EU Opens Itself Up To Massive Innovation-Hindering Patent Trolling
from the a-big-step-backwards dept
Ah, Europe. After years (decades!) of arguing about it, the EU Parliament has finally approved a unitary patent system — in which inventors will be able to file for a single patent across much of Europe. There are good reasons to want to do this, rather than having a fragmented system which required getting multiple patents in so many different places, having a single system could be a lot more efficient. But, of course, the devil is in the details and the details here are bad. There are two major concerns, both of which should have been easily avoidable because the EU can look at the absolute mess in the US. Instead, they seem to have decided to head in the exact direction of the US’s mess.
The two key issues:
- Software patents: There’s been growing support in the US to finally recognize that broad patents that cover software on general purpose computers are a problem, and that something needs to be done about it. Europe, for the most part, has had much more limiting rules concerning software patents — but less so in Germany. The new unitary patent system will more or less default to the German setup, in which software patents are much more possible. And, as we discovered in the US following the State Street decision in 1998, when you suddenly clarify that an entire area is patentable after people long believed it was not, you leave open a huge space for trolls to rush in and patent everything under the sun to be used against companies which actually innovate.
- A patent specific court: This part may be even worse. Despite the clear evidence that the US’s decision to set up a single appeals court for handling patent appeals resulted in a form of judicial capture leading to a massive expansion of patentable subject matter (and, along with it, the number of patents granted and the number of bogus patent trolling cases), the EU has decided that as part of the Unitary Patent, it will also set up a “specialist” court for dealing with patent disputes. The thinking here may appear to make sense on the surface: patent disputes can get technical quickly, and you worry about judges having little technical understanding. However, as we’ve seen quite clearly with CAFC, having a patent-specific court means having judges who deal an awful lot with patent lawyers, but rarely deal with actual innovators. The end result is that they often believe that the patent system works fine, and are happy to expand it (which also helps job security).
Of course, that doesn’t even mention the fact that the new system will make patents a lot cheaper to get, meaning that there will be a lot more patent applications filed. Combine it all and you have a recipe not for increasing innovation, but for the opposite: massively increasing patent trolling and patent litigation that is a clear deadweight loss to society, innovation and economic growth. It’s a bad, bad move for Europe. Rather than strike out on a clear path for open innovation, they’re following the US’s footsteps, despite all of the evidence that the path leads over a cliff, rather than towards some wonderful innovation nirvana.