efficiency. Legal battles pull funds and resources away from innovation. After all, these companies were dubbed “trolls” for a reason – they coerce and intimidate companies to pay in, what is right now, a totally legal way. Hopefully the Innovation Act marks the beginning of an effort to rectify this broken system.