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Patent reform: Round 1

They were at it again today, the forces of innovation and entrepreneurship squaring off against the forces of greed and legal chicanery before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Try to guess which is which.

Ah, the set of funhouse mirrors we know as patent reform. What fun!

Today's hearing was the eighth the Judiciary Committee has held in four years, with the sponsoring lawmakers getting closer to passing essentially the same bill last session than the previous. Will this be the one?

Chairman Patrick Leahy certainly thinks so.

"There is much work to do, but I am optimistic that by continuing to work together, we will find the right language," he said. "We may be closer to reaching consensus on language regarding damages and venue than ever before."

In damages lies the rub.

Small-scale inventors and companies heavily invested in industries like manufacturing or pharmaceuticals charge that the bill under consideration would effectively neuter their legal mechanism for defending their patents. And with that would erode U.S. innovation, creating an intellectual-property trade deficit where the next great leaps in tech, medicine and sundry other industries would have to be imported.

"The simple fact is that weakening our patent laws would cause a massive and irreversible transfer of wealth from the United States to foreign manufacturers," said Taraneh Maghame, vice president at the electronics firm Tessera.

The argument goes that intellectual property is one of the country's greatest home-grown assets, and that the concerns (largely raised by tech companies) of frivolous lawsuits brought by patent trolls are overblown.

From Tim Crean, chief IP officer for SAP, in praise of the committee for today's hearing:

"Patent reform is a necessary step in ensuring competitiveness and creating jobs that depend on innovative technological advancements. SAP and the tech industry at large depend on the patent system, and by restoring balance to the system, we will strengthen it."

They both want to change it, but they're pulling at opposite ends of the rope. Will this be the year they meet in the middle? Concessions are scarce, but hearings are plentiful. More certain to follow ... stay tuned.

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