John Oliver is once again taking on another dense, confusing tech-policy issue.
The British host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight launched an all-out assault Sunday night against patent-trolling, or the act of filing frivolous patent-infringement lawsuits against others in the hope of reaping settlements. After clearing his throat a bit by defining what patents are—”legally binding dibs”—Oliver delves into the policies and politics at play in Washington’s ongoing patent-reform battle.
Oliver has given dozens of wonky political issues his zany treatment, but the comedian appears to have a particular affinity for tech policy. Two weeks ago, he interviewed former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden for a lengthy piece on government surveillance. And last year, Oliver spotlighted Washington’s net-neutrality debate and beseeched his viewers to flood the Federal Communications Commission’s site with comments supportive of an open Internet—a decree that prompted the FCC site to crash under the traffic pressure.
Sunday’s excoriation of patent-trolling is thorough, taking time to explore the growth of infringement suits on software patents and why so many patent lawsuits are filed eastern Texas. Perhaps most notably, however, the segment includes an outright endorsement of the Innovation Act, a comprehensive patent-reform bill that passed the House 325-to-91 last Congress, in 2013, before dying in the Senate last spring.
The bipartisan bill would make several changes to the patent litigation system, including forcing plaintiffs to be more specific in lawsuits. It would also require more transparency regarding patent ownership, reduce discovery costs, and provide some protections for end users—such as a coffee shop that buys a patented espresso machine from another vendor—from infringement claims.
“I’m not saying that bill was perfect, but it would have helped,” Oliver said. “It’s like when parents of teenagers lock the liquor cabinets.”
Oliver then lobs a grenade at trial lawyers, who were viewed by many pro-reform groups as a main impediment to the bill advancing in the Senate. Then-Majority Leader Harry Reid was widely blamed for caving to trial lawyers—typically a strong Democratic constituency—who wanted to kill the bill, just as it appeared the Judiciary Committee had finally worked out a grand compromise.
“You cannot let trial lawyers decide if there should be more baseless lawsuits,” Oliver said. “That’s the equivalent of trusting raccoons to make laws about garbage-can placements.”
Pro-reform advocates were hopeful the GOP takeover of the Senate would make things easier for their cause this year, but so far progress has again stalled. House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte reintroduced his Innovation Act in February, but the measure has not moved forward yet, and the Senate continues to negotiate.
Oliver’s attention may not do much to advance patent-reform discussions in Congress, given the intense interest in the issue from a wide range of powerful, monied interests. The Innovation Act and other reform efforts continue to face opposition from big pharmaceutical companies, universities, and trial lawyers, who caution that overreaching reform could further imperil the patent system and that Congress should not act so quickly after passing some reforms just a few years ago.
But he has had success previously. Oliver’s salvo against big telecom companies prompted a direct response from FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and, in the eyes of at least some onlookers, contributed to the wave of pressure that prompted the agency to adopt the toughest net-neutrality regulations possible.
For now, at least, patent-reform advocates are celebrating.
“Clearly, he’s tapped into something that so many Americans—particularly those in the tech and start-up communities—already know,” said Julie Samuels, executive director of Engine Advocacy, a group that represents tech start-ups and that consulted with Last Week Tonight producers on the piece. “We’re optimistic that this will inspire even more people to join the fight against patent trolls, just like we saw happen after his net-neutrality segment last year.”