On Wednesday, October 23 at Mason Hall, a group of expert panelists and audience participants engaged in an Oxford Union Style Debate on a core and hotly debated issue regarding patents and technology innovation. Organized and moderated by JP Auffret, Director, Executive Degree Programs, the Panel addressed the debate proposition: “This house believes that patent trolls are a serious threat to U.S. innovation.” Very serious concerns have surfaced among universities, Congress, the Office of the President, state legislatures, industries and the general population that the culture of litigation and threats in the patent area may be stifling rather than encouraging innovation. The debate provided lively, objective and candid discussions of those concerns by individuals who encounter and address them in their day-to-day activities.
The Panel included Matt Levy (Patent Counsel at Computer & Communications Industry Association), Russ Merbeth (Chief Policy Counsel at Intellectual Ventures), Susanne Michel, (Senior Patent Counsel at Google), and Gary Rinkerman (Partner with Drinker, Biddle & Reath, LLP, regular lecturer in the Techman Program and Adjunct Professor of U.S. Intellectual Property for the School of Law at Queen Mary, University of London). Mr. Rinkerman opened the debate with a challenge concerning the definition of “trolls,” emphasizing his view that whether or not a patent holder actually practices its patent is not the essential consideration in determining whether an entity is a “troll.” Rather, the debate, as he framed it in the opening statement, should focus on: (a) lax standards at the United States Patent Office, (b) virtually risk free practices in patent litigation that lead to abuse; and (c) the availability of injunctive remedies that emphasize rewarding patent holders but do not adequately consider public interest. According to Mr. Rinkerman, so-called “patent trolls” are simply “the canaries in the coal mine” that signal more fundamental defects in the current patent system.
The full Panel then expanded upon and debated the proposition as well as the points made in the opening statement. The various opinions, perspectives and points advanced by the Panel, as well as by audience members, provided “real world” insights into important issues that will affect innovation and the patent system in fundamental ways, especially in light of pending federal and state legislation that attempts to address “the troll problem.” The press was not allowed to attend the event, and no recordings were allowed, in order to ensure a more free and candid flow of thoughts. The success of the debate, as well as the approach, will provide a model for future debates, the next topic likely being “Open Innovation: Can Open Source Concepts Be Adapted For Use In The Patent System?”