Paul Ryan’s tenure as Speaker has so far shown a remarkable discipline and ability to handle tough issues without losing the consensus of the House. With the looming threat of a government shutdown about to make Ryan’s job substantially more difficult, he needs to notch some easy wins to secure support from as many quarters as possible and put as many thumbs in the eyes of the Left as possible.
Fortunately, an issue exists that gives him both opportunities: namely, patent reform. Ryan himself already seems to have realized this, as he voted for the last incarnation of the Innovation Act all the way back in 2013.
This should not be surprising, largely because Ryan has shown himself to be committed to a brand of conservatism that is solidly in the tradition of his mentor, Jack Kemp. That is to say, Ryan is a politician concerned with backing the little guy, taking on liberal special interests, and promoting growth as an alternative to pure penny pinching. Patent reform is strongly in this tradition, and is smart politics to boot.
Let’s start with backing the little guy. Again, contrary to nonsensical spin that the current patent system protects plucky inventors against monstrous big companies, what it actually does is subject small businesses to the teeth and claws of rapacious lawyers. Consider the case of software maker Pegasystems. Chuck Muth reports:
When software maker Pegasystems got hit with a dubious patent infringement lawsuit by patent troll Vincent Cyr of YYZ patents, Joe Mullin of ARS Technica reports that company founder Alan Trefler’s initial response was, “Why don’t we talk to the guy and explain to him that we don’t infringe?”[…]
When Trefler asked the Cyr what he meant by “message broker,” the essence of the suit, the troll’s lawyer reportedly responded, Humpty-Dumpty-style, “We’ll make it mean whatever it needs to mean for us to win this case.”
So much for reasonable people reasoning together and cooler heads prevailing.
“The conversation kept coming back to ‘if you pay us this much, we’ll go away,” Trefler told Mullin. “I concluded that was two hours of my life I’m not going to get back.”
To paraphrase Star Wars, these aren’t the property rights you’re looking for.
Then there’s the case of Capstone Photography, a Connecticut small business which fought a frivolous patent lawsuit and won, but wasted $100,000 and ten months doing so. Not exactly chump change for a local business.
These are the kinds of abuses that patent reform exists to counteract, and their victims are just the kind of plucky small actors that Ryan’s brand of conservatism is built to reach. As Speaker, Ryan has the chance to help them in a way his predecessor didn’t.
Then there’s the issue of taking on special interests. Let’s not mince words: the only people who like the current patent system are trial lawyers, deep-pocketed university administrators (note: not the professors who actually invent things), and Big Pharma. Not a single one of these entities has any purchase in the GOP, or in the conservative movement, and rightly so. They are all interests that make most of their money by rent-seeking rather than by actually creating anything, and which push for bigger government to make that easier every chance they get. Speaker Ryan has no reason to follow the path of Harry Reid and kowtow to such people. In fact, putting a thumb in the eye of groups like this is arguably what he was chosen to do.
And speaking of creating things, let’s not forget that patent reform is one of the more pro-growth policies currently in Congress. Remember how one small business spent $100,000 to tackle a single frivolous patent lawsuit? Imagine being Apple, which has to deal with over 800 of them every year. That means that if Apple fought every single one of those and won, it’d still spend close to $80 million. In fact, even paying a lowball settlement cost for such lawsuits would still end up costing millions. That’s millions of dollars that could be spent on jobs or research and development every year.
Oh, and while we’re on the subject of Apple and companies like it, let’s not forget the politics angle here. The GOP got the tech industry on its side in 2014 by backing patent reform, and it can do so again in 2016 if it delivers. To rob Democrats of Silicon Valley would strip them of their one genuine claim to supporting American business and instead render them what they’ve always really been: the puppets of Hollywood and Harvard anti-capitalism. Let them have the film set and the faculty lounge, Speaker Ryan. The front page of Google is a much worthier win.
That’s not even touching on the fact that patent reform is such a bipartisan issue that it can unify the likes of Mike Lee and Chuck Schumer, which means it’s one of the more low-hanging fruits Ryan could use to put points on the board with both parties during the forthcoming budget fight. Ultimately, all of that just reinforces the wider point: If Ryan wants an easy win with only token resistance from the most misinformed or cynical members of his party, then making the patent system work again is just the issue he needs.