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Who’s really shaping the troll debate?

Yesterday’s Congressional hearing featured witnesses from the high-tech, pharma and legal industries. But maybe we should look elsewhere for the real influencers

Patent reform has been front and centre in Washington DC in the past week, following the publication of Chairman Goodlatte’s Innovation Act (whatever you think about US legislative proposals, you have to admire the branding – who can possibly oppose the principle of an Innovation Act?).

That was announced with a flurry on Wednesday, and at the AIPLA Annual Meeting on Thursday and Friday everyone was talking about it (see our daily newspapers for more detail). Yesterday, Goodlatte’s Judiciary Committee held a hearing with testimony from Krish Gupta of EMC, Kevin Kramer of Yahoo, former USPTO Director David Kappos and Robert Armitage, recently retired from Eli LIlly. Behind the scenes, representatives of technology companies and law associations are busy haggling over the plans with Congressional staff and lawyers.

Whatever they think about the details of the bill, Managing IP readers might be pleased to see that it is in the safe hands of people whose professional interest is IP. But just pause for a moment.

When the bill was published last week, who were the first people to welcome its proposals? Step forward bodies such as the National Restaurant Association, the National Retail Federation and the American Hotel & Lodging Association. These represent many companies, often the legendary “mom’n’pop” stores, who claim they are big victims of trolls, and are being targeted by frivolous lawsuits based on dubious patent claims alleging that they make use of computers, software or other technology that is infringing

Sure, certain tech companies want patent reform – some of them were represented at the hearing today. But the restaurants, hotels and stores want it even more. And some say it’s those groups that have real influence on the Administration and in Congress. One person close to the debate in Washington DC told me last week that they are the ones who Representatives and Senators will listen to, not least because they speak for a large number of businesses in members’ constituencies and have a well-established lobbying presence that is very good at articulating their concerns.

You might think that the sensitive topic of patent reform is best left to those who are involved in IP day-in and day-out. On the other hand, you might welcome the involvement of groups outside of the traditional IP-intensive industries, who can bring some perspective to the debate. Either way, it’s worth remembering that when politicians debate and, ultimately, vote on these sorts of issues there are many influences on them outside of the ones that we in the IP world are familiar with. And some of those influences might be very powerful.

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