Last week, the US Patent and Trademark Office expanded its website to include a section to help individuals and companies to respond when receiving demand letters from patent holders. As one of our colleagues, Gene Quinn, over at IPWatchdog.com notes, this resource (albeit in “Beta” form) is fairly one-sided and offers some problematic advice to those who receive demand letters.
Much of the advice on the USPTO’s website is fairly generic, but the overall tenor of the advice seems to ignore that legitimate patent owners with legitimate and valid patents often send these demand letters to stop individuals and companies from infringing their patents. Indeed, that is one of the fundamental rights that comes with owning a patent—the ability to stop others from using your invention.
Instead, the fundamental assumption on the USPTO’s website seems to be that only patent trolls send demand letters. For instance, the USPTO suggests that one response is to simply ignore a demand letter because some patent owners send these demand letters to mislead or intimidate the recipients into paying for licenses that they do not need. While the USPTO notes that this approach carries some risk, that advice is buried at the end. Oddly, the USPTO never suggests that one option after receiving a demand letter is to simply stop infringing the patent.
The USPTO also downplays the importance of consulting with an attorney to help understand the risks and to respond to the patent owner in an appropriate manner. Patent law is not a simple subject, and most individuals simply do not have the expertise or knowledge to determine whether they are infringing, whether the patent is valid and enforceable, and what the risks may actually be.
In my years of practice, I have noticed that many individuals do not understand what the scope of a patent is unless they have significant prior experience with patents. They tend to look at the description of the invention in the specification or the drawings, rather than the claims, when trying to assess their exposure. As patent practitioners know, it is the claims that truly matter (although the specification is important to understanding those claims), and those claims are often far broader then the particular embodiments disclosed in the specification. In addition, claims are not written in a format that is simple to understand, or there are statements made during the prosecution of the patent that are important to understanding their scope, which compounds the problem. Thus, there is a very real risk that individuals will drastically underestimate the risk that they infringe unless they receive competent legal advice.
While hiring an attorney may be an expensive proposition, the consequences of not doing so may be far greater. A typical patent infringement lawsuit can easily cost more than $500,000 to defend, even where the amount at issue is small (and can cost tens of millions of dollars when significant amounts are at issue). And, once a lawsuit begins, it can be very hard for a defendant to unilaterally stop it. If an individual is truly infringing, an attorney can help the client understand the risks and suggest ways of resolving the matter before litigation begins, which potentially can save an individual hundreds of thousands of dollars. Simply ignoring a demand letter can be the last thing an accused infringer should do unless there is a very good reason for doing so because ignoring the demand letter starts to lay the groundwork for a finding of willful infringement, which potentially entitles the patent owner to triple damages and an award of its attorneys’ fees and costs.
The problem of extortionate patent trolls is very real, and I have represented numerous companies that have been the targets of these kinds of trolls. It is extremely frustrating to explain to a client the financial costs and distractions that come with defending a meritless lawsuit brought by patent troll and the fact that there often is no simple way to make the lawsuit disappear without paying some amount of money to the troll. That being said, I’ve also represented legitimate companies with patents on innovations they developed that help give them a competitive edge in the marketplace. They have spent significant time and resources in developing these innovations and bringing them to market and understandably want to protect those investments. The USPTO’s blanket advice to individuals and companies that might receive a demand letter is not particularly helpful and understates the real risks and costs that are at issue. It is somewhat disturbing that an office that is charged with issuing valid patents and supporting innovation would put out such incomplete and unbalanced advice. Hopefully, the USPTO will present more balanced and useful advice when this website moves out of its “beta” stage.