In a relatively short period of time, the debate over patent reform has transformed an arcane, low-salience issue into one that sparks fierce controversy and national headlines. Listening to the recent flurry of Beltway-targeted ads, op-eds and press releases, it would be easy to get the impression that it’s also a partisan issue promoted by the left.
For example, our friends at the American Conservative Union recently called the reform effort “Obama’s initiative to weaken intellectual property rights” and promote the “liberal dream of a patent-free society.” Elsewhere, Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina likened it to Obamacare for intellectual property. Taking a closer look, this hyperbolic narrative doesn’t hold up very well to scrutiny.
Patent reform enjoys a long tradition of intellectual support from a wide range of right-leaning think tanks and advocacy groups. Conservative and libertarian groups that have advocated for patent reform in one form or another include Americans for Tax Reform, the Heartland Institute, the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Mercatus Center, Americans for Prosperity, Frontiers of Freedom, the Independent Institute, the Manhattan Institute, the Mises Institute, Institute for Liberty, Hispanic Leadership Fund, the Institute for Policy Innovation, the Latino Coalition, Independent Women’s Forum, Lincoln Labs, the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for Individual Freedom, American Commitment, Taxpayers Protection Alliance, the Discovery Institute, Generation Opportunity, Citizen Outreach and others.
Obviously, not all of these groups are united in how to define the problem or which solutions are best. But it’s not exactly a bunch of lefties pushing for reform.
That’s not to say everyone on the ideological right agrees. Groups like the Ayn Rand Institute and the Eagle Forum tend to take a more maximalist view of intellectual property (Objectivist law professor Adam Mossoff is among the most prominent and stalwart opponents of reform), as do a few others like the aforementioned American Conservative Union.
But how do conservatives come down on the actual legislation on the table? While it’s true that the White House is on board, Congress’ bipartisan patent reform effort isn’t led by hardcore liberals teaming up with centrist Republicans. Rather, it is an idea advanced by well-known and staunch conservatives.
The American Conservative Union’s own scorecard ranks members sponsoring patent reform legislation among the most conservative in the nation. This includes members such as Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah – 100 percent), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa – 84 percent), John Cornyn (R-Texas – 93 percent) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah – 89 percent); and Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va. – 94 percent), Darrell Issa (R-Calif. – 89 percent), Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah – 92 percent), and Blake Farenthold (R-Texas – 80 percent), among others.
With the House moving Thursday to mark up its bill (the Innovation Act — H.R. 9), it’s worth looking back on what happened in the last Congress when an identical version was up for a vote. At the time, it passed the House with an overwhelming margin of 325 to 91. Republicans voted in favor of it by a margin of over seven to one. Democrats voted in favor it by a leaner margin of two to one. This makes pretty clear that support for patent reform leans strongly to the right.
Hope for reform in the last Congress ultimately died in the Senate, where it was blocked by then-Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., because of election-year politics. This time, however, legislation has already cleared markup in the Senate Judiciary Committee and has a clear path to a floor vote in a Republican-controlled Senate. Once again, the facts on the ground don’t line up with the narrative that it’s a liberal agenda item.
Here at R Street, we’ve long supported a balanced approach to intellectual property that upholds its constitutional mandate to both promote innovation and protect the rights of inventors. While this legislation isn’t perfect (we still have concerns about the treatment of IPRs, and the finer points of its litigation reforms), we believe Congress is on the right track to making a meaningful step forward.
Patent reform has loud detractors of all stripes, but it also enjoys overwhelming support on both the left and right. And if we’re going to be honest, its support has always been stronger on the right.