Tech and business giants are concerned new laws could encourage “patent troll” behavior in the U.S. to spread to Europe.
While patents are generally recognized as a crucial part of any innovative industry, it’s also a system open to abuse. In the U.S., “patent trolls” (firms that buy up questionable patents just to get royalties) can put an enormous drain on companies’ resources and shut some down altogether.
Europe is currently moving towards a common patent system governed by a Unified Patent Court. The proposal passed in December 2012, but the rules governing the new court still need to be fixed.
In an open letter to European officials today, 16 companies, including Google, Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, and Deutsche Telekom, express concern about two aspects of the draft rules: bifurcation and injunctions.
A bifurcated system treats the question of whether a patent is valid separately from whether it’s been infringed. The companies worry the current draft would let these questions be decided by different courts without enough guidance on how this should happen, which could mean some products get banned without a ruling on whether a patent is actually valid.
The companies also want to make sure injunctions (bans on products with unlicensed technology) can only used in cases that deserve it. The fear is that a “troll” with even a single low-quality patent claim could otherwise force a company to pay excessive royalties or risk a ban across Europe.
“These fixes will help the EU system avoid the issues that have plagued the U.S. and will ensure companies are investing in innovation and growth, not patent litigation,” Google Europe’s Catherine Lacavera wrote in a blog post explaining the letter today.
German intellectual property analyst Florian Mueller, who writes at FOSS Patents and advises clients who at one point included Microsoft and Oracle, agreed.
“Not only do the signatories collectively represent a huge share of global IT innovation; it’s even more remarkable that there is a consensus on these concerns even among companies that typically disagree on patent policy and have litigation pending against each other in the U.S. and Europe,” he pointed out today.
“It would be a mistake of enormous proportions to think that patent trolls are and will remain exclusively a U.S. problem,” he added, later saying, “Frankly, it’s not that hard to increase legal certainty in the areas highlighted by this tech industry coalition.”
Some officials contacted by The New York Times suggested concerns were exaggerated. British patent lawyer Kevin Mooney, who is involved in setting up the new court system, said the European system would be “less rigid” than Germany, home to recent high-profile patent wars affecting Microsoft, Motorola, and Deutsche Telekom, among others.
Mooney also said that the pleading stage of cases in Europe would last about six months and include both infringement and validity. “What kind of self-respecting judge would say, ‘I’m only going to decide the infringement part, and I’ll send the validity part to France or England?’”
This story originally appeared on VentureVillage. Copyright 2013