The March 17, 2014 issue of Fortune magazine contained an unusual article, RPX: Taking on the Trolls. This biased PR piece with few actual facts was written by Mr. Roger Parloff, Senior Editor for Legal Affairs who fell hook, line, and sinker for the spin that RPX is putting out, aided by large corporations and those in academia who wish to weaken if not eliminate the U.S. patent system. He is not to be completely blamed for being duped by the same stories that large corporations have been promoting to politicians, reporters, and the public about the terrible “patent trolls” as these corporations attempt to dominate markets, put individual inventors and small companies out of business, and sue each other into oblivion while crying into their bank accounts.
First, what is a “patent troll”? No one really knows, and the anti-patent people do not want it defined too precisely because if it were defined, it would include not only the companies that send demand letters for $1,000 to mom-and-pop coffee shops and hardware stores for using “patented” fax machines and copiers, but it would also include all major U.S. universities (that manufacture no products), most individual inventors (who have not yet gotten their inventions funded), most startup companies (that have not yet gone to market), and most bankrupt companies (that are trying to find value for their shareholders). In fact, it also includes companies that create a great invention but have trouble competing for shelf space at Walmart or Target against larger, infringing competitors. These companies do produce products, but when they sue their huge competitors, the press is encouraged to call them trolls.
The necessary legislative effort to curb bad actors in the patent industry has been “hijacked” by a small handful of very powerful global technology companies intent on forcing broader changes in the patent system to make it better serve their business interests.
Under the banner of “patent reform,” these giant firms have spent tens of millions of dollars on lobbyists and media relations to promulgate a series of dramatic but false claims about America’s supposedly-“broken” patent system — claims that are now almost universally accepted as true by the media, Congress, and the public at large.
In Part 1 of this series, we examined the false claim that an “explosion of patent litigation greater than any in history” is imposing an unwarranted burden on industry and diverting resources better spent on innovation. In fact, today’s patent litigation rate is less than half what it was during the golden age of American innovation in the 19th century Industrial Revolution — a revolution which thrust the U.S. into the top ranks of industrial nations.
Congress is on the cusp of passing legislation that is said to be designed to control the so-called “patent troll.” Of course, as belatedly recognized by the person who came up with the moniker “troll” in 1993, Peter Detkin (former Assistant General Counsel at Intel at the time), the word “troll” is often in the eye of the beholder. Indeed nearly every litigator will tell you that term “troll” is commonly used against any opponent in a patent litigation suit, much as Arthur R. Miller asserted that “a frivolous lawsuit is any case brought against your client, and litigation abuse is anything the opposing lawyer is doing.” Miller, Simplified Pleading, Meaningful Days in Court and Trial on the Merits: Reflections on the Deformation of Federal Practice, 88 NYU Law Rev. 286, 302 (2013).
Overstock.com, Inc. (NASDAQ: OSTK) recently announced that plaintiffs in two patent infringement lawsuits dismissed their cases against the company without any settlement or any money paid.
“They just walked away,” said Patrick M. Byrne, Overstock.com chairman and CEO. “Patent trolls find us unappetizing. While we have the highest respect for intellectual property rights, we don’t settle abusive patent suits—we fight.” Byrne added, “You can’t fork over your lunch money today, and expect a bully to leave you alone tomorrow. Patent trolls understand a bloody nose and in the long run, it’s the asymmetrical response that pays off. It is only right that we take this opportunity to make explicit this litigation strategy. As Dr. Strangelove says, ‘What’s the point of having a Doomsday Device if you don’t tell anyone about it?'”
Regardless of the number of patent reform bills, IP industry conferences, and risk management business models, the number of patent infringement lawsuits remains exceptionally high. Resolving disputes through the inefficiencies of litigation represents an enormous waste of resources and lost opportunities. And this issue runs beyond the usual suspects—a GAO August 2013 report found that 80 percent of patent litigation is brought by manufacturing companies. Thus, IP games are being played on all sides, resulting in demon dialogues, negative patterns and quick escalations to legal actions. In order to foster productive discussions, both sides need to stop playing games and start being transparent and candid about their intent at each stage of an IP licensing discussion. This is a foundation for building trust, developing cooperative behaviors, and allowing business creativity that is critically needed in our knowledge based economy.
