On Wednesday, December 10, 2014, at 10:00am, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a confirmation hearing for Michelle Lee, who President Obama has nominated to become Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Lee was named Deputy Director of the USPTO on December 11, 2013, replacing Terry Rea, who resigned that position after being passed over by the Obama Administration for the position of Director.
Upon taking over at Deputy Director Lee performed the functions and duties of the USPTO Director, a position that was and is currently vacant. The last Director of the USPTO was David Kappos. Kappos left the agency in January 2013. Therefore, it has been nearly two years since the USPTO has had a Director, which has often been criticizedas being an excessively long time not to have an agency head.
This will be the first time that Lee has had a confirmation hearing. The timing suggests that the Obama Administration and Senator Reid think that they can get Lee confirmed prior to the end of this Congressional session, which may well be the case. Assuming that this hearing will be more than just a show, there are a number of difficult questions that should be asked of Lee. Below are 12 questions that need to be asked, and a list of others that could and probably should be asked as well.
The unfortunate reality is the United States is no longer the most favorable jurisdiction for innovators. There has been a full assault on patent rights that started at least as early as 2005 when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in eBay v. MercExchange. Encouraged by this success in the courts, which largely ushered in an era of compulsory licensing, the forces that wanted to weaken the patent system to suit their own agenda put their foot on the accelerator. Ever since we have seen proposed legislative change after proposed legislative change, as well as a never ending stream of cases at the Supreme Court and Federal Circuit that continue to weaken patent rights. Innovators are under attack from ever expanding judicial exceptions that render more and more subject matter patent ineligible, and from an ever expanding view of what it means to be obvious. This coupled with fresh new ways to challenge issued patents and concern about a patent litigation explosion that doesn’t exist is leading to extraordinary mischief in the Courts, on Capitol Hill and in the White House.
“The Supreme Court is making national economic policy in Section 101 cases, despite lacking economic expertise, factual information or statutory authority, based on its own decades-to-century-old dicta and unfounded assumptions that seem merely to mirror editorials in certain media that equally lack factual basis,” former Federal Circuit Chief Judge Paul Michel says. “Meanwhile, Congress threatens to micro-manage patent infringement proceedings, abrogating the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure that controlled all civil cases since 1938, interfering with the independence of this co-equal Branch of government, undermining the Separation of Powers and severely restricting the necessary discretion of Federal judges.”
These and other issues will be the focus of a free webinar I am hosting on Thursday, November 13, 2014. The webinar, sponsored by Innography, will take place from 12pm to 1pm Eastern. Joining me will be Judge Michel and Richard Baker, a senior IP licensing executive who is on the Board of LES and is one of the top 300 IP strategists according to IAM Magazine. Judge Michel will provide commentary both about what we are seeing in the Courts and inside the beltway with respect to legislative initiatives ostensibly aimed at “solving” problems. Baker will discuss the implications on the patent brokerage and licensing business of so many patent claims being invalidated as a result of SCOTUS decisions, and will specifically address how things have changed over the past several years.
A recently published survey by The Atlantic asked a panel of 50 Silicon Valley insiders a variety of questions ranging from what is the most exciting tech start-up at the moment to which tech company is most overvalued. One question in particular was quite intriguing: What is the biggest barrier to innovation in the United States? You might be surprised by the answer.
According to this poll the biggest barriers to innovation in the United States are, in order:
Government regulation/bureaucracy 20%
Immigration policies 16%
Talent shortage 10%
Lack of diversity among tech executives 10%
The need for patent reform 8%
Lack of investment 6%
This survey shows what those in the industry have long known — patent trolls and the need for patent reform are NOT the biggest problems facing the high tech industry in the United States. In fact, 92% of respondents feel that there are other things that are more concerning and a bigger barrier to innovation. But how can this be? The public has been consistently fed the line that patents stifle innovation. How can something that stifles innovation not be the biggest concern, particularly when so many of the tech giants from Silicon Valley have for years blamed the patent system for all their woes? The simple answer is that patents do NOT stifle innovation, but rather patents foster innovation. Those who are intimately familiar with the industry know patents promote innovation regardless of the lies promoted to advance patent reform, vilify innovators and lay the blame for everything at the feet of patent trolls. See also Promoting Innovation: The Economics of Incentives.
Patents encourage and protect innovation. That’s undeniable, but it’s naïve to believe that’s all we need to develop the new products that evolve into the industries that bolster the dynamic U.S. economy. Patents, and other forms of intellectual property protection, are a necessary prerequisite, but incentivizing innovation requires more. Just as plants require sunshine, water and nutrients to grow, innovation needs more than simply patent protection to thrive. To thrive innovation requires a climate that is conducive for business success.
