FTC Commissioner Looks Back, and Ahead, on Patent Litigation Reform Efforts

FTC_Man_Controlling_TradeCommissioner Julie Brill of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) offered some interesting year-end thoughts on abusive litigation by patent-assertion entities (“PAE”, or to some, “patent trolls”) in a speech last week. Most notable in Commissioner Brill’s comments was her call for legislative change even as FTC and the federal courts are addressing some of the legal and economic incentives for abusive patent litigation.

Brill discussed the Commission’s ongoing study of patent-assertion entities (the so-called 6(b) study), for which a final report is anticipated by the end of 2015. She emphasized that one of the issues FTC is assessing is the practice of “privateering,” where an operating company sells or licenses a patent to an assertion entity, which in turn enforces the patent against the operating entity’s market rivals. A May 2014 Washington Legal Foundation Web Seminar, Patent Assertion and “Privateering”: When Do Antitrust Law Concerns Arise When the Patent Is the Product?, focused on this practice.

The speech also referenced the Commission’s first enforcement action against a patent-assertion entity, which resulted in a November 13 consent decree. The action involved notorious “scanner troll” MPHJ, which sent thousands of licensing demand letters that threatened litigation unless the target business paid MPHJ upwards of $1,000 per employee. FTC charged that MPHJ had fraudulently asserted that it had entered into licenses with some of its targets, and falsely claimed that litigation was imminent.

thumbnailTrollCommissioner Brill went on to stress the impact several 2014 Supreme Court decisions had on the larger patent-assertion problem. She focused on the indefinite nature of many PAE-held patents, an issue that the Court addressed in Nautilus Inc. v. Biosig Instruments, Inc.; the tendency of PAEs to “pass off old abstract ideas as inventions merely by implementing them using a computer,” which arose in Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l; and the difficulty patent defendants had in seeking attorneys’ fees when they prevailed in court against PAEs, which the justices addressed in Octane Fitness, LLC v. Icon Health & Fitness, Inc. and Highmark v. Allcare Health Mngt. Systems, Inc.

She then stated that “despite these recent cases, there are still important issues for Congress to address.” We were pleased to see that among the areas Commissioner Brill highlighted as meriting continued congressional attention was that patent “complaints [must] provide specific allegations of what infringes a patent’s claim and how the defendant infringes them.” The current pleading standard, governed by the antiquated form (Form 18) Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 84 dictates for patent suits, encourages frivolous litigation, as we’ve argued previously.

It is unclear what lies ahead for patent litigation reform in the 114th Congress. But one can trust that with so much at stake, Senators and Representatives will heed Commissioner Brill’s admonition that Congress not “wait for completion of our 6(b) study” to move the debate forward.

Also published by Forbes.com on WLF’s contributor page

WLF Briefing: Private Ordering Solutions Advance Patent Non-Aggression

This November 10, 2014 WLF Media Briefing, Toward Patent Non-Aggression: Market-Based Approaches to Deterring Legal Risks and Neutralizing Litigation, featured presentations by three innovators whose ideas are minimizing operating companies’ exposure to abusive patent lawsuits:

  • Keith Bergelt, CEO of the Open Invention Network;
  • Kevin Jakel, CEO of Unified Patents, Inc.; and
  • Tim Kowalski, Senior Patent Counsel to Google Inc. and Director, License on Transfer Network

Our speakers make reference to PowerPoint slides, which can be downloaded here.

If you would prefer to watch the presentation in higher resolution video where you can view the slides synched with the presentations, WLF has posted it in its online archive of on-demand videos here.

Antitrust and Health Care: FTC’s Off-Again, On-Again Challenge to Georgia Hospital Merger

amurinoFeatured Expert Column – Antitrust/Federal Trade Commission

Andrea Agathoklis Murino, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati

Consolidation in the health care industry, and the Federal Trade Commission’s (“FTC” or “Commission”) perspective on such activity, are being closely watched in antitrust law and policy circles. In April 2011, the FTC challenged the acquisition of Palmyra Park Hospital by Phoebe Putney Health System Inc. (“Phoebe”) in Albany, Georgia. The Commission argued that the combination would result in unduly high market shares (>85%) in the provision of acute care services in a six-county region and result in anticompetitive price increases. Shortly thereafter, the FTC sought and obtained a preliminary injunction (“PI”) from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia halting the transaction pending trial. Typical enough. But here’s where our story starts to take some strange twists. What began that April in a federal district court is an adventure leading from the Supreme Court to local Georgia healthcare regulatory bodies…and possibly, back again. Here’s what happened.

Phoebe responded to the PI not by throwing itself into a trial on the merits, but rather by filing a motion to dismiss on the grounds that by virtue of the state action doctrine, Phoebe’s conduct was permissible. Generally, the state action doctrine provides that where (1) there is a clearly articulated state policy to displace competition and (2) there is active supervision by the state of the policy or activity, otherwise anticompetitive activity will be permitted. Here, Phoebe argued that because it was owned by the Hospital Authority of Albany-Dougherty County, and operated under Georgia’s Hospital Authorities Law, it was immune. Phoebe prevailed on its motion to dismiss in the district court and then again at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Phoebe then completed its purchase of Palmyra, closing the transaction. Continue reading

Education and Information Sharing: Underutilized Tools in FTC’s Data Security Work

150px-US-FederalTradeCommission-Seal.svgThe Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has brought 52 enforcement actions involving data breaches. Fifty of those businesses, whose computer systems were illegally accessed by hackers, settled rather than fight FTC’s accusations that they acted “deceptively” or “unfairly” under § 5 of the FTC Act. And yet, the data breaches just keep on coming, with unlawful intrusions on Home Depot’s payment-card processing system and the federal HealthCare.gov website occurring just this past week. It’s high time the Commission utilized tools at its disposal aside from the enforcement hammer to address data security.

