Bill aims to school judges in patent law

Politicians call for decade-long "pilot programs" designed to expand expertise among federal judges handling the thorny cases.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
2 min read
A new proposal in Congress aims to expand the number of federal judges who specialize in complex patent litigation.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) introduced a bill late on Thursday that would establish "pilot programs" in at least a third of the 15 federal district courts that handle the highest volume of patent cases.

During his time as CEO of a car alarm company before being elected to Congress, Issa said he was involved in a number of patent cases and was "often struck by the fact that many district court judges either knew little of the applicable law, or were bored by the subject matter involved." (A quick search at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office shows that the congressman had laid claim to a number of inventions himself.)

The proposal prescribes $5 million each year in federal funding over the next decade for "educational and professional development" programs for designated judges and to pay the salaries of new, specially appointed clerks with patent expertise.

Under the bill, patent cases would continue to be randomly assigned to judges, but with a notable exception. Any judge who practices within a court district offering the pilot program but who chooses not to sign up for the extra training would have the option of transferring patent cases to a program participant.

The Business Software Alliance, whose members include Apple Computer, Microsoft, Intel and IBM, hailed the proposal. The lobbying group indicated that such an approach could provide further ammunition against so-called patent trolls, a derisive term for inventors who don't commercialize their patents and use litigation to threaten vast settlements from wealthier companies.

"We must do everything we can to ensure judges have the tools and resources to decide what can often be very technical and complex legal matters," BSA President Robert Holleyman said in a statement.

The bill also earned the endorsement of the Association for Competitive Technology, which represents smaller technology companies. "Better informed judges can weed out frivolous claims more easily, improving quality and reducing the cost of litigation. Less money for lawyers means more money for innovating," Braden Cox, ACT's research and policy counsel, said in a statement.

Certain federal courts--notably, those in Virginia's eastern district, California's northern district and, more recently, Texas' eastern district--already have a reputation among the patent law set for their expertise and interest in handling such cases.

The bill's sponsors said their proposal is designed to widen that pool and ultimately lower the costs of litigation, which they estimated at more than $10 million per party in some cases. Citing frequent appeals and subsequent reversals back to the district courts, Issa and Schiff said they hoped their bill would help ease the workload of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, the nation's designated court for patent appeals, by encouraging sounder judgments from the lower courts in the first place.