Ronald Reagan always got a laugh when he said the last sentence any business owner wanted to hear was: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Sometimes, though, just the opposite is true, and right now small businesses facing a barrage of non-practicing entity (NPE) letter campaigns are looking for help wherever they can get it.
The Obama administration is extending that helping hand. We at RPX were honored to be invited to participate in a White House event on Feb. 20 highlighting the one-year anniversary of the President's “call to action” to fight NPE litigation and patent abuses. There, we heard about the progress of several initiatives designed to increase patent quality and ownership transparency, including new rules from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) designed to enhance ownership information, better technical training and resources for examiners, and more collaboration with academia to disseminate data and research on abusive litigation.
A timely and practical initiative announced at the event is a new USPTO website dedicated to helping small businesses deal with the growing flood of intimidating—and often dubious—assertion letters. The site, www.uspto.gov/patentlitigation, is an “online toolkit” that contains background information designed to bring small business owners quickly up to speed on the NPE business model and patent assertions. The toolkit also includes links to a variety of Web-based services and information resources (including RPX data) that can help NPE targets determine the best response to an assertion letter.
The toolkit is a welcome and encouraging step that shows progress on the President's commitment to improve transparency and begin rationalizing the current patent ecosystem. Sharing information is the foundation of any effort to limit the costs of NPE lawsuits and litigation-based patent monetization. As the site attracts more users and becomes more robust, companies should be able to avoid or reduce the costs of many of the onerous and expensive responses to patents being asserted. Today, defendants of a single NPE campaign are typically paying for separate and parallel efforts to assess their risk from the claim, seriousness of the assertion, prior art searches and more. A centralized information resource can eliminate that duplication of legal effort.
That said, I should note that some observers have been underwhelmed by the launch and think the toolkit is a little light on functionality. But while the site—like many initial steps toward a long-term solution—has room for improvement, I see the glass as half full and applaud the USPTO for taking a concrete first step toward a key Obama administration goal. I also fully expect the site to keep improving. It's not difficult to envision that versions 2.0-plus of the site can include a truly interactive, tactical platform offering everything from crowd-sourced patent threat assessment and patent dossiers to centralized prior art data and more.
For now, though, I’m especially encouraged that the site is proving that the USPTO and private industry can collaborate to achieve shared goals. As the larger debate about patent reform grows more serious on Capitol Hill, we are pleased to see that policymakers recognize that transparency and sharing resources can reduce the cost and risk of NPE assertions.
This time the government actually is here to help. As a result, operating companies, and especially small businesses, will be increasingly able to respond effectively to the rising tide of patent monetization.