The Patent Reform Act of 2011 portends yet another problem for small business folks trying to develop technology, and more importantly trying to enforce it. We have written about the pending legislation in prior posts. If it passes the US Congress, and if the “first to file” patent rule is therefore adopted by the USPTO as the law, patents will go to those with superior resources, in-house legal departments and the wherewithal to file patents on a moment’s notice. Gone will be the rule that “invention” is the starting point. It will be the result of a race to the PTO.
This is only part of the current IP problem for small businesses however, and the bigger problem is litigation cost. Small businesses simply cannot afford to bring or defend intellectual property lawsuits. If they are the plaintiff, it is likely that they have been given advice by counsel on the anticipated expense of patent or trademark enforcement litigation. Legal fee costs, expert witness costs, deposition costs, demonstrative evidence for trial costs and lost opportunity time for employees can add up quickly and it is important for the client and counsel to set a budget and to discuss each phase of the litigation with a projection of costs. Sadly this cost discussion is often ignored and we have received calls from potential clients who have exhausted their litigation budgets and who are nowhere near a settlement or trial. Frustrated they seek new counsel, but often new counsel is hampered by the inability to properly fund the ongoing litigation.
More difficult perhaps is the plight of the small business (or individual) defendant in an IP suit. These litigants are often ill-prepared for the costs and rigor of defending litigation in Federal Court. Having never been sued before, but having read about the high cost of lawsuits, they frequently seek legal counsel with the plea: “Can we end this quickly as I can’t afford to be in a lawsuit?” When Plaintiff is seeking to shut down production and sale of the new defendant’s chief product line, the answer to this question may not be easy. I tell them sure – we can end it early – all you need to do is stop making the product that is your main source of revenue, agree never to make it again, pay the plaintiff money for their alleged damages and pay all of their legal fees. These legal fees are generally not insignificant and may have been generated by one or more large law firms at enormous billing rates.
The client, who may even have solid defenses, is then faced with a difficult choice between: 1) Ignore the defenses and cave in quickly with all of the resultant cost and loss of income; 2) Engage in some litigation to try to establish some leverage for a favorable settlement or 3) Take the chance that expensive litigation will, over time, allow a favorable result and perhaps even an award of attorney’s fees to repay the defendant for the litigation cost. It is option 2 which poses the problem of delicate balancing by lawyer and client. How much litigation and cost is enough to create favorable settlement leverage? The client needs to balance the revenue/profit of the allegedly offending product or mark, against the phased cost of litigation. We can project that phase one (investigation, pleadings, Federal Rule initial disclosures, status conference before the court etc) might cost “x” dollars. The client can decide whether that cost is appropriate against the revenue stream attributable to the product or mark, and determine when to make the settlement move. There is never, of course, any guarantee that the settlement option will work and therein lies the balancing act problem. The client may get stuck in long litigation and need to simply fight its way out. Good communication between lawyer and client is critical to making these decisions.