John Oliver Is the Most Powerful Tech Lobbyist in the Country

The British TV host excoriated patent trolls on his show Sunday.

National Journal
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Dustin Volz
April 20, 2015, 6:33 a.m.

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.

(RE­LATED: Watch John Oliv­er In­ter­view Ed­ward Snowden About the NSA Spy­ing on Your Nude Pho­tos)

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.”

(RE­LATED: Tech Lobby Doesn’t Lack for Cash or Is­sues)

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.”

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