I think we all agree that something has to be done about patent trolls. The patent system that they abuse is broken and it does nothing to better the economy. In fact, recent studies say patent trolls actually cost the economy about $29 billion in 2011. What's a country with crappy patent laws to do? Pass a bill that would define software patents and punish the trolls that seek to abuse them.
Thankfully, that bill is now a reality. Introduced in the House, Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon and Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah have introduced the Saving High-Tech Innovators from Egregious Legal Disputes (or SHIELD) Act. The bill is specifically aimed at defining software patents. It's a must since our own patent system hasn't been updated since 1952 and all patent disputes are argued with these outdated laws.
So what does the SHIELD Act specifically accomplish? First and foremost, it seeks to define what a software patent is. As was mentioned, the legal understanding of a software patent is based on an outdated law from 1952. The SHIELD Act aims to define a software patent as "any process that could be implemented in a computer regardless of whether a computer is specifically mentioned in the patent." On that note, it also defines a computer as "an electronic, mangnetic, optical, electrochemical, or other high speed data processing device performing logical, arithmetic, or storage functions."
As Ars Technica points out, the SHIELD Act only attempts to define the software patent. It doesn't endorse the software patent since many people feel that software shouldn't be patented. This opens the door for a later act that would outright abolish the software patent. In the meantime, this definition does well to protect software manufacturers from outlandish software patent suits that aren't really software.
In a statement, Rep. DeFazio says that his legislation "would force patent trolls to take financial responsibility for their frivolous lawsuits." The SHIELD Act does just that and it's the best part of the bill. If a patent troll is found to be filing a frivolous lawsuit that they had no hope of winning, they will be on tap to pay the defendant's legal fees. It would make patent trolls think twice before bringing a lawsuit. The current system makes sure that they don't owe a cent even if they lose the case.
The SHIELD Act is the best shot we have at reforming the patent system. In its current state, it's hopelessly broken. While it doesn't fix everything that's wrong with our current patent system, it's a start that could lead to more legislation that would fix everything else. We might be able to even put an end to the silly wars between Apple and Samsung.
You can read the full text of the proposed bill at the EFF's Web site. Here's hoping it actually gets somewhere in this election year.