As the Managing Principal of a patent advisory firm that services nearly every segment of the patent industry, I am often asked what keeps me awake at night. Obviously, for anyone engaged in the patent business as of late, there is no shortage of material. But with a newly minted Congress expected to get moving on patent reform, there is one clear winner: presumptive fee shifting.
The most recent patent reform bill to pass the House, which is now expected to receive Senate backing as well, is the Goodlatte Innovation Act (H.R. 3309). Included within the various provisions of H.R. 3309 is the presumption of fee shifting for the losing party in a patent case. Put simply, this means the loser in a patent case pays the winning side’s attorney fees. In the context of a patent case, such costs often total in the millions.
But as someone who operates at the center of the patent market, and is certainly sympathetic to the dangers of frivolous patent litigation, I can only hope that if additional patent reform does pass, the presumptive fee shifting provisions are nowhere to be seen. Although seen by those unfamiliar with the nuances of patents as a way to curtail abuses in the patent system, a presumptive fee shifting provision is not only unnecessary, but also likely to cause of host of unintended consequences.
Nero and the burning of Rome by M. de Lipman, circa 1897.
Adam Carolla, one of the most popular podcasters in the U.S., is sued by a patent troll. The story goes viral. Across the country, state Attorneys General are using consumer protection laws to guard their small businesses from the predacious patent trolls. And here’s something previously unthinkable: the President of the United States, in the 2014 State of the Union address (“It’s the country’s most valuable political real estate,” noted one D.C. veteran), urged Congress to “pass a patent reform bill that allows our businesses to stay focused on innovation, not costly and needless litigation.”
The greatest long-term threat to the U.S. patent system does not come from its professional opponents – those large businesses and their political allies who stand to profit from enfeebled patent rights. A deeper harm is caused by unscrupulous patent trolls who use extortionist “demand letters” to victimize small businesses. This practice, we believe, is wrecking public confidence in the U.S. patent system – and by extension, profoundly weakening the heretofore bedrock belief in the great economic benefits conferred by patent-protected inventions.
Yet even as damage caused by demand letters spreads, most legitimate patent licensors whose businesses depend upon continued legislative and public trust stand idly by, doing little or nothing to address it. Well-insulated within the patent industry’s cozy professional bubble, we are, in effect, fiddling like a modern-day Nero while innovation’s Rome burns.
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.
One of the real problems with the debate over patent litigation abuse is that it hasn’t focused on litigation abuse at all. Instead, the debate has focused on attempts to characterize patent owners with pejorative labels, such as calling anyone who has the audacity to seek to enforce their rights a “patent troll.” Unfortunately, the term “patent troll” has evolved to mean “anyone who sues me alleging patent infringement.” This has lead the media, the public and Members of Congress to incorrectly believe that there is a “patent troll problem,” which has influenced decision-makers all the way from Capitol Hill to the United States Supreme Court, who increasingly seems to be deciding patent cases with one eye firmly on what is a completely non-existent problem.
You have probably heard the narrative start something like this: there is an explosion of patent litigation. The objective reality, however, is that there has not been an explosion of patent litigation. The Government Accountability Office, after an exhaustive review of patent litigation, concluded that there was no patent litigation crisis. The same GAO report also found that 80% of the patent lawsuits filed are brought by operating companies suing other operating companies. Thus, those who profess there to be rampant problems associated with patent trolls and non-practicing entities suing for patent infringement are simply telling a tale that the factual data doesn’t support.
More recently Lex Machina has come forward with some eye opening statistics as well. A recent report from Lex Machina concludes: “Plaintiffs filed 329 new federal patent cases in September 2014, a 40% decrease from the 549 cases filed in September 2013.” Indeed, if you dive deeper into the 2013 and 2014 statistics you see that through the first nine months of 2013 there were 4,548 patent infringement lawsuits filed, but during the first nine months of 2014 there were only 3,887 patent infringement lawsuits filed, which represents a 15% reduction in patent litigation in 2014 compared with 2013. Furthermore, in 7 of the 9 months during 2014 there have been fewer patent infringement lawsuits filed during 2014 than during 2013. The statistics and independent GAO report just do not support a narrative that proclaims there to be a run away problem with patent litigation run amok.
Phil Shaer (right) with law school friend Mervyn Valadares, who was also in attendance at AIPF annual meeting in Washington, DC.
Conversant IP is a patent owner that licenses their portfolio to others. They were the first such licensing company to take on the issue of ethical patent licensing. In fact, in November 2013, Conversant IP issued a groundbreaking set of guidelines for ethical patent licensing practices, in an attempt to initiate a discussion within the industry and to distinguish the many licensing entities that are not abusers of the patent or litigation systems. Then in July 2014, the company became the first licensing entities to launch a public awareness campaign.
“Sending ill-founded patent demand letters may be legal, but it’s just plain wrong,” said John Lindgren, President and CEO of Conversant said in July 2014. “This practice is hurting small business owners financially. It’s giving legitimate patent licensing a bad name. And it’s seriously undermining the public’s belief in the U.S. patent system and the value of patents as stimulants to innovation and economic growth.”
