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Obama moves to blunt weapon of some patent owners

Consumers and businesses hit with demands to pay royalties for such common technology as sending scanned documents by email or accessing Wi-Fi hotspots could get help from the U.S. government on how to respond.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is setting up a website with advice for anyone accused of patent infringement, according to a White House statement in advance of an event Thursday on how to “strengthen our patent system and foster innovation.”

The goal is to blunt a favored weapon of some patent owners who claim rights to ubiquitous technology and send letters seeking royalties from anyone who uses it.

It’s part of a broader effort by President Barack Obama’s administration and Congress to curb abusive litigation and alter practices at the patent office, so it issues fewer patents that are so unclear that their owners can claim just about anyone is infringing them.

Congress is considering legislation to limit lawsuits that target the users of technology, force the loser to pay the winner’s legal fees in some cases and require patent owners to more clearly define their case against accused infringers earlier in the process. The House passed a measure in December and the Senate is considering various proposals.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments next week on when patent holders should pay the winning side’s legal fees, and will consider a case on how to determine what type of software is eligible for patent protection.

Finding balance

The challenge is in finding a balance between curbing litigation abuses while ensuring patent owners can protect their inventions from knockoff competition or unauthorized use. Companies that are frequently sued, such as Google Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc., back legislative change while those that generate revenue by licensing their patents, such as Qualcomm Inc. and Dolby Laboratories Inc., oppose it.

The executive measures announced Thursday include more training of patent-office examiners and asking businesses and experts to provide technical information that can be used in analyzing applications. The patent office also is seeking to strengthen rules so the public can figure out who owns a particular patent.

Independent inventors will get more legal assistance under another initiative, and the administration renewed its support for an awards program to promote patents that address global humanitarian needs.

The initiatives don’t include the administration nominating a director for the patent office, which has been without a leader for more than a year. Former Google executive Michelle Lee was appointed deputy director and is acting chief. Her appointment, unlike the director position, didn’t require Senate confirmation.