Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) seized on President Obama's message of innovation and economic competitiveness in last night's State of the Union address to plug the patent-reform legislation he introduced on Tuesday.
"I share President Obama's commitment to preserving America's role as the global leader in innovation. Entrepreneurs and inventors help to drive the nations economic engine," Leahy said in response to the president's speech.
"The Obama administration has supported our efforts to revitalize and reform our patent system, a critical step to advancing our competitiveness in the global market place, as well as in protecting American invention and innovation," he added.
The Patent Reform Act of 2011 would aim to short-circuit frivolous patent lawsuits and curb the practice of so-called patent trolls, companies whose primary business is to litigate intellectual property rather than develop and market legitimate products. In addition to the litigation provisions, the bill seeks broadly to streamline the application process and improve the quality of patents.
The effort is backed by many prominent companies in the tech sector that often find themselves targeted by patent infringement lawsuits, cases they often argue are little more than nuisance suits. But several companies that spend heavily on research and development have raised concerns about proposals that threaten to undercut patent rights or unfairly cap the assessment of damages in infringement cases.
One group representing many of those firms, the Innovation Alliance, responded to the reintroduction of Leahy's bill coolly, urging lawmakers to reinvigorate funding at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to help the examiners clear through their backlog of more than 700,000 patent applications.
"Trapped in that backlog is the potential of creating hundreds of thousands if not millions of new jobs. Releasing that potential should be our top priority in U.S. patent policy," Innovation Alliance Executive Director Brian Pomper said in a statement, urging Congress to limit its attention to "consensus-backed proposals."
"We are concerned that any new programs would divert some of USPTO's already overstretched resources to administering this new system, taking away from Director Kapposs laudatory efforts to reduce the crushing backlog," he added.
But Leahy, who has backed comprehensive patent reform efforts in each of the three preceding sessions of Congress, is hoping that the fourth time will be the charm.
He plans to consider the measure tomorrow at a Judiciary Committee executive business meeting. Last session, the Judiciary Committee passed a version of Leahy's patent-reform bill in April 2009, but it never made it to the floor. Committee leaders reworked the bill and announced a compromise version last March, but it continued to languish.
In the new session, Leahy is looking to fast-track the legislation. After years of work on the issue, and with support from both sides of the aisle, he is looking to advance essentially the same fundamental framework that was arrived at through negotiations last year. "When I began working on patent reform I had hair," he quipped at a recent event in Washington.
Joining Leahy as co-sponsors of the bill are Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) Joe Lieberman (I-Ct.), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Christopher Coons (D-Del.).
"The Patent Reform Act is among our first legislative priorities in the Judiciary Committee; it should be a top priority on the floor of the Senate, too," he said on Tuesday.
The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing considering patent reform on Tuesday. Last session, the bipartisan committee leaders from both chambers joined in introducing companion bills.