- The Washington Times
Tuesday, February 23, 2016


Congressional committee chairmen are a pretty turf-conscious bunch and don’t like it when their work meets resistance from outside their own committee.

Virginia’s Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, fits this mold, as he tends to dismiss those who question his committee’s motives or wisdom. This is a hard-headed quality that makes him an effective congressional leader, but can prove troublesome and incredibly frustrating to outsiders who raise questions about legislation originating in his committee.

In 2013, Mr. Goodlatte’s committee drafted and — with committee Democrats and Republicans — sent a bill to the full House that was designed to deal with what are called patent trolls. Patent trolls are quasi-fraudulent shell companies organized to buy up patents that might arguably cover products developed by others — but with the intent of suing them for patent infringement or forcing them to settle to avoid court.

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Patent trolls were and continue to be a problem, and the bill, a good-faith attempt to deal with it dubbed the Innovation Act, breezed through the House. But it ran into trouble in the Senate, as critics began questioning its possible unintended consequences.

Support for the bill had originally been bipartisan and, as it turned out, so was the late-developing opposition.

Chairman Goodlatte doesn’t give up easily, however. The bill has been reintroduced, but with few substantive changes and no apparent attempt to deal with problems raised by critics of the earlier version.

Many of those critical of the bill three years ago hoped the new version would solve some of those problems, and they are redoubling their opposition because it has not done so.

David A. Keene is Opinion editor at The Washington Times.

Mr. Goodlatte insists, of course, that there was nothing wrong with what his committee put together then and sees no reason for change now. The Judiciary Committee in July of last year reported out the new bill by a 24-8 margin. Mr. Goodlatte expects it to once again breeze through the House, and hopes this time it will win the Senate support it needs to become law.

That may not happen.

Critics claim with some legitimacy that the patent-troll problem he set out to solve several years ago is being solved without the bill and without altering the entire patent system. The number of trolls has been dropping steadily over the last few years, while U.S. inventors are filing for more patents than ever — and by the time the bill becomes law (if it ever does), the problem it was originally supposed to have solved may have vanished into the mists of time.

Sometimes the market and existing law settle problems while Congress dreams up solutions worse than the problems and then dithers. Moreover, the sort of sweeping reforms that so many critics in the legal community, inventors and innovative companies, universities and researchers question in the Goodlatte measure often prove problematic, and simply create new headaches while attempting to alleviate old ones.

The fear among critics of the bill is that in the name of reform, it would weaken the patent system, disadvantage small inventors, and play into the hands of large companies like Google that would dearly like to game the system for their own advantage. They are huge supporters of the sort of overall reform envisioned by the authors of the Innovation Act and its Senate counterpart, the Protecting American Talent and Entrepreneurship Act of 2015 or PATENT Act.

Chairman Goodlatte and his committee should focus on real rather than imaginary problems.

David A. Keene is Opinion editor at The Washington Times.

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