Topic: Telecom, Internet & Information Policy


Here’s a video highlighting the Peer-to-Patent project originated by Beth Noveck and New York Law School’s “Do Tank.”

Whether because of inappropriately low standards for granting patents or recent decades’ outburst of inventiveness in technological fields, the Patent and Trademark Office is swamped. Patent examiners lack the breadth of knowledge in relevant fields to do the job they should be doing on each patent application. Drawing on the knowledge of interested and knowledgeable people can only improve the process, and this project aims to do just that.

I’ve written favorably about Peer-to-Patent at TechLiberationFront a couple of times, but here’s a cautionary note: A successful Peer-to-Patent program would result in a dispersion of power from patent examiners and the USPTO to the participants in the project. Surface support from the USPTO notwithstanding, the application of public choice theory to bureaucracies (by Cato’s own Bill Niskanen) tells us that the agency won’t give up this power without a fight.

REAL ID Update From the Upper Midwest

The upper Midwest is where the REAL ID action is these days. Our national ID law is getting its airing in the lands of lutefisk and cheese.

In Minnesota, Governor Tim Pawlenty (R) vetoed an entire transportation bill to spike anti-REAL ID provisions that the legislature had included. The legislature turned around and passed a free-standing anti-REAL ID bill with a veto-proof majority.

Now Pawlenty is seeking to make patsies of the legislature. Along with vetoing the new bill, he issued an executive order that would prevent Minnesota’s full compliance with the federal Real ID program before June 1, 2009 unless the legislature approves. That sounds good - until you realize that the Department of Homeland Security’s current deadline for even pledging to comply is October 11, 2009.

Pawlenty’s executive order conceded nothing to his state’s legislators, whom he’s treating as dupes.

Turning to Wisconsin, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner’s (R) advocacy for REAL ID has garnered himself an opponent in the state’s September 9 Republican primary. Jim Burkee, an associate professor of history at Concordia University Wisconsin, has published a thorough piece on REAL ID, titled “‘The Sensenbrenner Tax’ Abandons True Conservatism.”

Rep. Sensenbrenner reportedly soured the Wisconsin Republican Party’s convention by trashing fellow Republicans over their reluctance to go along with the national ID law. A week ago, he leveled a shrill attack on the Wisconsin governor when Governor Doyle (D) announced plans to take more than $20 million out of the state’s REAL ID account and transfer it into the state’s general fund.

Watch this space for more interesting developments.

Rep. Tom Davis, Republican Brand Mangler - Er, Manager

In the opening segment of this week’s Washington Week on PBS, Representative Tom Davis (R-VA) commented on the viability of the Republican party in the upcoming elections: “The Republican brand name - if you were to put this on a dog food - the owners would just take it off the shelf because nobody’s buying it.”

Davis has more than a little responsibility for these circumstances. He’s been a consistent cheerleader of the REAL ID Act, for example, the moribund national ID law. He has consistently pressed and promoted REAL ID. He claimed that imposing $17 billion in costs on state governments is not an unfunded mandate, and pretended like shaking $50 million in federal money loose made any difference. Davis saluted the final regulations when they were issued earlier this year.

In a REAL ID story including Davis, Federal Computer Week saw fit to note that he “represents a Northern Virginia district heavily populated by federal employees and government contractors.”

P.J. O’Rourke comments in the most recent Cato’s Letter: “It took a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives 40 years—from 1954 to 1994—to get … corrupt and arrogant, and the Republicans did it in just 12.” Being wrong on liberty, even in service to your district’s government contractors, is not good for your party’s brand, Mr. Davis.

Reining In Abstract Patents

Over at Ars Technica, I’ve got an in-depth discussion of In Re Bilski, an important case that was argued before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit last week. The Federal Circuit has jurisdiction over most patent appeals and, until recently, their decisions were rarely reviewed by the Supreme Court, making them effectively the final authority on patent issues. And unfortunately, they’ve made quite a mess of things, departing dramatically from Supreme Court patents and allowing patents on broad, abstract concepts (including software, which I wrote about last year). The result has been an explosion of low-quality patents and frivolous litigation:

Amazon’s much-derided one-click patent was approved the year after the decision. Patent litigation in the software industry has exploded with firms facing lawsuits over patents covering extremely broad software concepts such as wireless e-mail, web embedding, and converting IP addresses to phone numbers. Technically, these patents cover general purpose computers executing the algorithms described in the patent rather than the algorithms themselves. But because no one executes such algorithms with pen and paper, the net result has been to give the patent holders effective monopolies on the algorithms themselves.

