Michelle Lee, Dec. 10, 2014, at Senate confirmation hearing.
It has been brought to my attention that I inaccurately characterized USPTO Deputy Director Michelle Lee’s position on patent reform. I write today to correct the record.
At her confirmation hearing on December 10, 2014, I wrotethat Lee’s position on patent reform seemed to shift throughout the hearing, pointing to what seemed to be contradictory answers to the questions of different Senators. In truth, I missed the full answer to the second question Lee received, focused on the first part of her answer, and unintentionally winded up quoting her out of context.
Near the beginning of the hearing Lee explained to Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) “there can and should be further legislation” to address patent trolls.
Later on during the hearing, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) explained that he was very skeptical about additional patent reform, reading a letter sent to him that morning from the Innovation Alliance, BIO, PhRMA, MDMA and 6 university associations, and explaining that he is continually told by constituents that Congress should go slow and proceed with extreme caution on patent reform. Durbin then, reading from the letter, said: “Taken together, these judicial and administrative developments, and the plunge in the patent litigation rate, have fundamentally changed the landscape under which patent legislation should be considered.” Durbin then turned to Lee and asked: “Do you agree?”
Earlier today at a confirmation hearing held by the Senate Judiciary Committee Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) stated that the nominees for USPTO Director (Michelle Lee) and Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator (Daniel Marti) would not be confirmed during this Congress. Grassley also explained that with new members of the Committee it would only be fair to give those new members an opportunity to ask questions of the nominees. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) inquired whether Grassley would allow the nominations to move early in January, to which Grassley responded that he thought that was a reasonable request.
As Senator Grassley moved into his questions he asked both Daniel Marti and Michelle Lee whether patent trolls are a problem and whether they would work with the Senate, if confirmed, on new legislation to address any problems. Lee said that she does think there is a continuing problem with abusive patent litigation, further saying “there can and should be further legislation” to address patent trolls. Shortly after this answer was given, Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) during her question and answer period pointed out that “one person’s patent troll is another person trying to protect his or her patent.”
The issue of patent reform and patent trolls would go on to dominate the confirmation hearing. At one point during his questioning of Lee, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) explained that patent reform has been a real eye opener for him. While working on the America Invents Act (AIA) he explained that he in good faith tried to take the considerations of his constituents into consideration, offering amendments to address their concerns. Then after he voted for the bill he was inundated with calls and e-mails about why he voted for that “bad bill.” Durbin explained that he has since become determined to be far more proactive because this is such an important issue. He has been holding meetings and talking to constituents and everyone is telling him that it is premature to engage in additional patent reform and the Congress should slow down.
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.
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.
Recently I interviewed Ray Niro. Our wide ranging discussion touched on all things patent, we first discussed the announcement that Niro, Haller & Niro is now doing patent infringement defense on a flat fee basis. We wrap up our discussion of this new defense business model for the patent litigation industry below. We then transition into a discussion about fee shifting in patent litigation, first discussing the recently failed patent reform and then moving into a discussion of the Supreme Court fee shifting cases from the October 2013 term.
QUINN: How many lawyers do you have at your firm currently?
NIRO: 28. Between 28 and 31 most of the time. We are in the process of adding a few, so we’re I think 28 now; we’ll probably be 31 in the fall.
QUINN: Okay. And the reason that I ask that is because I suspect that as this word gets out that you’re doing this that you’re probably going to see a lot of interest. And how do you envision things developing? Are you going to be able to grow? Are you going to try and choose cases, which cases you can get involved with? What’s the mechanical process?
Congress is moving forward with at least some patent reform efforts this year, taking up the Targeting Rogue and Opaque Letters Act of 2014, which is scheduled to be marked up in the House Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade Subcommittee on July 10, 2014. This Subcommittee is a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. This draft of the bill is as it existed earlier this week.
This draft legislation — creatively dubbed the TROL Act — addresses the sending of abusive and bad faith patent demand letters by clarifying that such activity may violate the Federal Trade Commission Act and authorizing that agency and state attorneys general to bring actions to stop the abusive behavior, among other things.
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.
Critics of the patent system, and specifically the critics of software patents, would have the United States forfeit the future in favor of something that has never worked. Curtailing patent rights has never worked to produce more innovation anywhere it has been tried. So why would we try such an experiment in the United States when it hasn’t ever worked anywhere ever? Unfortunately, it seems that many of our leaders in Washington, DC, are listening to those who have fanned the flames and worked exceptionally hard to create an unhealthy anti-patent climate.
Newsflash — innovators are not evil. The fact that this even needs to be said shows just how far we have come and how pervasive the anti-patent climate has become. Rather than celebrate innovation day after day like the drone of a metronome we hear how patents are evil and how they stifle innovation. But if you actually look through the rhetoric you notice that those claims are made with zero supporting evidence, but that is because all of the available objective evidence directly contradicts the growing orthodoxy.
Once upon a time the United States celebrated innovators, and gave them a meaningful opportunity to reap the deserved reward from their hard work and ingenuity. Today, we vilify innovators as evil all because there are a handful of bad actors that engage in abusive patent litigation tactics. Of course, these tactics have nothing to do with patents substantively and everything to do with the fact that these bad actors are allowed to manipulate the judicial process and exploit inefficiencies in the litigation system that are wholly unrelated to the substance of a patent.
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 purpose of the U.S. patent system has been to promote innovation. The various “Patent Reform” bills will in fact retard innovation and cost America jobs. They are contrary to the Founding Fathers’ intent in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution, contrary to the policies of over 220 years of patent law, contrary to the advice of the Office of Advocacy of the Small Business Administration,[i] and contrary to prior statements of President Obama.[ii] We urge every small business inventor to contact their Senators and urge them to strongly oppose S.1013 (Cornyn), S. 866 (Schumer), and S.1612 (Hatch). Although the current version of S.1720 (Leahy) is not as horrific as the other bills, it is problematic and should also be opposed as it does not fix the Troll problem, but does harm independent and small business inventors. If your Senator is not on the Judiciary committee, please ask him or her to contact their colleagues on Judiciary to let them know they are uncomfortable with the above proposed bills. We also encourage you to contact your Congressmen and ask them to oppose HR 3309 should it ever come back to the House. Finally, we suggest you contact the White House and let them know that the Patent Troll bills don’t fix the patent troll problem, but do harm the innovation ecosystem in America, and will be bad for your business.