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

Concurrence in Federal Circuit’s “Ultramercial” Ruling Sends Pointed Message to Patent Litigants

Kaminski_Jeffri_LRFeatured Expert Contributor – Intellectual Property (Patents)

Jeffri A. Kaminski, Venable LLP

The recent Federal Circuit decision in Ultramercial v. Wild Tangent continues the trend of courts invalidating software and business method patents made vulnerable by the Supreme Court’s decision in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank International. The Ultramercial decision also continues the wave of “patent reform” in the courts, at the Patent Office, and in Congress. Software and business method patent owners and applicants should be concerned by these recent developments, and alleged infringers should be encouraged. The concurring opinion by Judge Mayer describes how an early determination of patent eligibility during litigation may help stem “[t]he scourge of meritless infringement claims [that] has continued unabated for decades.”

The Federal Circuit invalidated Ultramercial’s patent as being directed to an abstract idea, which is not patentable subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101. The asserted patent, U.S. Patent No. 7,346,545 (“the ’545 Patent”), is optimistically titled, “Method and system for payment of intellectual property royalties by interposed sponsor on behalf of consumer over a telecommunications network.” The main patent claim includes eleven specific steps for displaying an advertisement in exchange for access to copyrighted media. However, the appellate court determined that the patent “describes only the abstract idea of showing an advertisement before delivering free content” and is therefore invalid.

In spite of the eleven steps enumerated in the method claim, the court held that merely adding additional routine steps to an abstract idea “does not transform an otherwise abstract idea into patent-eligible subject matter.” Furthermore, although the claims of the ’545 Patent were tied to a general purpose computer, “adding a computer to otherwise conventional steps does not make an invention patent-eligible” either. Continue reading

Copyright and Patent Holders Advance Separate Market-Based, Self-Help Initiatives

copyrightIntellectual property (IP) rights and innovation are inextricably intertwined. It’s not surprising, then, that in the spirit of innovation, some IP owners have taken proactive steps to advance and defend their own property rights. They understand that reliance on current or future government action is no panacea. In separate developments this past week, some of the world’s most successful copyright holders adopted a creative approach to bolster those rights, while leaders of three different patent “self-help” entities explained their unique strategies at a Washington Legal Foundation (WLF) briefing.

Copyrights and WhereToWatch. Pirated online file peddlers and their apologists routinely argue that they are meeting consumers’ unfulfilled demand for affordable access to digital music, movies, and TV shows. As we noted in a WLF Legal Pulse post last month, however, “Huge music libraries can be accessed for free or low cost at outlets such as Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Music, and iTunes. Online options for TV and movie content continue to multiply. Copyright-infringing consumers can no longer claim that they seek pirated content because it isn’t digitally available for a reasonable price.” A September 23, 2014 report by KPMG provides empirical supports that argument. It found, for instance, that 96% of the top 20 movies for the years 2000 to 2010 were available through legal online distributors. Also, 96% of television’s top 100 shows in 2012 were available. Continue reading

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.

Delaware Federal Court Sanction Rulings Offer Lessons for Patent Plaintiffs and Defendants

Kaminski_Jeffri_LRFeatured Expert Contributor – Intellectual Property (Patents)

Jeffri A. Kaminski, Venable LLP, with Briana Rizzo,* Venable LLP

*Editor’s Note: With this post we welcome the participation in The WLF Legal Pulse of Featured Expert Contributor on patent litigation and policy issues, Jeffri Kaminski.

The Delaware District Court, historically known as a venue friendly to patent holders, appears ready to fight back against the litigation strategies of Patent Assertion Entities (PAEs), or “patent trolls.” While the court has traditionally disfavored imposing fees and sanctions on unsuccessful Plaintiffs [1], several recent cases signal a major shift in the judicial perspective on what District Court Judge Richard G. Andrews calls “misleading and prejudicial” tactics. [2] Most notably, Parallel Iron LLC v. NetApp Inc. and Summit Data Systems, LLC v. EMC Corporation et al solidify a growing trend in the Delaware Circuit of both judicial discontent with PAE litigation tactics and a willingness to sanction such behavior.