Sadly, Capitol Hill is frequently the setting for both grandstanding and pandering, and given the prevailing political and public sentiment it is also frequently a place where businesses find an inhospitable welcome. A recent case in point: Three senior members of Congress (Henry Waxman, Frank Pallone Jr., and Diana DeGette) have started a joint investigation into the pricing of Sovaldi, a breakthrough drug for hepatitis C produced by Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ: GILD). Rather than applaud the health benefits that this drug will deliver, Congress is grilling the company on their pricing decision, striking fear in the investment community, and indirectly undermining the healthcare innovation that is so desperately needed.
On July 3, 2014, I had the opportunity to interview Judge Michel, former Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The interview took place at the University Club in Washington, DC. Our conversation was wide ranging, dealing with all the pressing issues of the moment in the patent world. In part 1 of the interview Judge Michel explained exactly why the Supreme Court’s decision in Alice v. CLS Bankwas terrible, saying that he thought the decision would lead to “total chaos” because there is no repeatable, predictable test that can be objectively applied.
In part 2 of the interview, which appears below, we continue our discussion of Alice, but focus on how the Supreme Court is importing considerations that historically (and correctly) are matters of obviousness under 35 U.S.C. 103.
QUINN: Well, I know one of the things that we’ve talked about in the past as a concern is with all these decisions patents have gotten a lot longer, a lot more difficult to read, and really almost in some ways hide the innovation. And it’s not necessarily a conscious “I want to hide it,” sometimes it may be, but patents from 50, 60 years ago used to be a couple pages long and that included the drawings. What do you think the Alice decision is going to do to the complexity of patent applications moving forward?
MICHEL: Well, it’s hard to imagine that it will encourage shorter or simpler applications. But I don’t really know. I can’t predict. And part of what worries me is the extent of the harm is difficult to gauge. I think there will be harm. My concern is that it’s likely to be massive harm. But it can be equally argued that the harm will be very small because really nobody knows. So we’re taking a huge gamble here where nobody knows what the risks and harms can be. Also consider this you talk about the stability of property regimes in the law, how about the right of a property owner as to who’s going to decide things? In our lawsuit where you sued me if I claim your patent’s invalid as obvious I’ve got to prove it. I’ve got to prove it to an elevated burden with admissible evidence to a jury. But in a 101 matter it looks to me like there’s no role for the jury it’s all going to be up to the district judge to decide whether to invalidate the patent by declaring it ineligible. So there’s a lurking issue here of right to jury trial because the Supreme Court has now shifted the center of gravity of an invalidity case from the trial and the jury to a pretrial motion with no jury and probably very limited factual records.
The writing has been on the walls for some time, as the Senate Judiciary Committee has repeatedly failed to produce a revised version of S. 1720, the Senate version of patent reform. Over the past several months an announcement would come that the Senate Judiciary Committee would be releasing a Managers’ Amendment to the pending legislation, only to have that postponed time after time. Today, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) announced what many have been expecting for weeks, namely that patent reform would be tabled due to lack of consensus. But Leahy’s announcement went further, noting that not only would the Committee not release the long awaited updated version of the bill, but that patent reform would be removed from the Committee calendar altogether.
While Senator Leahy said that he hopes to be able to return to patent reform this year, the legislative calendar does not look good. Now removed from the Committee calendar patent reform seems to dead for this Congress.
No vote will be taken on the Senate version of patent reform until the next draft is released and voted on by the Judiciary Committee, which doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon. Then if the Senate does pass patent reform it is guaranteed to be different than the version passed by the House of Representatives. Ordinarily one might suspect that would lead to a Conference between the House and Senate, but Judiciary bills are rarely, if ever, sent to Conference. That means even if the Senate passes patent reform the bill would bounce back to the House, and we could see an ensuing game of ping-pong, with greatly intensified lobbying by both sides. All the while legislative days are dwindling, and useful legislative days in advance of the November election are even more limited. Indeed, with this announcement today it seems that patent reform is now dead for 2014. The only hope proponents have is that patent reform will sneak back in a lame duck session of Congress, but I believe that hope to be somewhat far-fetched.
In Brooks Furniture Mfg., Inc. v. Du tailier Int’l, Inc., 393 F. 3d 1378 (2005), the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that “[a] case may be deemed exceptional” under § 285 only in two situations: (1) “when there has been some material inappropriate conduct,” or (2) when the litigation is both “brought in subjective bad faith” and “objectively baseless.” The question put before the Supreme Court was whether the Brooks Furniture framework is consistent with the statutory text.