The Federal Circuit has been catching a lot of flack for its patent jurisprudence in recent years, and they’ve showed an increased interest in revisiting past precedents. As I discussed in a Cato podcast last week, In Re Bilski concerns a patent that was rejected by the USPTO for being too abstract. In its call for amicus briefs in the case, the Federal Circuit explicitly asked for opinions on whether it should revisit its key rulings on abstract patents from the 1990s.

Unfortunately, the oral arguments suggest that the Federal Circuit is unlikely to abandon its dubious experiment with allowing patents on software and other abstract concepts. At best, I think we can expect the court to tinker at the edges, restricting the most egregiously abstract patents.

I’m more optimistic about the Supreme Court, which has shown a renewed interest in patent law in recent years and has shown no compunctions about overturning the Federal Circuit’s patent decisions. At least three Supreme Court justices (Scalia, Breyer, and Stevens) have raised questions about the patentability of software, suggesting that there may be some skepticism from the Supremes on this issue. If the case gets appealed to the Supreme Court, it will be another opportunity to correct a Federal Circuit that has not done a good job of respecting Supreme Court patent precedents.

Wisconsin Governor Defunds REAL ID reports that Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle (D) plans to take more than $20 million out of the state’s REAL ID account and transfer it into the state’s general fund.

Wisconsin Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R) objects:

When I shepherded the REAL ID bill through Congress 3 years ago, it was in response to one of the key recommendations made by the 9/11 Commission, that ‘fraud in identification documents is no longer just a problem of theft.’ As we saw in 2001, in the hands of a terrorist, a valid ID accepted for travel in the US can be just as dangerous as a missile or bomb.

Congressman Sensenbrenner is correct to claim responsibility for REAL ID, but less accurate in other parts of his statement. The 9/11 Commission’s ‘key’ recommendation wasn’t key. (Indeed, Congress’ effort to follow the Commission’s recommendation was repealed by REAL ID.)

Nobody - not the 9/11 Commission, not Congressman Sensenbrenner, not Stewart Baker, nor anyone else - can explain the proximity between false ID and terrorist attacks, or how REAL ID cost-effectively secures the country against any threat.

Wisconsin’s governor has issued a mighty well-placed snub to the creator of the “Sensenbrenner tax.”

Measuring the Cost of E-Verify Red Tape

A recent story in the Arizona Republic describes the rising practice of using “registered agents” to take care of the paperwork associated with the E-Verify system, which is mandatory for employers in Arizona. Registered agents know how to navigate this system, which requires employers to submit information about their new hires to the federal government for an immigration-status background check. Registered agents are there to step in and reap the rewards when employers throw up their hands.

The story reports that registered agents charge from $7.50 to $10.00 per new hire. There are about 50,000,000 new hires per year in the country (according to Labor Department statistics), and let’s assume that average employer is a little more efficient than those who use a registered agent - so make it $5.00 per new hire. That’s $250,000,000 per year, just on basic administration of the E-Verify system.

There are plenty of other costs to electronic employment elgibility verification, which I wrote about in my recent paper, “Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration.”

At a recent hearing, Representative Ken Calvert (R-CA) reportedly said, “There are certain interests that simply do not want employment verification.” He was referring to an internecine fight with a human resources group. But I found in my paper that “successful internal enforcement of federal immigration law requires an overweening, unworkable, and unacceptable identity system.”

Freedom-loving Americans do not want employment verification. They think it’s doubly or triply foolish to spend taxpayer dollars and burn employers’ time on policies that reduce our economic growth.

L-1: The Technology Company in Your Pocket

Inspired by the promotional brochure I recently came across, I’ve taken a look at L-1 Identity Solutions in a new Cato TechKnowledge. Though it has better options, L-1 and its new acquisition, Digimarc ID Systems, seem likely to continue lobbying for the REAL ID Act. My concluding line: “A corporate lobbying operation can do as much harm to liberty as any government agency or official.”