San Jose, Calif. -- Everyone agrees today's overburdened patent system needs relief. Separate efforts are in the works to address patent reform this year in Congress, the Supreme Court and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
But patent reform involves a laundry list of controversial issues (see also Part I, March 20, page 1). And within the tech community, a divide on the philosophy of reform is likely to stall major changes to a system under strain.
Large electronics corporations are pressing for limits on filing and court practices to check the rise in patent litigation and awards they have seen in recent years. Smaller companies, startups and lone inventors in electronics, along with pharmaceutical companies, are adamant about keeping the vast majority of today's procedures in place, but they want to see a stronger patent office.
Three bills on patent reform are in the works in Congress. The Supreme Court will rule on a patent case brought by eBay as early as June. And the patent office is already taking heated feedback for proposed rule changes on how patents are filed.
Given the complexity of the issue, the changes that result from all that activity are not likely to be sweeping, observers said. "I expect something will happen, but it may not touch the biggest issues," said Andy Greenberg, chairman of the IEEE-USA Intellectual Property Committee and a patent attorney practicing in Florida.
The IEEE itself is caught up in the controversy: Despite continued efforts to poll its membership, the group has yet to develop a consensus on patent reform.
"We are advocates of a balance. We have to be, because our members come from both sides of this debate and have inherently different views," Greenberg said.
Intellectual-property issues are so important that the IEEE has pushed for a White House appointment of a special IP policy czar. But to date politicians have shown no interest in such a move, said Greenberg.
In the investment community, patent reform "hasn't been on the radar screen for venture capitalists," but that's about to change, said Jennifer Dowling, vice president for federal policy at the National Venture Capital Association, which represents more than 300 companies. The NVCA hopes to form a work group this month to hammer out positions it can relay to the patent office and in upcoming congressional hearings.
"All the VCs I have talked to support some kind of patent reform. They realize the system is not working at its best. It's getting overloaded, and we need to take some steps," Dowling said.
From the perspective of the patent office, which aims to hire a total of 2,000 new examiners in 2005 and 2006 to cope with a massive backlog of applications, systemic changes are needed both in the way patents are issued and how they are defended in courts.
"This is not about hiring another 2,000 people; it's about changing the system as a whole," said patent office director Jon Dudas. There are also "techniques being used in litigation that need to be addressed," he said.
Like many advocates for today's established technology companies, David Simon, chief patent counsel for Intel Corp., is pushing for changes both in how patents are obtained and in how they are defended. "There are a number of abuses that require legislative and judicial fixes," he said.