University should back patent reform

University officials shouldn’t impede on progress to curb the costs of so-called patent trolls.

One of the few bills in Congress that could actually become a law this year is one that works to stop the work of so-called “patent trolls.”

Patent trolls are companies that own patents on ideas they did not produce and do not turn into products but procure millions of dollars through intellectual property infringement lawsuits and licensing deals.

Patent trolls hurt the economy by sitting on inventions without using them to make products. They also cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars each year. According to a study out of Boston University, patent trolls cost the economy $29 billion in 2011 alone.

So, it’s not surprising that efforts to curb patent trolls are receiving bipartisan support in Congress. But many research universities are questioning it.

The Minnesota Daily reported Monday that University of Minnesota officials are concerned about fee-shifting, which would allow a judge to make one side of a lawsuit — often the loser — pay the legal fees for the other side. Fee-shifting is meant to deter patent trolls from filing lawsuits, but universities are worried it could make it harder to enforce intellectual property rights.

We are sympathetic to the University’s concerns about enforcement, but officials must also recognize the government’s interest in minimizing the damage patent trolls inflict on the economy.

Though the University is generally supportive of patent reform, it must explain its indirect ties to the controversial firm Intellectual Ventures, which many consider a patent troll. It should also offer alternative ways to curb trolls if officials are not satisfied with current proposals.

Both Minnesota Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will take up the bill next week. We suggest concerned University officials make their concerns known without acting as a barrier to necessary reforms in patent law.