The Anti-Patent Revolution in the United StatesBy
Many intellectual property practitioners worldwide are scratching their heads over what is happening to IP in the United States. There’s a revolution underway that over the past few years seems to have steadily eroded the value of patents and any semblance of predictability and order in the law. Patents can still be valuable, if you are lucky and have the right connections. For ordinary people and companies, patents, once the great equalizers against big companies, are now an unreliable tool. The erosion of IP rights is becoming a major factor in the growing problem of innovation fatigue in the United States.
This erosion has been achieved from a confluence of powerful currents are leading in one strong downhill direction. Congress has enacted patent reforms that make it vastly easier to challenge and destroy a patent and much harder to realize value, all of which favors those with marketing muscle, political influence, and existing market share. The Supreme Court has handed down a series of patent decisions that have eroded the value of patents. These blows have been especially forceful in the pharmaceutical and biotech fields, wiping out the value of many patents linked to “natural products,” and in the software and business method areas (e.g., Bilski and most recently Alice), making it extremely difficult to obtain IP in the technical fields with the greatest potential for innovation and growth as we move from the coarse manufacturing of the industrial revolution into the knowledge economy. Alas, in such fields and many others, the Supreme Court has created a new subjective tool against patents by ruling that anything “abstract” cannot be patents, while refusing to give any clear, non-abstract definition for “abstract.” This vastly adds to the uncertainty and chaos in many IP areas. In addition to these and other abuses of IP rights from the courts and Congress, the USPTO itself has gotten into the act with its own interpretations of judicially created rules that go even further than required by the courts in limiting IP rights. Sadly, we can expect ongoing hostility toward IP from the USPTO now that it is led by someone from one of the most powerful anti-patent (or, more accurately, anti-everyone-else’s-patent) force in Corporate America, Google, the former employer of Michelle Lee. Her selection as Director of the USPTO by President Obama came as a real surprise to many IP workers, but it was less of a surprise to those who see the political power Google has amassed.
These troubling events are now compounded by one of the most troubling IP cases in recent memory, a dramatically unjust case in which the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) totally disregarded the extensive fact-finding of previous courts, a jury, and the USPTO regarding the non-obviousness of some patents, and instead turned to so-called “common sense” to fill in the missing details of the prior art to render patents invalid after they had withstood repeated and thorough tests finding them to be valid and non-obvious. This was done in violation of the duty of the CAFC to respect the factual determination of the previous trial court in an appeal. Instead, the CAFC acted like a trial court, but without the information and testimony needed. “Common sense,” like “abstraction,” can be pulled out of the air at whim to poison a patent–when the rule of law is weakened and those charged with respecting the law instead make their own law as they go.
The case I’m referring to, not surprisingly, involved a company suing Google for patent infringement. We can expect to see more of this kind of thing, big companies with influence getting off free when infringing the patents of smaller companies (especially if they can be called “trolls”). For details, see Jeff Wild’s article, ” IP/Engine v Google, AOL et al – the most troubling patent case of 2014” in the IAM Magazine Blog, Dec. 22, 2014. This case involving the company Vringo deserves careful scrutiny (and howls of outrage).
Sometimes revolutions are necessary for the good of mankind, but many turn out to be excuses for someone to seize power, loot innocents, and create chaos. Until the US returns more fully to the rule of law in the IP arena and strengthens its laws to respect IP, especially for small companies and innovators who need an equalizer when facing Goliaths (or Google-liaths), we will face ongoing chaos, looting, and innovation fatigue as we reduce incentives and increase risks for the most innovative segments of our society, the small companies and lone inventors who are striving to create the future that giant companies are often to slow or risk averse to pursue.