Issues & Insights

American Innovation Under Threat – Patent Trolls Hurt U.S. Industry While Helping China

Flying machine patent drawing by W.F. Quinby, 1869.

For a variety of reasons, the U.S.-China rapport established by Richard Nixon has cooled considerably over the past few years. Some experts believe a return to what seemed to be a mutually beneficial status quo is possible once the Trump-era trade war comes to an end.

That’s a fantasy. The relationship between the two superpowers has been on the decline for some time, largely due to unfair trade practices on the part of the Chinese. They do not play fair and no amount of waiting on the part of the U.S. will cause them to change their stripes.

China makes billions by forcing U.S. companies to turn over valuable intellectual property in exchange for entry to its markets. Refusal to cooperate cuts off access to more than a billion potential customers. If America’s leaders aren’t demanding a change, a demand backed up with action, then what incentive is there for Beijing to change its policy?

Most American businesses have been advised by policymakers to wait. They’re stuck, hoping for relief — from international trade organizations to which the Chinese belong (thanks to the U.S. insisting they be admitted) or from U.S. politicians. Nothing will happen unless the pressure on Beijing is maintained.

When President Donald Trump talked about bad trade deals, he usually didn’t mention the World Trade Organization, the U.S. International Trade Commission, and the other multi-national and U.S. governmental bodies that are supposed to referee disputes. Maybe he should have, so that what these organizations accomplish – or more importantly fail to accomplish – will get the scrutiny needed.

Changes must occur. The ITC, for example, continues to show itself to be toothless. It’s failed to be tough on the non-practicing business entities known as “patent trolls” that exist almost solely to make the potentially lucrative charge that deep-pocketed entities have infringed on intellectual property rights so how can we expect tough action from them against China.

Patent trolls are a serious problem and a danger to economic growth and to consumers. They hinder innovation and can force higher prices on consumer technology and other goods now considered critical to life in the 21st century. Yet the ITC refuses to crack down on them, leaving China well-positioned to benefit from the mess they cause.

The commission is currently considering claims lodged by the Irish patent troll Neodron that its patents were infringed upon by major global tech companies including Apple, Microsoft, and Dell. It wants the ITC to grant an exclusion order baring these companies from selling all their major touchscreen mobile devices in the U.S. market. 

What’s happening has been likened by some to extortion, with the productive companies being pressured to pay the complaining troll off rather than leave things to the ITC to decide.

Imagine if the ITC decides the issue in Neodron’s favor. The cost of smartphones, tablets, computers, and other devices covered by its order would immediately skyrocket to provide the rents Neodron is demanding. According to some estimates, nearly 90% of smartphones and tablets currently available in the U.S. market would disappear, be replaced by devices from China. The range consumers have when choosing a device would be narrowed while the prices for what they could buy would rise.

China already has a clear lead in developing and deploying 5G wireless devices. Given the critical technology race between the U.S. and China over who will dominate in 5G, how can a U.S. agency even consider a litigation outcome that forces U.S. consumers to buy their 5G devices (as well as their other touchscreen devices) only from China?

Tensions between the world’s two largest economies are already heightened, in part because the U.S. accused China of sponsoring criminal hackers trying to gain access to private data from biotech firms around the world working on coronavirus vaccines and treatments. The FBI said the Chinese government was acting like “an organized criminal syndicate.”

Neodron’s complaint to the ITC places the proverbial thumb on the scale for the Chinese and the technology they manufacture.  If they win it would devastate the U.S. tech sector while helping Chinese tech companies gain a greater share of the global market, probably permanently. Like all patent trolls, Neodron’s claim cannot justify this kind of disproportionate and devastating result.

The ITC doesn’t have to go along with this. They can institute policy revisions that will thwart the efforts of Neodron and other patent trolls like them to use the ITC for monetary gain. Those changes should be made now before any more damage is done. There are bigger fish to fry.

Peter Roff is a former UPI and U.S. News & World Report columnist who is now affiliated with several Washington-D.C.-based public policy organizations. He appears regularly as a commentator on the One America News network. He can be reached by email at RoffColumns@GMAIL.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeterRoff.

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