WIN panel urges keeping strong patent protections

The U.S. patent system has come under attack in recent years from opponents who say it kills innovation and stifles competition. Other critics charge that patent laws kept millions of Africans from receiving AIDS drugs owned by pharmaceutical companies.

Or that the system is abused by so-called “patent trolls” who collect patents and file infringement lawsuits for profit.

But though some reforms are acceptable, doing away with or reducing patent protection of intellectual property would deal a major blow to research universities such UW-Madison, a trio of patent experts said yesterday at a Wisconsin Innovation Network luncheon in Madison.

Those experts included Erik Iverson, who took over this summer as managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, UW-Madison’s patent and licensing arm.

Iverson, who told last month the organization isn’t a “patent troll,” said WARF hopes to work more with startups in the future, but he warned those plans would be jeopardized without patent protections.

“That startup ecosystem is only budding in Madison in now, but it has so much potential,” he said.

Laurie Self, a Qualcomm vice president who was at the luncheon representing the Innovation Alliance, said her company has worked closely over the past decade with WARF to help policymakers understand the need for a robust patent system to protect research at universities, corporations and even for independent inventors. She noted that numerous Qualcomm engineers are UW-Madison graduates.

Self said the only way to foster advance advances in technology is to maintain a strong U.S. patent system because it “allows you to make big, risky investments in R&D over time that may not become commercializable for many years.”

U.S. patents, copyrights and trademarks were once the “gold standard,” she said. But in recent years, “that has come into question.”

“What we’ve seen is a series of legislative efforts and a strong push in the courts [asking] whether we even need a patent system, and if we do how strong should it be?” she said.

She said any changes in the law should respect the owners of patents, or the consequences could be dire for companies like hers, as well as research universities such as UW-Madison.

Scott Button, managing director at Madison-based Venture Investors, agreed that intellectual property needs to be protected with patents. Button is a board member of NeuWave Medical, a Madison medical device maker that was acquired this spring by Ethicon. The acquisition, he said, would not have been possible without the patents shielding its research.

But he said uncertainty over possible changes in patent law is leading venture capital companies to invest in what they consider safer areas such as software, which is less often involved in legal battles and usually not covered by patents.

Casey Higgins, an assistant to U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan on policy and trade, also attended the luncheon. She said she was there to listen to the sentiments of Wisconsin tech industry and university research officials. She pledged that Ryan will work for the “strongest patent system possible” when Congress returns in 2017.

“Innovation is American as apple pie, so this issue is very important to the Speaker,” she said. “We’ve had an interesting couple of years in the patent reform space and we’ve learned a lot. We’re going back to the drawing board.”

By Brian E. Clark,