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US patent system 'in crisis'

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Google's head of patents believes the U.S. patent system is "in crisis". Discussing patent reform at the annual Stanford Summit in Northern California, associate general counsel Michelle Lee told conference attendees that the American system is "out-of-balance [and] needs to be remedied".

"The Patent Office is overburdened," she said. "The volume of patents going in is huge. And the quality of patents coming out - it could be better."

There are too many businesses, she added, who do little more than use patents as a means of making money. Such businesses, often referred to as trolls in patent law, have proved to be a serious minefield for tech companies over the last few years. Lee highlighted the tribulations of Research in Motion, maker of the BlackBerry handheld, which settled a patent lawsuit for $612m last May.

Speaking alongside Lee, Apple's chief patent counsel, Chip Lutton, wouldn't go quite so far as his Google counterpart. He said the US patent system was "not broken" and that it was "not in crisis," calling it "the best in the world". But he acknowledged that there was a "huge bubble" of patent assertions that needs to be scaled back. "The question with this bubble market, as with any bubble market, is 'Can we solve it without a crisis arising?'" he said.

Lutton believes that the key to fixing the country's patent problems lies with the courts, not the patent office. "Most patents issued are never litigated and never licensed," he said. "We need to focus on fixing the litigation system. That's most relevant."

Lutton's attitude was mirrored by that of fellow speaker David Kappos, vice president and assistant general counsel for intellectual property law at IBM, the company that has led the country in patent filling for the last 14 years.

Perhaps Google is still learning how to play the patent game as well as seasoned veterans like Apple and IBM. When asked if the company's own struggles with the patent system where mostly the result of an increase in the number software patents issued or the rise in Google's popularity, Lee picked popularity. "When you become successful," she said, "all of a sudden everyone wants a piece of it." ®

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