Are patent trolls a serious threat to innovation?

On Wednesday, October 23 at Mason Hall, a group of expert panelists and audience participants engaged in an Oxford Union-Style Debate on a core and hotly debated issue regarding patents and technology innovation.  Organized by the George Mason MS in Technology Management Program and moderated by J.P. Auffret, program director, the panel addressed the debate proposition:

This house believes that patent trolls are a serious threat to U.S. innovation.”

Very serious concerns have surfaced among universities, Congress, the Office of the President,state legislatures, industries and the general population that the culture of litigation and threats in the patent area may be stifling rather than encouraging innovation. The debate provided lively, objective and candid discussions of those concerns by individuals who encounter and address them in their day-to-day activities. The panelists’ discussion spanned not only today’s intellectual property and technology landscape but also included perspectives from Thomas Jefferson and the start of the U.S. patent system, along with insights from major historical patent wars including sewing machines, electrical power systems and  integrated circuits.

Oxford Union Panelists

The panel included Suzanne Michel, (Senior Patent Counsel, Google) Russ Merbeth (Chief Policy Counsel, Intellectual Ventures), Matt Levy (Patent Counsel, Computer & Communications Industry Association), and Gary Rinkerman (Partner, Drinker, Biddle & Reath, LLP, regular lecturer in the MSTM program and Adjunct Professor of U.S. Intellectual Property for the School of Law at Queen Mary, University of London).

Gary Rinkerman, partner with Drinker, Biddle & Reath, LLP, opened the debate with a challenge concerning the definition of “trolls,” emphasizing his view that whether or not a patent holder actually practices its patent is not the essential consideration in determining whether an entity is a “troll.” Rather, the debate, as he framed it in an opening statement, should focus on: (a) lax standards at the United States Patent Office, (b) virtually risk free practices in patent litigation that lead to abuse; and (c) the availability of injunctive remedies that emphasize rewarding patent holders but do not adequately consider public interest. According to Rinkerman, so-called “patent trolls” are simply “the canaries in the coal mine” that signal more fundamental defects in the current patent system.

The full panel then expanded upon and debated the proposition as well as the points made in the opening statement. The various opinions, perspectives and points advanced by the panel, as well as by audience members, provided “real world” insights into important issues that will affect innovation and the patent system in fundamental ways, especially in light of pending federal and state legislation that attempts to address “the troll problem.”

Suzanne Michel

Google’s senior patent counsel, Suzanne Michel, makes a point in the debate regarding patents and technology innovation.

The press was not allowed to attend the event, and no recordings were allowed, in order to ensure a more free and candid flow of thoughts.  The success of the debate, as well as the approach, will provide a model for future debates, with a future topic being “Open Innovation:Can Open Source Concepts Be Adapted For Use In The Patent System?”

The Mason Technology Innovation “Oxford Union-Style” Debates are hosted quarterly by the Mason M.S. in Technology Management Program. Visit the Calendar of Events at for future dates.

Article provided by Gary Rinkerman, Drinker, Biddle & Reath LLP

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Janet Palmisano

Janet Palmisano is a member of the Recruiting and Admissions team at the George Mason University School of Business.

Comments (2)

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    Jess Pellegrino


    This is a serious problem we face in America today. It’s putting young inventors down before they can rise and create genius. Bringing up the history of patents for inventions like the sewing machine is key.


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    Laura Wall


    This is a very important discussion. Much like other areas of our government, the U.S. Patent Office needs some innovation and upgrading of the rules and standards for patents itself to stay with the times. If the USPTO had stricter patent rules, companies like Apple and Google couldn’t buy off the patents of now defunct companies to prevent competition and innovation from new companies.


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