A trend on the rise

The U.S. Supreme Court released its groundbreaking Octane Fitness, LLC v. Icon Health & Fitness, Inc. decision on April 29, 2014, lowering the standard of 35 U.S.C. § 285 “exceptional” behavior and enabling prevailing parties to obtain attorneys’ fees for behavior that merely “stands out from others with respect to the substantive strength of a party’s litigating position […] or the unreasonable manner in which the case was litigated.” While several cases immediately following Octane Fitness retained a traditional refusal to award fees, on September 12, 2014, Judge Andrews released three pro-defendant opinions on the matter, the most significant being Parallel Iron LLC v. NetApp Inc. Continue reading

Federal Circuit Orders Eastern District of Texas Patent Suit Stayed

The WLF Legal Pufederal circuitlse has addressed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit’s patent litigation venue jurisprudence in several posts (here and here). That court issued two rulings this past March (In re Apple Inc. and In re Barnes & Noble, Inc.) that, in our opinion, incorrectly applied factors the Federal Circuit had previously relied upon to order patent suits transferred to more appropriate venues. On October 9, a unanimous three-judge panel added another twist to the Federal Circuit’s venue case law with In re Google Inc.

Background. Last October, non-practicing entity Rockstar Consortium filed a patent infringement suit in the Eastern District of Texas (EDTX) against five companies whose technology utilized Google’s Android operating system. At the end of 2013, Google filed a declaratory judgment action against Rockstar in the Northern District of California (NDCA) that involved the same patents that Rockstar was suing to enforce in Texas. Rockstar countersued Google in the NDCA and concurrently added Google as a defendant in the EDTX action. Rockstar then moved to transfer or dismiss the California action, which the NDCA denied. Google and its five customers petitioned the EDTX to stay Rockstar’s infringement action pending an outcome in the NDCA, or to transfer the case to California. EDTX Judge James Rodney Gilstrap denied the order, and the six companies appealed. Continue reading

No Name Calling in My Court: Judge Bans Use of Term “Patent Troll” in Jury Trial

thumbnailTrollThis recent item from Law360 (subscribers only) caught our eye: “Judge Koh Bars Apple From Calling Rival ‘Patent Troll’ At Trial.”

In addition to being referenced regularly at this blog for her food labeling class action rulings, Judge Lucy Koh of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District California has been presiding over a number of high-profile skirmishes in the “Smartphone Patent Wars.”

The case before her is GPNE Corp. v. Apple, Inc. GPNE alleged in its complaint last June that Apple iPads and iPhones infringe patents GPNE holds on data transmission. GPNE’s business model is arguably similar to that of other entities commonly labeled “patent trolls.” It does not practice its patents; rather, it seeks revenue through licensing and litigation. GPNE views the term as prejudicial and urged Judge Koh to prohibit its use before the jury.

In her June 24 Pretrial Order Re: Motions In Limine, Judge Koh dictated:

Apple may not refer to GPNE as a ‘patent troll,’ ‘pirate,’ ‘bounty hunter,’ ‘privateer,’ ‘bandit,’ ‘paper patent,’ ‘stick up,’ ‘shakedown,’ ‘playing the lawsuit lottery,’ ‘corporate shell game,’ or ‘a corporate shell.’

She did, however, permit Apple to use other terms when referring to GPNE:

Apple may refer to GPNE as a ‘non-practicing entity,’ ‘licensing entity,’ ‘patent assertion entity,’ ‘a company that doesn’t make anything,’ or ‘a company that doesn’t sell anything.’ The Court finds that this conclusion strikes the balance between allowing Apple to argue that GPNE’s status as a non-practicing entity is relevant to the calculation of reasonable royalties and to secondary considerations of non-obviousness without unduly prejudicing GPNE or confusing the jury. See Fed. R. Evid. 403.

Judge Koh’s order reflects how this once “inside baseball” term has become part of the broader patent law and technology policy lexicon. “Patent troll” was coined, ironically, in 1999 by an Intel attorney, Peter Detkin.  Detkin left Intel and eventually co-founded Intellectual Ventures, a non-practicing entity which some have called “a patent troll on steroids.”

For years, only those who were narrowly involved with patent licensing and litigation uttered the term. Lately, however it is being utilized in everyday discussions on patents and technology. While President Obama did not specifically use the term is his February 2013 “Fireside Hangout” on Google Plus,  he did accuse entities “that don’t produce anything themselves” of “extort[ing] money” out of technology producers. A document issued by the White House Task Force on High-Tech Patent Issues last June, however, did utilize the term “patent trolls” when discussing the need for reform.

One could argue that “patent troll” has become so widely used that it has lost its “punch” as a pejorative in characterizing those whose singular business is sticking up or shaking down technology-producing companies through opaque demand letters and playing the lawsuit lottery. Obviously, Judge Koh does not see it that way, and declared her courtroom a troll-free zone. Whether that helps GPNE prevail in its claim, however, is uncertain.

Also published at WLF’s Forbes.com contributor page