On April 12 an op-ed was published in the Wall Street Journal entitled Patent Trolls vs. Progress by Andy Kessler, a former hedge-fund manager. I would like to correct some inaccuracies. Mr. Kessler attributes Microsoft’s recent purchase of AOL’s patents and Google’s purchase of Motorola Mobility (presumably for its patents) as protection against non-practicing entities (“NPEs”) also disparagingly known as “patent trolls.”
First, no portfolio of patents will ever protect against an NPE. This is because an NPE, by definition, does not produce a product. In a patent litigation between two companies, the typical scenario is that company A owns a patent and attempts to license that patent to company B that it believes is infringing. Company B can pay a fee to company A or it can refuse to pay. Or company A may attempt to get an injunction against company B to prevent it from selling its product that incorporates the invention described by the patent. If company A wants an injunction or requests a fee that company B refuses to pay, then company A will almost certainly take company B to court. At that point, company B takes some combination of three possible countermeasures. Company B can attempt to show that the patent is invalid. Company B can attempt to show that its product does not infringe the patent. Company B can countersue company A for infringement of some patent of its own. Typically after months of threats, legal maneuvers, and negotiations, the companies will settle on some payment from one company to the other. The cases rarely go to court. Now suppose that company A is an NPE. Company B’s third option of countersuing is not an option because company A produces no product and thus cannot infringe on any patent. Thus buying patents provides zero defense against an NPE, contrary to what Mr. Kessler asserts.
Mr. Kessler reaches back seven years to 2005 for the case of NTP v. Research-In-Motion, the famous case against the Blackberry manufacturer, for his justification and concern about NPEs, but in recent years it is the major players in high tech have been suing each other over patents. The companies in the news for patent sales, patent purchases, and patent lawsuits are not NPEs but the high tech goliaths including Google, Apple, Microsoft, Motorola, Oracle, Facebook, AOL, and Yahoo among others. Purchasing patent portfolios can be used defensively against other companies and just as easily these patent purchases can be used, and are being used, as offensive weapons against competitors. Patent trolls are simply the bogeymen used by large companies to convince politicians to “reform” patent laws.
Mr. Kessler argues that the extension of the patent term to 20 years, enacted in 1995 to make U.S. patent law consistent with the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs), is a problem because “in technology things move a lot faster.” I do not understand the reasoning behind this complaint. If technology moves so fast, then a patent becomes worthless long before the term is over. What does it matter if a patent is valid for five years or 50 years if the patent is worthless after five years?
Mr. Kessler states the “we have to stop allowing juries to establish the value of patents… the market… [should] determine value. ” In fact, the market does determine value. The majority of patent lawsuits are settled before reaching court, and both parties determine a fair value based on free market principles. A negotiation between two parties is a great example of such free market principles where each party determines the value of the patent with respect to its own interests, free from other considerations. For cases that reach a jury, the jurists are provided information by economists and accountants who determine the value of a patent based on the market value of the products that embody the patented inventions. Of course we can argue about whether their models and calculations are correct, but our entire justice system is based on juries determining values and awarding damages and so if Mr. Kessler believes that juries are incapable of determining value, then he is implying that our entire legal system—at least the civil system—is flawed. If that is true, then it is the legal system as a whole that needs to be revised.
Perhaps the most disturbing recommendation is to require patent holders to manufacture or sell products. This requirement would fundamentally damage the patent system. Patents allow small, cash-strapped inventors to create something new and protect that invention from large corporations that have the money and resources to kill it or steal it before the inventor can get funding or market share. I know this from experience. Years ago I created a software tool that I sold to a large company that enabled that company to sell their expensive hardware to customers in the communications industry. Each software package, that sold for about $25,000, enabled this company to sell their multimillion dollar equipment to communications companies that otherwise would never have been customers. The arrangement seemed good to me, but the large company made it clear that they did not like being beholden to me, so after several years of buying my software, they created their own. My sales immediately went to zero—in other words I became a non-practicing entity. Fortunately I had patented my invention and so I had more leverage than the large company expected. Had Mr. Kessler’s recommendation been in effect, I would have had no recourse against that large company.
According to Kessler, James Madison was the man behind Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution, giving Congress the power “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Historical documents suggest that Thomas Jefferson and Charles Pinckney also lobbied for this clause. In any case, this section of the Constitution has been the justification for our patent system for over 200 years. Mr. Kessler believes that Mr. Madison did not understand what he was doing or, at best, did not foresee the expense that patent litigation would involve in the 21st century. In fact, the founding fathers knew exactly what they were doing when writing the intellectual property clause into the U.S. Constitution. They were protecting the individual from the overwhelming power of large entities. They were enacting the very principles of American society for which we fought the Revolutionary War. Since 1790 the U.S. patent system has contributed to America becoming the most innovative society in the history of the world. Fundamentally changing the system in the ways suggested by Mr. Kessler would stifle that innovation.