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Notes From the Battlefield in the Patent War | Commentary

By Austin Meyer Some years ago, living in a cheap apartment near the airport in Columbia, S.C., I wrote X-Plane, a flight-simulator program that has been the top-selling simulation training program in the world, enabling countless pilots to learn to fly more safely on a computer, thus enabling safer flight.  

It’s not just for professional pilots, however. X-plane has provided millions of hours of enjoyment for hundreds of thousands of customers around the world, and provided millions of dollars per year in taxable revenue to the state of South Carolina. All this from an invention that I created by turning my idea into a marketable product and selling it to those who wanted it.  

Three years ago, a patent-assertion entity called Uniloc sued me for patent infringement. Their claim? I infringed on their idea by using an e-commerce distribution system offered by an online store to sell my Android app.  

My experience of getting sued for simply using someone else’s product is not unique. Coffee shops and hotels are sued for offering Wi-Fi to customers. Grocery stores are harassed for check-counting machines. Community banks are hassled for offering ATM services to customers. In my case, Uniloc did not create the e-commerce system we use for X-plane, and its patent certainly doesn’t describe how to make such a system. It simply says that somebody else could make a system, and now Uniloc sues anyone that actually does.  

I’ve now been embroiled in this lawsuit for three years and, as of this writing, there’s no end in sight. It’s taken three years to overturn just a single claim in the lawsuit — and there are 113 claims in all.  

If HR 9, the Innovation Act, patent-lawsuit reform legislation, were already on the books, I likely wouldn’t be facing this protracted legal battle. Sponsored by Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., the Innovation Act passed the House in December 2013 in the 113th Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support 325-91, but then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., deep-sixed it at the behest of the trial lawyers lobby. It’s been reintroduced in the 114th Congress with bipartisan support from Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., and hopefully, this time it will become law — if not for my sake, then for that of other innovators and entrepreneurs.  

The cost to me — in dollars, stress and attention that has been diverted away from new-product development — is huge. The resulting reduction in sales and tax base both federally and in my home state of South Carolina has been significant.  

Startups like ours have been forced to divert resources to fight off frivolous lawsuits or settle out of court, instead of investing in our economy. But rather than accept this legalized extortion, we’re joining with other American businesses and innovators in calling on Congress to enact common-sense patent reform that protects America’s homegrown businesses.  

The Innovation Act, which was heard by the House Judiciary Committee on April 14, would require that patent trolls clearly explain their claims; make patent litigation more efficient; stop discovery abuses; and make the trolls pay the costs of meritless litigation. Similar legislation, the Protecting American Talent and Entrepreneurship (PATENT) Act, is making its way through the Senate. Fair, comprehensive patent-reform legislation would go a long way toward promoting and protecting the innovation economy.  

Technology startups are a crucial part of the nation’s economy, but the need for patent reform affects so much more than just my industry. Businesses of all sizes — from Main Street retailers and hotels to grocers, convenience stores and cafes — have been the victims of unnecessary lawsuits and overly broad claims by patent trolls. Congress must stand with American businesses that create goods and services, rather than with those that destroy them, and support comprehensive patent reform.  

Austin Meyer is founder of Laminar Research, a Columbia, S.C.-based software company.

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