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Obama: We're only halfway there on patent reform

In a Google+ Hangout, the president says entrepreneurs need more protection against people who try to "extort" them.

Casey Newton Former Senior Writer
Casey Newton writes about Google for CNET, which he joined in 2012 after covering technology for the San Francisco Chronicle. He is really quite tall.
Casey Newton
2 min read
President Obama answers questions today during a Google+ Hangout.
President Obama answers questions today during a Google+ Hangout. Screenshot by Casey Newton/CNET

Patent reforms passed last year don't go far enough to fully protect entrepreneurs from software patent holders who try to exploit them, President Barack Obama said today in his fourth annual appearance on YouTube following the State of the Union address.

"We passed some legislation last year, but it hasn't captured all the problems," Obama said during the Google+ Hangout, hosted on YouTube, in response to a question about what the government was doing to promote innovation -- and protect against what the questioner called "patent trolls."

"The folks that you're talking about are a classic example," Obama said. "They don't actually produce anything themselves. They're trying to essentially leverage and hijack someone else's side and see if they can extort some money out of them."

In 2011, Obama signed the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act, which changed the U.S. patent system into a "first-to-file" patent system as opposed to a first-to-invent system. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's previously awarded patents based on when inventors had the idea, instead of when they filed a patent application.

During the Hangout, where he was joined by a handful of U.S. citizens selected by Google, Obama said that entrepreneurs' ability to build software without being blocked by frivolous patent suits had to be balanced against the rights of intellectual property holders.

"But I do think that our efforts at patent reform only went about halfway to where we need to go," Obama said. "What we need to do is pull together additional stakeholders and see if we can build some additional consensus on smarter patent laws."

Obama went on to say that he was committed to efforts to protect individuals' privacy, their civil liberties, and keeping the Internet "open" -- though he didn't elaborate on what precisely that meant.

"Whether it's how we're dealing with copyrights, how we're dealing with patents -- what we've tried to do is be an honest broker between the various stakeholders," Obama said.

The president also described a conversation he had with Mark Zuckerberg about why the Facebook founder decided to learn programming -- Zuckerberg wanted to write games. Elementary and high school students need more access to classes that teach them fundamental programming skills, the president said.

"I want to make sure they know how to actually produce stuff using computers, and not just consume stuff," Obama said.