This was a particularly active week in Washington with regard to legislation that affects radio and our overall communications technology landscape. Here’s what happened.
Innovation Act Passes the House
The Innovation Act passed the House on Thursday by a vote of 325 to 91 with broad bipartisan support. The bill is intended to fix some gaps of patent law, in particular those which permit patent trolls to go after customers and users of technologies, like the trolls who are suing podcasters and HD Radio broadcasters.
Like most legislation that goes through the Capitol Hill sausage grinder, it’s not perfect. But the Innovation Act as it is would likely do more to protect the podcasters and broadcasters currently being threatened with lawsuits for using technology that is either freely available or, as in the case of HD Radio, they license from another company. The bill would allow a technology owner, like HD Radio’s iBiquity, to step in on behalf of its customers.
Patent trolls depend on many of their targets settling because of the often prohibitive costs of defending themselves in court. The Innovation Act provides some potential relief by making the plaintiff liable for the defendant’s legal costs if they lose and the lawsuit is deemed “unreasonable.”
Now it’s up to the Senate to craft its own version of the bill.
House Republicans Announce Communications Act Update
The chairmen of the House Commerce Committee and the Communications and Technology Subcommittee announced during a Google Hangout on Tuesday that they intend to begin a review of the Communications Act, last revised in 1996. Representatives Fred Upton (R-MI) and Greg Walton (R-OR) were joined by former FCC Chairman Robert McDowell, who served under President Bush, to discuss their plans for the update.
They were long on generalities and short on specifics, mostly emphasizing the changes in internet and wireless technology since the ’96 Act. Revealing an obvious deregulatory bias, McDowell recalled how the 1996 Act was built on the 1934 Act which itself was built on the foundation of the 19th century Railroad Act. He emphasized that different technologies are regulated based on their history which he said is increasingly “irrelevant.”
Radio felt an enormous impact from the Communications Act of 1996 because it eliminated the national cap on station ownership and greatly relaxed the market caps, resulting in a tidal wave of over-leveraged industry consolidation that arguably gutted most commercial stations of their local staffs and service. Though no specific mention of radio was made in the hangout, rules about internet service, wireless broadband and other digital technologies would affect the broader radio landscape, which itself is no longer confined to the broadcast airwaves.
Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) has long been an active player in communications law and policy. In a statement, he urged caution with a Communications Act update. “Changes should not be made simply for change’s sake, but rather based on clear and documented need,” he said. “I urge my colleagues to proceed in a bipartisan manner and to hold numerous hearings in order to generate the record an undertaking this substantial will require.”
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