The dialogue begins with a demand letter from a patent rights holder, which can take the form of a soft invitation to enter into mutually beneficial licensing discussions or detailed allegations of patent infringement. Often times, the intent behind this letter is to seek a payment to compensate the patent rights holder for the commercial exploitation of its patented technologies by the receiving side of the letter, not to stop the exploitation. There is nothing condemnable in this intent– trading IP rights offers a way to support the broad dissemination of technological advancements, which in turn create rewards for investments in innovation and job creation. These IP trades are so common that seasoned IP executive speak regularly about “IP monetization” or “IP value creation” in trade associations (e.g., the Licensing Executives Society) and conferences (e.g., the IP Business Congress).
While there are no guarantees in life, there may be some things that you can do in order to proactively protect yourself against the threat of a patent lawsuit.
There is no better way to prepare yourself for what may be lurking behind the next corner than knowing your business and the market in which you operated. Knowledge of the patent activity in your market is a critical first step to developing a proactive plan that will insulate you to the greatest extent possible. Of course, the first thing you need to do is to monitor the patent filings in your technology markets.
By keeping an eye on the publication of patent application in your sector you can spot potentially problematic patent application in advance of them ever issuing. While it may not be appropriate in every situation, if a patent application seems to be particularly dangerous you can elect to submit prior art to the examiner so that it can be taken into considering. This is called a third-party pre-issuance submission, which can be made in any non-provisional utility, design, and plant application, as well as in any continuing application. A third-party preissuance submission includes a concise description of the asserted relevance of each document submitted. There are strict time limits within which to file though. A third-party submission can be filed prior to the earlier of: (1) The date a notice of allowance; OR (2) The later of: (i) 6 months after the date on which the application is first published by the USPTO, or (ii) The date of the first rejection of any claim by the examiner. Thus, keeping a vigilant watch on patent filings is critical for those who may want the option to at least consider third-party pre-issuance submissions as an option.
Last week the Obama Administration announced a series of new Executive Actions and updated the industry on progress relating to previous Executive Actions relative to the patent system. See White House Announces Patent Related Executive Action. One of the line items in this announcement related to the creation of a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section on USPTO.gov. Essentially, the White House announced the launch of what they refer to as an “online toolkit” aimed at answering common questions and providing information about patent lawsuits. The aim of this section of USPTO.gov is apparently to help consumers understand the risks and benefits of litigation or settlement so they can pick their best course of action.
Several things jump out at you when you visit this section of USPTO.gov, which is labeled as a BETA. First, although the section of the website falls under “litigation” and is found at uspto.gov/patents/litigation, all of the information is aimed at accused infringers, giving them advice about what they can and should do. Nowhere do I see any information or links to helpful resources that would be useful for the many hundreds of thousands of patent owners who routinely have their rights infringed, sometimes willfully. No, this “help section” is purely intended to provide help to those accused of infringement as if they are all victims.
It is almost incomprehensible that the Patent Office would put together a litigation resource that ignores the reality that many companies, both large and small, trample on the rights of innovators who have spent large amounts of time, money and energy to receive a patent and disclosing their innovation to the world. Indeed, the inconvenient truth is that many innovators simply do not have the resources to enforce their legitimately obtained and examined patents. Many of those innovators make up the backbone of the U.S. economy and in large part embody the American Dream. Yet, the Patent Office only offers a one-sided help section that gives advice to infringers and sets a tone that comes across as anti-patent and anti-patent owner. This strikes me as fundamentally misguided and clearly demonstrates the anti-patent bias of the Obama Administration.
Anti-patent groups who seek to diminish patent rights have turned the public’s imagination against licensing entities. Sometimes called NPEs or PAEs, sometimes called an epithet that need not be repeated here, such licensing entities do not practice the patent rights that they seek to license out. For now, let’s call them monetizing companies. I have previously written about the economic utility that monetizing companies bring to the patent system, and to the overall economy. As a general matter, they ensure that patents achieve their uses to promote technology transfer, promote commercialization of marketable ideas, and enable securitization of intangible assets to facilitate startup financing.
