Congress is likely to tackle patent reform this year

Even if comprehensive reform eludes lawmakers, changes are expected in areas of broad agreement, Hill staffers say.

Key Capitol Hill staffers say patent reform will come up in a big way in the 112th Congress, although what shape that reform takes remains to be seen.

While some issues remain intractable, there is a growing consensus among lawmakers that half-baked patent reform would likely be worse than none at all, said five staffers representing top lawmakers in both the House and the Senate, speaking at an event Tuesday.

Looking ahead to the new Congress, several staffers said lawmakers may look to "break the log jam" by sponsoring stand-alone pieces of intellectual property legislation that gather wide support, rather than trying to bundle everything into a comprehensive reform package.

Laurent Crenshaw, legislative director for Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., predicted that patent reform will be addressed by the new GOP majority in the House and that lawmakers will likely be willing to take a more dynamic approach.

"One of the ways my boss has looked at the issue in the past is, if we can't get comprehensive patent reform done we shouldn't let that stop us from moving ahead on areas where there's broader agreement," he told the assembled audience of congressional staffers, journalists and industry representatives.

From the other side of the Capitol and the political spectrum, Democratic California Sen. Dianne Feinstein's chief counsel, Neil Quinter, agreed that even if comprehensive patent reform is blocked again, changes to things like the patent fee structure and patent office processes could be passed to help alleviate some of the problems.

And Ryan Clough, legislative counsel for Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., warned rushing reforms could do more harm than good.

"Patent issues will certainly carry over from the last Congress, but one of the questions we immediately face is whether a comprehensive reform bill is what we want right away," he said.

The staffers said intellectual property issues are vital to encouraging American innovation during the current economic recovery.

"We are very mindful of the balancing act between competition and property rights," said Caroline Holland, staff director of the Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights. "In this economic time we are looking at what America is producing and what we are producing is innovation."

At a separate event on Tuesday, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said that patent reform would be among his top priorities and something he wanted to try to complete this year so that it would not get "tangled up next year with the presidential elections and everything else."

The Innovation Alliance, which was active on the patent issue in the last Congress and removed its opposition to the Senate patent bill after changes were included in a proposed manager's amendment crafted by Leahy and others last year, outlined its concerns with possible changes to current patent law, while also urging action to help reduce the extensive backlog of patent applications.

"In terms of the Chairman's legislation, we urge him and the committee to keep in mind the strong concerns of the Innovation Alliance and others on changes to the existing law on damages and post-grant review," the group, which includes firms such as Dolby Laboratories, QUALCOMM, and Symyx, said in a statement on Leahy's agenda. "Strong, reliable patent protections drive economic growth and job creation for American companies. A weakened system could slow our recovery, disincentivize innovation and harm our international competitiveness."