Abraham Lincoln said that the patent system â€œadded the fuel of interest to the fires of genius.â€ Today the fires of genius and the fire of innovation itself is getting doused with something less helpful than fuel. These fires are being cooled and, in some cases, extinguished with harsh attacks on the IP rights that once enabled and motivated lone inventors and small businesses to take the fruits of their genius to the market.
The owners of small businesses, the people who generate most of the innovation and business growth in the United States have good reason to be worried. Their ability to attract funding through valuable intellectual property is being compromised. Their ability to protect their products and innovations from the power of corporate giants is being whittled away. This has come from many quarters, but there is a widespread anti-patent movement driven by politics and misinformation. It’s the bitter fruit of a bitter anti-property rights movement that exaggerates the threat of a few bad actors to justify widespread weakening of property rights in ways that will hurt the economy and our society for years to come.
We have seen a recent series of Supreme Court cases that have made it much harder to obtain patents and enforce them. We have seen massive changes in US patent law that make it easier to invalidate patents after they are granted and make it harder and more costly to stop infringers if your patent survives. Now the bogeyman of “patent trolls” is held up as a threat to America that requires more sweeping “patent reform” to make it even harder to enforce a patent, and it looks like both parties are united in a quest to do “something big” to shake up the IP rights that helped drive the American economy for so many decades. Corporate giants benefit from this reform as it clears away the annoyance of other people’s IP rights standing in the way of their marketing muscle. But the economy as a whole and the rights of many are hurt in this process this amplifies innovation fatigue .
Several recent articles highlight just how serious the problem has become. Louis Carbonneau in “Toxic Asset: The Gradual Demise of the American Patent” (IPWatchdog.com, December 10, 2014),Â surveys the radical changes in the past two or three years:
On the judicial front, in 2014 we saw no fewer than 5 Supreme Court decisions going against patent holders on the various subjects of obviousness (a key test for patent validity), what constitutes â€œabstract ideasâ€ (which now undergo a more stringent test for patentability), business method patentability, indefiniteness (how you construe claims), reasonable royalty (how you calculate damages), willful infringement (how you punish the â€œbad actorsâ€) and fee shifting (making losers pay for winners legal fees). All of these decisions have collectively made it harder for patent owners to: i) maintain the validity of duly issued patents (previously presumed by law), ii) pursue infringement claims, ii) prove damages (let alone treble damages), iv) have open discussions with potential infringers prior to litigating, and have left the unsuccessful patent owner at risks of paying millions in legal fees to the other side if the judges so decides.
Parallel to judicial reform at the federal courts, recent US patent reform with the American Invent Act (AIA) introduced a new post grant review mechanism called Inter Partes Review (IPR) which allows a party to challenge the validity of any issued patent before the Patent Trial & Appeals Board (PTAB). Strangely, despite the PTAB being an emanation of the same USPTO that delivered all these patents in the first place, there is no longer a presumption of validity before the PTAB for the patents being challenged while other rules make it easier to invalidate patents based on prior art.
Finally, on the political front, in 2013 the US House of Reps. passed the Goodlatte bill, which would erode rights conveyed to all patent holders despite being primarily directed at NPEs. It is now expected that the new Republican led Senate will revive the bill -currently on hold- in early 2015 and, with a rare showing of bipartisanship from the White House, it is expected to be signed into law. At the same time, 27 US States have passed or are in the process of passing laws that make it harder for people to assert the patents they own.
Carbonneau goes on to explain that in recent Federal Circuit cases, patent owners are being crushed, and in Inter Partes Review (IPR) cases before the USPTO, nearly 80% of the owners of challenged patents are being told by the USPTO that their patents are not valid over the prior art that the USPTO itself supposedly considered before granting the patent in the first place. Carbonneau puts it rather wryly:
The most interesting statistics come from the PTAB [the USPTO’s Patent Trial and Appeal Board, which processes IPR cases] because it only focuses on validity issues based on prior art; the very same prior art patent examiners are supposed to have found and analyze prior to issuing a patent. Since patents going through IPRs are usually the same ones that being litigated, you would assume that owners did a lot of due diligence before investing in a costly patent lawsuit. Well, the PTAB is declaring 77.5% of reviewed patents invalid! And this is not limited to â€œabstractâ€ software; patents related to biotech and pharmaceuticals, medical and mechanical devices, are being invalidated at an even higher rate! Remember, this is an offspring of the very same agency that inventors paid thousands of dollars in the first place to review applications and issue their patents. Now, after having to pay a quarter to a half million dollars in legal fees (average cost of an IPR procedure for a patent holder), the same agency is telling patentees nearly 80% of the time: â€œVery sorry we made a mistake; we would not have allowed your application had we looked more carefully for existing prior art. And no, there is no refund available.â€
Personally, I cannot think of any industry that could survive more than a month with a nearly 80% defective rate, let alone by forcing you to spend a fortune for the â€œprivilegeâ€ to confirm that indeed your title was invalid in the first place! Only a government can come up with such a broken system and get away with it.
The impact of these anti-patent efforts has been a surprisingly sudden break from the trend of increasing IP litigation, with litigation in 2014 down about 13% from the previous year according to a new 2015 PwC report on patent litigation. The problem of explosively increasing patent litigation, a common excuse to justify the slashing of patent rights, is not supported by the data.
Richard Lloyd, writing for the IAM Blog, draws this observation from the PwC report:
Of these three classes [of patent litigants considered], NPE [non-practicing entity] companies have been successful 31% of the time in patent cases brought since 1995; this compares with a success rate for universities and non-profits of 48% and a lowly 18% for individual inventors. Individual patent owners also do far worse with damages pay-outs, getting a median award of $3 million compared with $11.5 million for company NPEs and $16.2 million for universities/non-profits.
There could be many reasons for individual inventors doing relatively badly. Although the PWC study doesnâ€™t provide any, itâ€™s easy to speculate that small inventors may have lower average quality patents to begin with, while they probably donâ€™t have the same kind of litigation savvy as other NPEs and are much less likely to have access to the same kind of litigation expertise that larger, better funded patent owners can turn to.
But what PWCâ€™s numbers also strongly suggest is that the US patent litigation system is strongly stacked against small, patent owning entities. Bearing this in mind, it is worrying that the main packages of reform proposed in the House of Representatives (the Innovation Act) and the Senate (the PATENT Act) are only going to penalise them further.
Lloyd notes that potential irony now that many lone inventors, recognizing that they have little chance of winning and have almost no chance of affording the punitive legal bills they may face if they sue and lose, may be more likely to turn to NPEs (“patent trolls”) for help as the most practical way to realize any benefit from their work.
There is a need to rebuild an innovation climate in the United States, starting with educating our leaders about the need for IP rights and the value of patents. If we don’t teach this lesson from within, it will eventually be taught rather loudly from without, for Europe and China are both moving to strengthen IP rights and strengthen IP enforcement. Europe’s Unitary Patent system could be a boon to IP there, though much remains to be seen, but the changes in China are strong and dramatic. That nation has gone from no patents and no IP system in the early 1980s to the world’s biggest source of IP generation and IP litigation, with many changes steadily strengthening the nation’s IP system. There is a long ways to go for China still and there have been some setbacks, but at current rates we can see China becoming a leading source of global innovation while the US loses its lead.
Will the flames of innovation be largely quenched in that nation? Much depends on what we do with IP rights now, the rights that will shape our culture and economy for decades to come. May the fires of genius be encouraged with something other than the cold water Congress and Courts have been sloshing.