The anti-patent forces have convinced many members of the public – and their representatives in Congress – that such patent monetizing companies “abuse” the court system. But what do the data say?
If monetizing companies as a class “abuse” litigation more often than plaintiff operating companies, we would expect to see data that show that they bring less meritorious patent cases. Some have sounded the alarm that such data already exists. They cite to the annual PricewaterhouseCoopers report on patent litigation. But is this a reliable source for this conclusion?
The chart to the left, which is Chart 5b from page 12 of the latest PwC report released in 2013, appears to show comparative “success rates.” The chart appears to answer the question negatively for monetizing companies. As depicted in the chart, operating companies seem always to have had a higher “success rate” in court compared to monetizing companies, most recently 38% compared with 26%. That is, in fact, how alarmists (including those at the highest levels of government who advise the present Administration) have used these statistics. Examples are everywhere. Here are four notable ones:
Regardless of intent, the number of patent infringement lawsuits is increasing rapidly. Also rising at an alarming rate are the number of infringement assertions, which can often take the form of a threatening letter that goes over the top and even crosses the line into open misrepresentation. In fact, the New York State Attorney General recently entered into groundbreaking enforcement settlement with MPHJ Technology Investments, LLC, who had incorporated misleading statements into demand letters in an attempt to scare small businesses into paying patent licensing fees, even though they didn’t design or sell products. See NY Attorney General Settles Investigation into Patent Troll.
In order to address some of the perceived issues with patent trolls, the patent reform bills in front of Congress include suggestions such as: requiring asserting companies to identify the real owner of the patent, allow more discretion in awarding legal fees to the prevailing party, limiting assertions against end-users of a technology, and allowing more challenges to broad patent claims. Some proposals from industry observers have gone as far as to suggest that software patents should not be allowed, as a large number of the filed cases involve disputes over software functions. New Zealand’s Parliament, for this and other reasons, recently voted almost unanimously to abolish software patents. The Supreme Court is poised this term to rule about the extent to which software and other computer implemented inventions are patent eligible in the United States. It seems unlikely that the Supreme Court will abolish software patents in the United States, which means defendants and those accused of infringement will need to continue to utilize various strategies to protect and insulate themselves.
There is no more alarming moment for an accused infringer than the moment the demand letter arrives. While large entities are sued frequently and it is part of doing business in America, a small business receiving a demand letter that alleges patent infringement may be the first time it has faced this reality. An understandable initial reaction is to get in touch with the party sending the demand letter and just explain that you are not infringing. However, if you have been sued by a company legitimately characterized as a patent troll, a lack of infringement may be of no consequence, as the patent troll may continue to require a choice between a license and a more-costly lawsuit defense.
It’s no secret that the regulatory environment is challenging for companies that license patents – in our case, patents that are deemed essential to wireless standards and that our company, InterDigital, has developed in-house over the course of multiple decades, and continues to develop today. Some of the companies that dominate the wireless market today had little or nothing to do with the development of the standards that have contributed so much to their success, so they make every effort to devalue standards participation. And many in Washington lend them a willing ear, and take up arms to wage their battle for them.
One of the greatest frustrations for me is that so much of this rests on a bedrock of total miscomprehension of how standards are developed, the enormous cost and risk of investing in standards development, the value that standards provide, and the kind of licensing practices that have made the market successful, benefitting everybody. Late last year in New York, I met with a reporter for one of the primary tech websites in the world, and he dismissed standards development. It became apparent he didn’t understand how the process worked at all. When we asked him how he thought these things got developed, he said that he “figured there must be an engineering organization somewhere that did it.” And this is from the legal correspondent of a major tech website, someone whose articles influence debate!
He didn’t realize that it was private sector companies – companies like ours – that committed significant engineering time and resources, and competed to develop the best solutions, and in so doing committed to licensing them fairly. So – for his benefit, should he read this, and for the benefit of anyone involved in the debate – I’ll describe our company’s story, and draw some conclusions about what should and shouldn’t be done to protect, foster and incent innovation that benefits everybody.