Sunday, May 18, 2014

Google and Apple vs. the Patent Trolls

With Apple and Google settling their patent disputes, some have noted that the two companies are now teaming up to urge legal reforms directed at patent trolls. In simple terms, a patent troll is a company that does not produce anything, but instead builds a library of patents that it uses to make demands for compensation or to launch lawsuits, often strategically timed to coerce a quick settlement, against companies that they allege are violating their patents. Many start-ups end up having to choose between settlement or burning through hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, often significantly more than the patent troll demands to settle the claim, instead of investing that money in their business. The patent troll may wait to file a lawsuit until a company is in merger or acquisition talks or announces an IPO, knowing that in those contexts companies will often want to quickly settle any litigation.

At the same time, large companies are notorious for being unwilling to license outside technology and, upon learning of an innovation, of trying to find a way to replicate its best features without running afoul of the existing patent. Also, absent a huge bankroll, it is a rare private inventor who can afford to litigate even an egregious patent violation. Although I am not claiming it to be at all typical, or at all common, it's not difficult to see why an inventor who lacks the resources to directly capitalize on a patent, who can't find a manufacturer willing to license or buy the patent, and who sees what appear to be violations of his patent by existing companies, might choose to license or sell a patent to a company that could reasonably be described as a "patent troll".

One reform that is sometimes proposed as a way to greatly reduce patent trolling is to eliminate software patents. However, we're now in an era in which traditionally patentable devices covered with switches, buttons and knobs can be replicated on a touch screen, purely through software. We're in an era in which the patentable elements of a breakthrough computer innovation may be entirely software-based, and where product development could involve the investment of millions, even tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, but where replication of the idea is comparatively cheap and easy. That's the context of the Samsung-Apple litigation, with Apple having spent $150 billion or more developing the iPhone and Samsung, displeased with its own efforts, choosing the much easier path of imitation.

If you deprive the innovator of any patent protection, it's highly unlikely that they're going to make the necessary investment to produce that type of innovative product as they would be concerned that immediate imitators would prevent them from obtaining a return on their investment -- or might turn that investment into a gargantuan loss. Also, given the $billions that major companies have spent building their patent portfolios, even if it would make sense in the long-term to narrow the protection available through software patents, it's difficult to imagine that those companies will support reforms that would significantly reduce the value of their patents. At the same time, it should be possible to get broad support to narrow eligibility for software patents, and perhaps even to significantly shorten their duration, reforms that would help keep dubious patents from being used coercively against manufacturers and service providers, and allow companies to recover their investments while limiting the amount of time in which competitors are reluctant to build upon a patent holder's breakthrough or essential technology.

Another reform that is often suggested, and which seems quite reasonable, is to provide that a patent holder can only obtain injunctive relief is if it actually manufactures a product covered by its patent. A reform along that line seems reasonable, although I think it would be appropriate to provide for injunctions if the patent holder can demonstrate that it is in the process of developing products or that the alleged violation is intentional. Otherwise, the coercive impact of an injunction could cause a company to settle a frivolous claim in order to keep a key product on the market or to reassure investors or its distribution network.

I've also seen it suggested that, if sued, a company should be permitted to ask a court to declare that the patent holder is a patent troll and, if the court agrees, that the company should be required to post a bond to cover the alleged violator's legal fees if its patent litigation is not successful. While the most noteworthy example I've seen, the proposed Shield Act, attempts to define "patent troll", its definitions remain problematic. For example, the requirement that a company seeking to protect an acquired patent "provide documentation to the court of substantial investment made by such party in the exploitation of the patent through production or sale of an item covered by the patent" would put a significant hurdle in front of a patent holder trying to sell a patent that is already being infringed, or in front of a company that acquires a patent that is infringed prior to its commencement of production and sale of a covered product.

The bond requirement imposed on a company determined to fall under the act would be oppressive to a company bringing a legitimate patent claim, but there's no reciprocal requirement -- either for a bond requirement or for an award of legal fees against a defendant company that loses its defense of a patent case -- that would discourage a company from defending a patent that it believes is, or probably is, valid. While there's something to be said for reducing a patent troll's ability to coerce a settlement from a company that might prevail if the case were litigated, the Shield Act seems to substitute one problem for another -- now a willful infringer can create a litigation environment in which a company that has acquired a valid patent could come under intense financial pressure to settle for far less than the claim is worth.

A more modest reform bill is pending in Congress, and it does include a reciprocal attorney fee provision, but it is not widely viewed as having a large chance of passing. The bill includes some interesting elements that attempt to limit the ability of a patent holder to coerce another company based upon nebulous claims of patent infringement, and potentially create a cause of action against a patent holder who violates those provisions.

Google and Apple are in a powerful position to push for meaningful patent reform. Let's hope that they push for balanced reforms, even at risk of devaluing their patent portfolios, and that more tech companies join their effort.

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