U.S. House passes bill to rein in 'patent trolls'

By Diane Bartz

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday approved a bill aimed at reining in "patent trolls," companies that buy or license patents from others, then extract licensing fees or file infringement lawsuits viewed by many as frivolous.

The House passed the bill easily, by a vote of 325 to 91. A Senate panel considering a similar measure has scheduled a hearing on the issue on December 17.

The White House has also expressed support for the measure as part of a broader call it made in June for steps to curb abusive patent lawsuits, which particularly affect the technology sector.

Sponsored by Robert Goodlatte, Republican of Virginia, it targets much-criticized patent assertion entities, for behavior like sending large numbers of licensing demands to small businesses without determining if they actually use infringing technology.

"There are serious problems with patent trolls that require real patent litigation reform," Goodlatte said in House debate before the vote was held.

But others have worried that the bill could hurt small companies whose patents are genuinely infringed. They fear the measure would tip the judicial balance in favor of defendants in patent infringement lawsuits.

"We keep hearing about the trolls, and yes, there is some trouble with the trolls," said Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican who criticized Goodlatte's bill. "Please let's not rush into a move that would destroy our independent inventors of America."

Technology companies largely support the Goodlatte bill, and the effort is backed by Cisco Systems Inc, Apple Inc, Google Inc and other such powerhouses.

Microsoft Corp praised the bill's advance, saying it "marks a significant milestone toward enactment of common-sense reforms to curb abusive patent litigation."

The bill encourages judges hearing patent cases to award fees to the winner of an infringement lawsuit. The bill would also require companies filing infringement lawsuits to provide specific details on what patent is infringed and how it is used.

The House approved an amendment to the measure on Thursday that would require companies that send demand letters alleging infringement to identify their corporate parent. The measure was designed to stop the practice of companies sending multiple demand letters to the same target by hiding behind shell corporations.

(Reporting by Diane Bartz; Editing by Ros Krasny, David Gregorio and Steve Orlofsky)