On September 6, Congress passed the “American Invents Act”, a rather complicated bill attempting to fix or reduce the issues with filing, granting and post-grant reviewing of US patents.
For a complete version of the act, see http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-112s23es/pdf/BILLS-112s23es.pdf
“Patents suck”, said Google chairman Eric Schmidt at the Dreamforce conference on September 1. In fact, Google purchased Motorola mobility in large part for its trove of mobile phone related patents, as a “weapon of mass defense”, because patents have become a tool to obtain financial compensation from competitors largely unrelated to the original intent of providing inventors a period of exclusivity on their inventions.
In July, the radio show This American Life, had a great piece called “When Patents Attack!” about “patent trolls” in the Eastern District of Texas who have no other purpose in life than extracting protection money from companies with real businesses and products. Instead of threatening to set the business on fire, mafia-style, they sue regardless of the merits of the patents they have purchased (of course they have not invented anything themselves), and offer to settle out of court for large amounts of money. Patents have become the equivalent of cans of fuels and boxes of matches.
The financial industry has not been spared by patent trolls. Visa, Wells Fargo, MasterCard, Bank of America, Citibank, and many others have been sued for alleged infringement of patents related to digital currency systems that were never implemented by the owner of the patents and would make any software engineer roll on the floor laughing at their triviality.
In an intriguing twist, the America Invents Act is requesting that the Director of the US Patents and Trademarks Office put a transitional post-grant process in place for reviewing the validity of covered business-method patents. The definition of “covered business-method patents” is explicitly narrowed down to:
A patent that claims a method or corresponding apparatus for performing data processing operations utilized in the practice, administration, or management of a financial product or service, except that the term shall not include patents for technological inventions.
Being no lawyer myself, I interpret the goal of this post-grant review process as being a way to facilitate the debunking of dubious patents, or the defense against patent trolls. It is rather interesting that lawmakers have chosen financial products and services as the target for this transitional process. I guess that they placed a high priority on limiting the use of patents as a weapon against innovators trying to oil the wheel of a stalled economy.