Erik Paul Belt, the McCarter & English LLP partner who last week started his one-year term as president of the Boston Patent Law Association, thinks intellectual property rights in this country are under attack. Like, a Death Star level of attack.
The group he leads includes more than 900 attorneys and other professionals who deal with patent, trademark and copyright law. Belt sees his primary objective as president as making the BPLA more of an outward-facing organization, publicly defending the rights of intellectual property holders not only in Boston, but nationwide.
“It’s sort of like Star Wars,” Belt said. “You want to bring balance to the Force. We don’t want the Dark Side entering — the Dark Side being the forces aligned against strong patent rights. I won’t name names, but they tend to be large, West Coast-based technology companies. Those are the Darth Vaders that are lobbying Congress to cut back on patent rights. BPLA is going to be the Rebel Alliance, and we want to make sure intellectual property rights are important again.”
The Business Journal spoke with Belt this week about how he plans on taking on the evil Empire.
How do you accomplish your goal of making the BPLA more outward-facing, on a practical level?
There are a number of initiatives we can take. We can try to educate Washington and Congress. There are constantly amendments to patent law being debated in Congress … One way we can make our voices heard is to help educate Washington about the importance patents have, so they don’t inadvertently dilute the strength of intellectual property rights.
Then there are amicus briefs. When there’s an important court case, we need to make sure, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, that they understand what effect a ruling will have on intellectual property rights and more broadly on the innovation economy.
We can be doing other kinds of outreach, whether that’s op-ed pieces in the Wall Street Journal or the Boston Business Journal. There are a number of other kinds of things we can do to be more PR-focused.
In what way are IP rights going in the wrong direction?
There’s been a backlash against, in particular, patents over the last 10 years, and we’ve seen that in the legislation that resulted in the America Invents Act. Some of the backlash had to do with the rise of so-called patent trolls, but there have been a lot of court decisions and legislation, and I’ve seen a lot of articles in the papers, that really seem to come down against patents, and history shows that’s very bad.
You know the old adage, those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. Looking back at the 1970s, we had a horrible economy, we had huge inflation, a lot of unemployment, no innovation. When you look at patent filings, they were down, and all of the innovation was going offshore. There were a number of reasons for that, but one of the reasons was you could go to almost any court in the country to defend a patent and you’d almost be guaranteed to lose. Patents were viewed as anti-competitive. …. As a result, companies looked around and said, ‘It’s not worth spending a lot of money on research and development because we can’t get patents to protect the results of our labor.”
First Jimmy Carter, and then Ronald Reagan, started to look at what can we do to reverse this trend in the economy. As a result the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington was initiated, which would oversee appeals of all patent cases throughout the country. For a number of years the Federal Circuit really had a very pro-patent viewpoint. As a result of that, with companies realizing they could enforce their patent rights, whole industries rose. And we had a booming economy in the ‘80s and ‘90s and so forth.
Now, the pendulum has swung back the other way, and you’re facing a period again that could be like the 1970s, because patents are becoming tougher to enforce and obtain. You could see, as a result of this, patent applications going down and research and development getting cut. That’s never a good thing for innovation and the U.S. economy.
Why does this backlash matter to Boston businesses?
It’s a huge innovation corridor here. We have all of these biotech startups. We have a lot of software firms. We have all kinds of great technology firms. There are a lot of companies that depend on patent rights. I’ll tell you who else depends on patent rights, the venture capital and private equity people. The first thing they ask me is what (a target’s) patent position looks like. They won’t want to spend their money unless they know the company has a property that can be protected.
Why have the BPLA take a more prominent role on the national stage, when there are groups like the American Intellectual Property Law Association that have a nationwide base?
I see as one of the things we can be doing is networking more with (those groups), aligning with them, so we’re not so much different camps but have a more unified front about getting the message across to the people that need to hear it.
If you look at statistics in the Patent Office about where patents are coming from, Boston and the area around it are disproportionately represented in patent filings. It’s disproportionately strong here, and that’s why I think it’s very important for the BPLA to be involved. A lot of the smart, innovative people are clustering here. The reason this region is punching above its weight is that knowledge economy. Let’s keep it that way.