Last March, tech lobbyist Matt Tanielian sent out an e-mail blast about a “big tent” meeting at his office on F Street NW, casting a line in hopes of bringing together business leaders whose companies had been targeted by “patent trolls” — entities whose sole purpose is to buy up patents and sue companies to collect licensing fees.
Tanielian, co-founder of the boutique tech lobby shop Franklin Square Group, got more bites than expected. The first meeting drew about 30 people, and that quickly snowballed to more than 100 over the next few months, eventually attracting representatives from businesses as varied as Overstock.com, McDonald’s, Victoria’s Secret and local tech incubator 1776.
The informal network — connected to each other through Tanielian and the advocacy group he created seven years ago, the Coalition for Patent Fairness — is now known as the “big tent.”
“We didn’t create [the name] and think, ‘That’s our plan,’” said Tanielian, the coalition’s executive director. “Groups and industries were reaching out to us and saying, ‘We have this patent problem, too, how can we engage?’ We started keeping track of all these people — retailers, hospital associations, transit authorities, telecom associations. At a certain point, we said, ‘We have a group here. I guess we should call it something.’”
The coalition’s lobbying spending has declined steadily since 2009, dropping from $2.5 million that year to just $110,000 during the first six months of 2013. But the “big tent” is an example of advocacy that goes beyond pure lobbying — the coalition has hired Story Partners, a Washington public relations firm, to spread the word about patent reform efforts.
“As someone who’s done this before, we’re helping people get organized,” Tanielian said.
The coalition has not always resonated with a wide audience. In its early days in 2006, the Coalition for Patent Fairness — which does not have staff or permanent office space — lobbied strictly on behalf of BlackBerry, Google and a handful of other household names in consumer technology to shape drafts of the America Invents Act, the 2011 law that created new rules for challenging certain types of patents. Today, the group connects more than 50 Fortune 500 companies, associations and even public transit authorities whose policy interests outside the patent reform realm are usually very different.
“The tech industry doesn’t often work with the American Hotel and Lodging Association, it’s just not a natural or typical place where we play together,” said Tanielian, a former in-house lobbyist at Cisco. “There are odd couples in the group. That shows how diverse and how widespread trolling has become.”
In the years since the coalition’s founding, nearly every industry has been hit by expensive litigation brought by companies asserting patent claims. The amount of money that businesses are paying to resolve the claims have quadrupled to $29 billion since 2005, according to a June report from the White House. Now, as renewed efforts to curb abuses heats up, the coalition is evolving to reflect that. Formally, the members of the advocacy group are the original 12 technology companies it began with: Adobe, Blackberry, Cisco, Dell, Earthlink, Google, Intel, Intuit, Oracle, Rackspace, SAP and Verizon. But unofficially, the group links a growing network of companies and industries, some of which are typically at odds with one another. The Internet Association and the Motion Picture Association of America, for example, were on opposite sides of a recent digital rights showdown, but both signed onto a July 17 letter urging members of Congress to pass legislation cracking down on patent trolls.
“We seek reforms to the current system that would significantly curb trolls’ ability to extort settlement demands from retailers, technology companies, small businesses, financial services institutions, state and local government entities, and many others who are today the targets of their outrageous claims,” reads the letter, which is signed by 50 industry associations including the National Retail Federation, TechAmerica and the American Public Transportation Association.
• Victoria’s Secret
•Motion Picture Association of America
•National Retail Federation
•American Public Transportation Association
•MPA – The Association of Magazine Media
•National Association of Broadcasters