New offices, legislation seen slowing patent lawsuit rush

The U.S. acting secretary of commerce sees a Silicon Valley patent office providing several benefits to the region's tech industry

A planned network of regional patent offices and the effects of new legislation are expected to slow the recent proliferation of patent lawsuits between big-name tech companies, Rebecca Blank, U.S. acting secretary of commerce, said on Wednesday.

In recent months, companies including Apple and Samsung have spent hours in court arguing over patent infringement in smartphones. The handheld gadgets have generated several big cases, as have issues such as software patents.

"We clearly have some difficult legal issues right now," Blank told IDG News Service. "The America Invents Act and some of the things we are doing are going to help that; I'm not sure they are going to fully solve some of those issues."

Blank was speaking at San Jose State University as part of a daylong trip to Silicon Valley. The visit will see her meet with local political leaders and executives from some of the region's tech companies. It comes a week after the Commerce Department said one of four new satellite patent offices will be based in the San Jose metro area. A precise location has not yet been determined. [See Blank announcing the Silicon Valley office on YouTube.]

Putting an office in Silicon Valley is expected to help the Patent Office hire local experts with greater knowledge of technology, leading to higher-quality patents, she said. [See Blank disclosing additional details of the Silicon Valley office on YouTube.]

"Higher-quality patents means less legal challenges. Faster patents [also] often mean less legal challenges, because often times the longer it takes to get a patent the more other people are encroaching on the space, so speed and quality are two things I think this legislation and these new offices are going to help us achieve," she said.

"That will be useful in dealing with some of the legal issues," she continued. "Whether it fully resolves them, this is [something] we are going to have to keep working on for the foreseeable future."

Last week, a high-profile U.S. appeals court judge, Richard Posner, questioned the need for patents for some technologies. He recently shot down one of the biggest issues in Apple's ongoing battle with Motorola, so his views carry some weight.

"You just have this proliferation of patents. It's a problem," he said in an interview with Reuters.

Asked to comment on his remarks, Blank said, "There is an evolution on what is patentable and what isn't. Obviously, that's going to continue."

Blank will spend part of Wednesday speaking to inventors and tinkerers at TechShop, a kind of geek's gym where a monthly membership buys access to a variety of complex electronic and mechanical machinery.

Speaking to local and state officials, she lauded Silicon Valley's culture of innovation, which makes the region responsible for one in 10 of all U.S. patents.

"The ideas and the products that flow out of Silicon Valley not only help businesses here, but help all of America's businesses to grow and to create jobs," she said.

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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