WLF is not the only organization advancing this notion. On March 25, 2014, Consumer Action, Consumer Federation of America, National Consumer League, and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse wrote FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez, asking the Commission to “convene a public forum, bringing stakeholders together to discuss strategies for combating the growing threat of data breaches.”

FTC Commissioners routinely note in public statements that in addition to enforcement and advocacy, the Commission protects consumers and competition through education and information sharing. Public forums, workshops, and other events of the type the consumer groups sought in their letter have long been an integral part of FTC’s “educate and inform” function. Such events educate not only the public, but also the Commission and its staff. Continue reading

Court Upholds FTC Rule for Pharma Patent License Transfers

amurinoFeatured Expert Column – Antitrust/Federal Trade Commission

Andrea Agathoklis Murino,Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati

Last November, I wrote about a new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rule which, in a change to long-standing policy, made the transfer of a license providing an exclusive licensee with “all commercially significant rights” over a patent within a therapeutic area reportable under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act. In practice, this meant that licensing agreements which previously required only the signatures of the two parties, now required a waiting period and an FTC blessing.

Shortly before the rule was to become operative, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), an industry group representing biopharmaceutical researchers and biotechnology companies sued to block it. The group argued that the FTC had not observed the appropriate procedures under the Administrative Procedures Act and that the FTC lacked authority to issue an industry-specific rule rather than a rule of general application, among other claims.

In a lengthy opinion on May 30, 2014, Judge Beryl A. Howell of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, sided with the FTC and tossed PhRMA’s claims, finding that the FTC had followed the correct processes, had a reasoned basis for creating and instituting this rule, and should be shown deference. This bottom line is this puts us right back to where the FTC hoped it would be back in November: the transfer of “all commercially significant rights” over a patent is a HSR-reportable event.

That’s the headline but there are at least two questions that result from the opinion worth pausing to consider. First, this rule continues to only apply to the pharmaceutical industry. There are virtually no other industries with HSR-specific rules applicable only to them. Does this mean the FTC plans to extend HSR-specific rules to other industries? Or is the pharma industry so important in its own right that proper antitrust enforcement demands a different set of rules? Only time will tell. More importantly, perhaps, the FTC has not defined the phrase “all commercially significant rights.” What are the contours of this definition? What’s included or excluded? How, if at all, will the FTC provide guidance to the pharma community? PhRMA has up to 60 days to appeal so this may not be the last word. Stay tuned.

Trolls and Trial Lawyers Should Curb Their Enthusiasm Over Patent Reform Timeout

patentLast week was quite a successful one in Washington for the plaintiffs’ bar. First, as WLF’s Rich Samp detailed in a May 22 Legal Pulse post, the Solicitor General of the U.S. opposed federal preemption of state failure-to-warn suits against medical device companies. Then, the following day, the Senate Judiciary Committee shelved legislation meant to curb abusive litigation and related activities by “patent-assertion entities” (PAEs), a.k.a. patent trolls.

But attorneys who represent PAEs, and the private businesses that may benefit from PAE activity, should temper their enthusiasm. The concept of “patent reform” will persist during Congress’s timeout. Various Executive Branch entities are working to shine a light on patent troll misbehavior, and the federal judiciary is gradually becoming less tolerant of patent litigation abuse. Consider the following examples of such non-legislative activity.

Federal Agencies. While the White House made the biggest splash on patent litigation last June with a Task Force on High-Tech Patent Issues report, far more impactful work regarding PAEs is being done at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). For the past year, FTC has been conducting a formal “6(b)” study of PAEs. In a May 19 Federal Register notice, the Commission noted that it would be sending information requests to 25 PAEs as well as 15 wireless communication industry manufacturers and patent holding companies. Continue reading

Federal Regulators Shove First Amendment Down Slippery Slope with School Ad Ban Proposal

high-school-cafeteria-coloradoThink of the children!

That phrase is a “tried-and-true debate stopper,” ethicist Jack Marshall writes, “because of its ability to inhibit rational thought.” It’s no wonder, then, that professional activists and government regulators often cloak actions which might otherwise be highly questionable (and unconstitutional) in the appealing mantle of safeguarding America’s youth.

For instance, government routinely invokes protection of children as a justification for restricting commercial speech. Three years ago, a triumvirate of federal agencies tried to limit kids’ exposure to food and beverage ads through an informal guidance document. Thankfully, that effort fell flat. But Washington’s appetite for limiting “disfavored” speech—in the interest of those ubiquitous children—is never sated, as a recently proposed U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulation reminds us.

The February 26 proposal dictates how local education agencies (i.e. school boards) are to devise “local school wellness policies.” The USDA Secretary, joined by First Lady Michelle Obama, announced the rule at a White House event and proudly touted the proposal’s unprecedented prohibition of advertising for selected foods and beverages on school property. That part of the proposal violates the First Amendment, a conclusion which WLF shared with USDA last week in its formal comments to the agency. Continue reading