What brings this issue back to the pages of IPWatchdog is a recent presentation by Phil Shaer, Senior Vice-President and Chief Licensing Officer of Conversant IP, which occurred on Monday, September 29, 2014. Shaer was a featured speaker at the annual meeting of the Association of Intellectual Property Firms (AIPF), which was held at the Washington Plaza Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C. During his presentation he explained that Conversant IP is wading into the patent troll debate because it is necessary for them, and other licensing companies, to “stand up to the bad practices that are damaging the industry.”
Not a week passes without commentators extolling the need to remedy a “broken” patent system — a system where patent trolls (also referred to an “non practicing entities” or “NPEs”) that don’t manufacture anything can garner extensive licensing fees from companies, both big and small, which do. And as the debates surrounding NPEs rage on, so too do the calls for patent reform. But if the reform to date has had the unintended effect of creating more opportunity for NPEs, while making it substantially more difficult for innovators without millions of dollars in the bank to protect their intellectual property, shouldn’t we be wary of the harm future reform may cause?
Already, Congress has passed sweeping patent reform known as the American Invents Act (“AIA”). Implemented over a multi-year period, the AIA contains several provisions designed to disrupt NPE advantages and to make it easier for defendants in patent litigation to gain the upper hand. Whereas, for instance, NPEs could previously sue as many defendants as they liked, in one case and with one filing fee, the AIA changed that, requiring the filing of multiple cases and as many filing fees. But much more significantly, the AIA created a slew of game changing, “post grant” proceedings, run very much like mini-trials, which defendants facing NPE district court litigation can file in the patent office and yield to their significant advantage.
Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak with Jane Muir, who now serves as President of the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM). At the time of our conversation there had been a number of so-called “news reports” that were characterizing universities as trolls. That, of course, is utter nonsense. The role of the university is to push technologies into the marketplace and work with those who license university innovation, which is the antithesis of what a patent troll does. Still, some in the popular press who obviously have their own agenda see it otherwise, which is both curious and sad.
In this segment of the interview we talk about concerns over patent trolls and Muir explains exactly how and why universities are NOT patent trolls. To begin reading from the beginning please see Exclusive Interview with AUTM President Jane Muir.
QUINN: There’s this belief that innovation just happens. And that if you do come up with a great invention it’s 1, 2, 3 and you’re done and there’s going to be checks starting to arrive. And you’re going to be laying on a beach somewhere living a life of luxury. And that’s just not true. It’s not true for the individual, it’s not true for the startup, and it’s not true for the university.
MUIR: That’s absolutely correct. When you talk to an entrepreneur as an investor and the entrepreneur shows their plan with how long it’s going to take or how much money it’s going to require, you always take that and multiply by two or three, right?
QUINN: Exactly, because things are going to go wrong. Estimates are going to be wrong. I remember the first business I ever started. And this is, you know, many, many, many years ago. It was a shock to me that the electricity cost more when it was being sold to a business. Just silly things like that, you know, that if you’ve never started a business you don’t really understand that on every level, no matter how insignificant, it seems there’s a hurdle.
“The Commission shares this Subcommittee’s goal of stopping deceptive patent demand letters while respecting the rights of patent holders to assert legitimate claims, and recognizes that achieving this goal is not easy,” the testimony states.
Earlier today the Federal Trade Commission issued a second Federal Register Notice containing the revised information requests for its study on patent assertion entities (PAEs). The Commission vote approving the second Federal Register Notice was 5-0. The Notice is styled as a submission to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) because under federal law federal agencies must obtain approval from OMB for each collection of information they conduct or sponsor.
The second Notice also calls for additional public comments. As explained more fully in the Notice, the FTC proposes to collect information about Patent Assertion Entity (“PAE”) organization, structure, economic relationships, and activity, including acquisition, assertion, litigation, and licensing practices.
The study is designed to develop a better understanding of how PAEs may impact innovation and competition. PAEs are firms with a business model based primarily on buying patents and then attempting to generate revenue by asserting them against businesses that are already practicing the patented technologies. The FTC says it is conducting the study in order to further one of the agency’s key missions, which is to examine cutting-edge competition and consumer protection topics that may have a significant effect on the U.S. economy.
Trolls of lore were ugly creatures who lived under bridges. They charged travelers to safely cross the raging waters and threatened harm to those who refused to pay. Trolls and their kindred spirits have haunted the nightmares of our children for generations.
But Peter Detkin, a co-founder of Intellectual Ventures, repurposed the term to represent the activities of non-practicing entities (NPEs) or patent assertion entities (PAEs). Perhaps our collective subconscious childhood fears of the trolls of old make it too easy for the media, our elected leaders and even some savvy CEOs to vilify modern trolls for everything they represent. I bet Mr. Detkin now wishes he used a more attractive term to describe the activities of his company.
What defines a troll? Most would agree that a company that does not make products, but buys up patents to assert against others, would be in the category. However, there seem to be as many permutations to this basic formulation as there are companies. What about large manufacturing companies with divisions that purchase patent portfolios for the purpose of assertion? What about companies that spin-off their unused patent portfolio to wholly or partially owned subsidiaries that assert those patents? What about companies that buy up portfolios for defensive purposes, compelling membership by companies that join for protection? What about universities? They don’t make products. Most would say that universities don’t fit into the category of trolls, because they license to companies that make the products covered by their patents. But what if the university sells its patents to a patent assertion entity with an agreement to share in the profits?