Continuing its progress through Congress, the Innovation Act -- a bill to restrain patent trolls -- has cleared the U.S. House of Representatives with an overwhelming majority of 325 to 91 despite opposition from the organizations most likely to feed new patents to the trolls.
The bill's main sponsor, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, said in an editorial this week that "we must put an end to abuse of the patent system and make the necessary changes to ensure that it serves its constitutional purpose: protecting innovators and their inventions." Even the White House supports reform.
But a number of voices, most with vested interests, have been scrambling to protect the trolls even with the concerns of the big trolls taken into account with the reduction of the bill's impact on "covered business methods." This part of patent law is used more by large corporate patent holders and thus opposed by the likes of IBM, Microsoft, General Electric, and Adobe.
Among those apologists was the EVP of the Association of American Universities, whose press briefing Tuesday took the stance that patents are good for research. But as Mike Masnick clearly explains, this assumption can't be taken as a given. While they're encouraged by the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, patents' track record at research universities is far from stellar. Seeking patents has reduced the freedom of researchers to collaborate, encouraging them instead to keep secrets and avoid publication of data before the "technology transfer office" has been able to file as many patents as it can.
At the same time, this sacrifice of the scientific method generates little income apart from what goes to the very largest institutions, according to research from the Brookings Institute, which says, "The license-to-the-highest-bidder model has yielded high income for only a few universities. Most universities lose money on it." As well as chilling collaboration, a fixation on monetization through patents affects research group involvement in open source projects that could otherwise be beneficial. Eclipse VP Ian Skerrett told me, "We have a number of Eclipse projects that include contributions from European universities. Can't think of one USA university."
So bravo to the Innovation Act. It's far from perfect, as the EFF documents and as I commented before the holiday. But it's a step in the right direction, and the tidal surge of support it's seeing suggests legislators' appetite for proper patent reform is finally growing strong enough for them to contemplate substantial change.
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