by: Robert Wagner, intellectual property attorney at Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C. (Robert Wagner on G+)
The problem with patent assertion entities (PAEs), also called patent trolls, continues to be a hot-button issue among practitioners, companies, and the government. Recently, Gene Quinn from IPWatchdog wrote about one proposed solution he and others see to this problem—encouraging companies to fully litigate these lawsuits and not to settle quickly, thereby raising the costs of this kind of litigation to discourage the bringing of weak lawsuits. But, is this really a practical solution to the troll problem for everyone?
Quinn believes that the issues faced by patent troll targets are similar to those faced by the auto insurance industry in the 1980s. Back then, the auto insurance companies frequently chose to settle cases for less than the litigation costs, regardless of the merits. This settlement strategy encouraged litigants to bring even more lawsuits, often of a questionable nature. It wasn’t until the industry decided to fight all of the cases that the more frivolous lawsuits disappeared. As Quinn states, “[t]he lesson was clear: if you don’t fight, and if you make yourself an easy target, people will sue you on both good and bad cases.”
In March 2011, Lodsys approached 55 companies demanding compensation for their alleged infringement of Lodsys patents. 51 of the companies settled out of court, and 3 others settled a few weeks after Lodsys brought suit. Only Kapersky Labs decided to vigorously defend itself. After over two years of litigation and just days before trial, Lodsys unilaterally gave up and dropped its lawsuit against Kapersky Labs. Because Kapersky Labs adopted this approach, Quinn expects that it will no longer be considered an “easy target” and that it will not be sued as often as before.
My feeling is that Quinn is correct that settling weak patent infringement lawsuits only encourages and perpetuates the troll system. The problem that I have with his solution is that it is not a universal solution and is really only effective for a limited number of defendants.
While some trolls are looking for a large payday, many are willing to settle for relatively small amounts in comparison to the litigation costs—in the thousands or tens of thousands range (see, e.g., here and here). Patent litigation is expensive, with pre-trial costs ranging from $350,000 to $1,000,000 for modest size cases and total costs ranging from $700,000 to $2,000,000. Thus, a company is faced with a decision of whether to pay a few thousand dollars now to end the litigation and receive a fully-paid up license or spends hundreds of thousands or millions to hopefully defeat the troll in the courts (which is no guarantee, as any litigator will tell you).
The law potentially allows a prevailing defendant to collect its fees and expenses, but there is no certainty that a defendant can meet the high standard required to get such an award or that it will be able to collect such an award from the troll. Many of these trolls are shell companies with little to no real assets. Even if the company is able to get and collect its fees and expenses, that still would not make it whole. The company will likely have wasted 2+ years in the litigation process, with all the distractions and stresses that it creates.
In addition, for many companies the litigation costs represent a significant portion of its annual profits. It may have to lay off workers, forgo development, or otherwise restrict its operations during the litigation simply to pay its legal bills. That is a lot to ask of a company in order to fulfill some greater societal goal of discouraging patent trolls, especially if it is not a frequent target of patent trolls itself.
Trolls are obviously counting on companies to engage in exactly this type of analysis, which is why they offer certainty at a relative low cost. It encourages companies to pay quickly and avoid both the long-term legal costs and the potential of a large judgment against them. As a purely business decision, it is hard to ignore, even if it is extortionate.
So, what is the solution? Larger companies that are frequent troll targets should seriously consider the approach that Kapersky Labs used (and Quinn encourages) of aggressively litigating these kinds of cases. (Of course, these companies always need to evaluate the merits of the case before deciding whether to litigate.) By raising the costs of doing business and denying the trolls an easy score, trolls will likely begin to avoid suing that company, which is a win for both the company and the legal system.
It is more difficult for smaller companies to adopt this approach, however. These companies likely will need help from the Courts, Congress, and the President to create disincentives to discourage trolls from bringing frivolous lawsuits in the first place. In the end, as long as there is money to be made, the trolls will exist and will find ways around whatever rules are in place.
Some of the approaches being discussed in Congress (see here, here, and here) are a step towards solving this problem, but they are likely not the final answer. Given that the large patent litigation costs are the primary driver that forces companies to settle, mechanisms that reduce these costs or delay them until a patent holder can establish that it has brought a legitimate lawsuit may be part of the answer.
In addition, in the rush to rid the world of trolls, Congress needs to be careful that they don’t tip the balances in traditional, “legitimate” patent infringement lawsuits so as to make it unreasonably difficult for patent owners to enforce their patents against actual infringers. The bottom line is that there do not appear to be any easy answers to this problem.