In unanimous decisions delivered by Justice Sotomayor, the Supreme Court ruled that the Brooks Furniture framework was too restrictive and inconsistent with the text of § 285. With Octane Fitness the Supreme Court makes it easier for district courts to sanction plaintiffs for bringing meritless patent infringement suits, while Highmark makes it more difficult for the Federal Circuit to reverse district court decisions under the statute. Both cases were closely watched as both the private sector and Congress have been making efforts to quash the dramatic uptick in patent cases filed by non-practicing entities.
The US patent system has a storied history: written into the Constitution by Madison; the Patent Act itself written by Jefferson; and, requested to be passed in Washington’s first State of the Union speech. As a former speech writer for the Commissioner back in 1985, I had the fun task of finding little interesting factotums about the US patent system to add some flavor to whatever audience the Commissioner was addressing. Such facts might include: local inventors, known statewide innovative companies, or just interesting moments in the course of the system and its contribution to the development of the then brand new United States.
Some fun stuff: Abraham Lincoln reckoned that, along with the invention of the printing press and Columbus discovery of America, the US patent system was among the three most important events in the history of the world. Of the 4 faces on Mt. Rushmore, 3 are inventors (Roosevelt is the exception); but, only Lincoln got a patent. The British burned pretty much everything in Washington that mattered in 1812; except, the Patent Office, around which they placed a guard. And so it goes.
Why am I resorting to the emotional heart strings; because the current round of patent reform is an existential threat to the US patent system. If these proposals pass, we will be left with a very, very expensive registration system in which the Fortune 50, and no one else, will be able to participate. In case no one has noticed, the Fortune 50 do not innovate (with few exceptions, it is those who will become the Fortune 50 that do the innovating) and so, the system ceases to exist. Let me explain.
Editorial Note: This article is a portion of a larger work by Andrew Baluch titled Patent Reform 2014, modified here for purposes of publication on IPWatchdog.com. Baluch’s article is a comprehensive review of pending legislation developments in Congress, the Executive Branch, the Courts and the States. For more specifically on fee-shifting please also see Will Fee Shifting Solve the Patent Troll Problem?
U.S. patent litigation has followed the centuries-old “American Rule” under which each party to a litigation pays its own legal fees and costs, regardless whether it wins or loses the litigation. A narrow exception exists in patent cases, but only in “exceptional cases” under 35 U.S.C. § 285, such as where the losing party engaged in litigation misconduct, or if the patent was fraudulently procured, or if the losing party raised arguments that were both objectively baseless and made in bad faith.
Despite the long tradition of litigants paying their own legal fees and costs, Congress has shown interest in changing the playing field and deviating from the American Rule in patent cases. This comes at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court is already considering two cases that relate to the definition of “exceptional cases” in § 285 that may well alter how this existing exception to the American Rule is applied in practice.
What follows is discussion of various legislative proposals relative to fee-shifting, as well as a brief discussion of the two cases currently pending before the Supreme Court.
The United States Patent and Trademark Office has recently released the latest information about the number of post grant trial proceedings that have been initiated. The clear, resounding verdict is that post grant administrative trials are extraordinarily popular. In fact, they are far more popular than Congress anticipated they would be at the time the America Invents Act (AIA) was passed.
Scott McKeown, a partner with Oblon Spivak who co-chairs the firm’s Post Grant practice group and is the primary author of the Patents Post Grant Blog, recently posted his analysis of the latest post grant trial statistics announced by the Patent Trial and Appeals Board (PTAB). See March 2014 Update to PTAB Trial Statistics. Here is what the chart looks like:
According to McKeown these numbers are significant because they are significantly higher than the numbers originally anticipated by Congress, showing that the industry finds these administrative trials to be extremely useful, even more so than predicted. His article explains: “These numbers are well beyond the 281 filing limit per year Congress envisioned…”
EDITORIAL NOTE: The following article has been posted as an online petition you may sign by visiting IndependentInventorsofAmerica.org. On Friday the United States Senate held additional hearings and seem poised to act relatively quickly on the Senate version of patent reform. For information about how to directly contact your U.S. Senators please see Senators of the 113th Congress.
We represent independent inventors and small patent-based businesses across the country and we are against any patent legislation that includes provisions of the Innovation Act (H.R. 3309) and the many variations and additions under consideration in the Senate. This legislation will levy grave harm upon independent inventors and small patent-based businesses, as well as the investors we need to help commercialize new technologies and to protect our inventions.
The American patent system is a trade between an inventor and society. An inventor discloses an invention for all to see and build upon, and the government grants and protects for the inventor an exclusive right to the invention for a short period. The American patent system was intended to enable anyone, regardless of economic status, race or gender, to profit from the invention of something new and valuable. This system has worked as intended for over 200 years, fueling the creation of the greatest economy in the world.