Congress Should Pursue Sound Policy on Patent Reform | Commentary

Posted November 20, 2014 at 4:01pm

Voters sent a clear message in the 2014 midterm elections — not just that they wanted a change in leadership, but that they wanted Washington to work.

Now that Republicans control both chambers, the media and the pundit class are putting a lot of pressure on Congress and the White House to find common ground. However, in the race to show the American people that our elected officials play nice, it’s important that Congress focuses on sound policy — not just quick, feel-good legislation that has hidden, unintended consequences.

President Barack Obama has been aggressively pushing for a massive overhaul of the patent system, and will likely cast this as one of the most fertile grounds for compromise. However, when it comes to so-called patent reform, the Obama administration has failed to acknowledge underlying cronyism for his political allies, nor the negative consequences it could have on innovation and the American economy. No doubt, common-sense adjustments to our patent system are needed. However, passing new policies that reward political supporters such as Google at the expense of America’s global competitiveness would be a huge step in the wrong direction — putting us on the path of China and India, who both have very weak intellectual property protections.

For those paying attention, it’s not hard to connect the dots of why Google is flexing its political might on behalf of this policy goal. Last year, the company landed 1,851 patents, a 60 percent increase from the year before and more than their rival Apple. For perspective, compare that to 2003, when Google was awarded just four patents.

Clearly Google sees an opportunity to get a leg up in the patent war — all under the PR-friendly guise of “reform”, and anyone who thinks Google and the Obama administration are seeking genuine reform is being misled by the rhetoric.

During the course of the Obama administration, Google has been getting increasingly cozy with Washington’s power circle. The company has done so not just through political contributions. (Google employees reportedly contributed about $800,000 to each of Obama’s campaigns.) They have also scored a formidable number of political hires. Megan Smith, a former vice president at Google, was recently named as the country’s chief technology officer; Alex Macgillivray, who worked as a Google attorney, handles Internet policy at the White House; Andrew McLaughlin, spent five and a half years at Google as director of global public policy and government affairs. Most recently, Obama has tapped Michelle Lee, a former Google patent attorney, to head the Patent and Trademark Office.

While there are certainly abuses in our patent system that happen, if Congress is too heavy-handed in their steps to correct the problem, could easily slant the playing field to such an extent that it would become even more unfair than it is. Rather than a huge overhaul of the system at the behest of companies like Google, Congress could take more measured steps like making sure that the Patent and Trademark Office is fully funded, addressing sham litigation scenarios from shell companies, and making pleading standards more robust.

Republicans and the White House have a chance to come together and pursue a tech agenda that promotes the growth of all the players in Silicon Valley’s economic engine. The new Congress should avoid rushing to an agreement that shows rank favoritism to one company above others in the name of “reform.”

Erik Telford is senior vice president of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity.