Regular readers know of my longstanding concerns and frequent posts on the topic of patent trolls. They are a scourge on the startup sector, where patent trolls wreak havoc, and the innovation sector more broadly. The Senate has been working to address these issues via a non-partisan bill called the PATENT Act and a companion House bill called The Innovation Act. These are both good bills and everyone in the startup sector should support them enthusiastically. Julie Samuels of Engine wrote an excellent post about the PATENT bill in the Senate and I’m going to cut and paste it below instead of trying to do better (because I can’t).
Today, Sens. Grassley, Leahy, Cornyn, Schumer, Lee, Hatch and Klobuchar introduced the PATENT Act, an important piece of legislation targeting a serious patent troll problem. Engine is proud to support that bill.
The PATENT Act, and the Innovation Act, its House counterpart, are effective because they are comprehensive in scope. Each contains a package of incentives that, taken together, insert balance back into patent litigation, giving troll targets the tools to fight back and ensuring that patent holders act responsibly. Importantly, they are carefully crafted to ensure that a patent holder with a high-quality patent and a legitimate claim of infringement will face no barriers to making that claim.
To understand the way these bills work, you have to understand a bit about the patent troll problem. Patent trolls are primarily armed with two weapons: low-quality, impossible-to-understand patents and the outrageous costs of patent litigation, which can easily cost a defendant well into the millions of dollars. So imagine you are a small startup, cash-strapped and hungry, and you get a patent demand from a company you’ve never heard of, claiming it owns some seemingly basic technology. (This really happens. Often. See here, here, here, and here, for example.) Your choices are: hire a lawyer and spend valuable time dealing with the problem or pay the troll to go away, usually for a sum far smaller than what it would cost to hire that lawyer or go to court.
The good news is that the Supreme Court has been busy trying to fix the problem of low-quality patents. The bad news is that we still have a long way to go. Patent litigation remains outrageously expensive and one-sided, giving a patent owner who is willing to take advantage of loopholes in the system the ability to run roughshod over defendants.
This is where Congress, and specifically today’s introduction of the PATENT Act, comes in. Its provisions help right the imbalance in patent litigation through a series of reforms:
- Transparency and Heightened Pleading: Currently, someone can file a patent suit without providing almost any basic details about his or her case, information like how a patent is infringed, what products allegedly infringe it, and even who owns that patent. This information is easily known to any patent holder at the outset of a case, especially those who engage in a responsible amount of due diligence prior to filing a case. However, getting this information can cost a party being sued tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. The PATENT Act would fix that, requiring patent holders to provide this basic information at the outset of litigation and also require patent holders to tell the Patent Office when they transfer a patent. Only with this basic information can parties make informed decisions about how they should proceed. If a party legitimately cannot find some of this information after making a “reasonable inquiry”, it may still file a suit, an important caveat protecting the responsible patent holder.
- Fee-shifting: Currently, little incentive exists for a party to defend itself in court. After years and millions of dollars spent litigating, a successful party will often be sent on its way with nothing more than a Pyrrhic victory. The PATENT Act remedies this by awarding fees to a winning party when a court determines that a losing party’s position was not “objectively reasonable”. This provision carefully strikes a balance between deterring those who bring crappy, unsubstantiated lawsuits and those who bring reasonable, good-faith cases. It also includes important provisions that would effectively end the practice of using shell companies with little or no assets to avoid responsibility. Specifically, a party who doesn’t make or sell anything with its patents will have to show that it can pay for fees if they are awarded. Only with this incentive can many startups afford to take on a troll threat, discouraging those trolls from bringing frivolous cases.
- Demand Letter Reform: Currently, trolls send vague demand letters full of legalese, targeting small businesses and even individuals. Because this takes place before a lawsuit is even filed, there is no public record of how often it happens. We know it is common practice, so we also know that we can’t even properly understand the scope of the entire patent troll problem. The PATENT Act will help fix this by requiring that such letters include certain basic information about the infringement claim and that they do not make false claims about the patent holder’s rights with regard to the patent. Only with these requirements will startups be able to make informed decisions about whether they should respond to or ignore a demand letter and whether they should hire a lawyer.
- Discovery Reform: Currently, discovery is by far the most expensive part of litigation for any party facing suit. For a patent troll who doesn’t make or sell anything, the cost of discovery is next to nothing. However, it can use abusive discovery practices to drive the costs of litigation even higher than they already are. The PATENT Act would curb some of the worst of these practices by staying discovery until a party has had a chance to try to have a case dismissed. It also makes further recommendations to shift some of the discovery burden from the party producing information to the party requesting it. Only with these reforms can small companies and startups afford to litigate.
- Customer Stay: Currently, trolls love to target a company’s customers, claiming that by using off-the-shelf technology those customers are liable for infringement. This can put enormous pressure on companies that provide products and services (e.g., every company). The PATENT Act provides tools to both the customers and the companies in this dangerous situation, allowing the company to fight the litigation on behalf of its customers. Only with this provision will startups be able to protect their customers.
To be certain, the PATENT Act is not perfect. There are a number of areas where the bill could be made stronger. For instance, we wish the discovery reforms went farther, clearly providing in-statute limits on discovery to those documents directly related to the litigation and requiring a party seeking documents to cover the costs of getting those documents. We’d also like to see the bill more directly address venue and make it easier for parties to move a case out of the Eastern District of Texas, where so many cases are brought and where judges are notoriously plaintiff-friendly. Likewise, we remain concerned that the current customer stay provision only kicks in when the manufacturer is already involved in litigation. We think improvements could be made to make it any easier for that manufacturer to actively step in on behalf of its customers. Finally, we think the bill could also make it easier and cheaper for parties to challenge low-quality patents at the Patent Office through a process called inter partes review (IPR). For many parties, seeing a case all the way through to a final decision is not an economic reality, even with the above-discussed reforms. IPR provides a valuable means for a startup or party with limited financial resources to invalidate or narrow the scope of an otherwise overly broad patent.
All that said, we remain proud to support this bill. The heart of it—the litigation reform provisions—represent a hard-fought compromise, spearheaded by Sens. Schumer and Cornyn, who tirelessly worked to get this done. We will continue to work to improve the PATENT Act where we think it needs improvement, and fight off any efforts to water down its provisions. We look forward to seeing this become law.