Obama Acknowledges Patent Troll Problem [w/ Transcript]

[Cross-posted on DisCo]

It’s not often that the President or an Administration talks explicitly about detailed aspects of technology and intellectual property policy.  For President Obama, it has came up a few times: in Obama’s Reddit AMA, and the White House’s response to petitions about SOPA.  But today’s quotes from President Obama were even better.

This afternoon, President Obama held a Google Hangout where he took questions from the public for an hour.  Toward the end, an entrepreneur spoke, who noted that her peers frequently get sued by patent trolls, who exploit their inability to pay the high costs of mounting a legal defense:

I’m an entrepreneur, and I think startups are an important engine of the American economy. But when I go around and talk to other entrepreneurs, what I hear is, they’re worried that if they become successful, they’re going to be targeted by software patent trolls. These are firms that collect software patents just for the purpose of litigation, and getting money out of small companies that can’t afford patent defense, they’re expensive. So, I know you’ve made a lot of progress on patent reform, but I’m wondering, what are you planning to do to limit the abuses of software patents?  For example, would you be supportive of limiting software patents to only five years long?

Obama’s response was encouraging for the future of intellectual property and technology law.

First, Obama mentioned that the America Invents Act did not go far enough:

A couple of years ago we began a process of patent reform.  We actually passed some legislation that made progress on some of these issues, but it hasn’t captured all the problems.

Then he addressed the problem of patent trolls, acknowledging that they engage in extortion:

The folks that you’re talking about are a classic example; they don’t actually produce anything themselves.  They’re just trying to essentially leverage and hijack somebody else’s idea and see if they can extort some money out of them.

He then also acknowledged the balance at the heart of IP protection:

Sometimes these things are challenging, because we also want to make sure that the patents are long enough that people’s intellectual property is protected.  We’ve got to balance that with making sure that they’re not so long that innovation is reduced.

Then he went back to the insufficiency of the AIA, and the need for more patent reform:

But I do think that our efforts at patent reform only went about halfway to where we need to go and what we need to do is pull together additional stakeholders and see if we can build some additional consensus on smarter patent laws.

Finally, he gave some general comments on tech policy:

This is true by the way across the board when it comes to high tech issues.  The technology is changing so fast.  We want to protect privacy.  We want to protect people’s civil liberties.  We want to make sure that the Internet stays open.  I’m an ardent believer that what’s powerful about the Internet is its openness and its capacity for people to get out there and introduce a new idea with low barriers to entry.  We also want to make sure that people’s intellectual property is protected and whether it’s how we’re dealing with copyright, how we’re dealing with patents, how we’re dealing with piracy issues.  What we’ve tried to do is be an honest broker between the various stakeholders and to continue to refine it, hopefully keeping up with the technology, which doesn’t mean that there aren’t occasionally going to be some problems that we still haven’t identified and have to keep on working on.

Ali Sternburg

Ali Sternburg

Ali Sternburg is Public Policy & Regulatory Counsel at the Computer & Communications Industry Association. After initially joining as a Legal Fellow in June 2011, she focuses on online copyright issues and other areas of intellectual property policy. She also works on DisCo (the Disruptive Competition Project). She received her J.D. in 2012 from American University Washington College of Law, where she was a Student Attorney in the Glushko-Samuelson Intellectual Property Law Clinic, President of the Intellectual Property Law Society, Senior Symposium Chair and Senior Marketing Manager for the Intellectual Property Brief, and a Dean’s Fellow at the Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property. She graduated from Harvard College in 2009 where she studied Government and Music, wrote her senior honors thesis on “Theoretical and Legal Views on U.S. Government Involvement in Musical Creativity Online,” and interned at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School.

  • Gérald Sédrati-Dinet

    Sorry to play the devil advocate, but don’t you think there are some worrying things in this?

    The first one is the false idea that 5-years long software patents would be less harmful than current 20-years long software patents. The life-cycle for softwares are way shorter, around 6 months. So, even with a patent term of five years, I will have to wait for five
    years before being safe to implement my software idea. No way! in five
    years my software idea would be long outdated. You can find some other rebuttals of this 5-years bad idea here or there.

    The second one is that Obama said that the thing to do was “is pull together additional stakeholders and see if we can build some additional consensus on smarter patent laws”. Hey, isn’t it because consensus between IT and Pharma was impossible to find that the AIA took so many years (decades?) to come out, with the poor results that everybody knows?

    Given this, maybe it is time to turn on solutions that protect us from software patents without changing anything for patents in other fields?

    PS: nevertheless it is already great that US president is talking about one side (trolls) of the problems caused by software patents. The awareness is much much lower in Europe, even beyond Internet Freedom activists…