Another patent reform bill is quickly working its way through Congress as we speak. The Innovation Act (HR 3309) passed the House by a vote of 325–91 and is pending in the Senate, which has said that it will fast track passage of it. Many of the provisions are similar to those found in the other proposed pieces of legislation that we discussed earlier (see parts 1, 2, and 3), and address some of the concerns I raised in these prior discussions. One of the more significant provisions of the Innovation Act is the fee-shifting provision, which proposes to amend 35 U.S.C. § 285.
Under current law, patent lawsuits follow the American system in which each side pays its own legal fees. The current § 285 modifies the American rule somewhat, providing that in exceptional cases the court may award attorney fees to the prevailing party. The Innovation Act scraps the American rule altogether and flips current § 285 by providing that the court must award reasonable attorney fees and expenses to the prevailing in patent cases, “unless the court finds that the position of the non prevailing party or parties was substantially justified or that special circumstances make an award unjust.” (Proposed § 285(a)).
As an initial matter, this provision is supposed to deter parties from filing frivolous lawsuits, but it is not clear that it will accomplish this purpose. To be a prevailing party requires a judgment by the court, likely either on a motion for summary judgment or a trial verdict. Neither of these happen towards the beginning of litigation, so a defendant will have to still incur significant costs to get to the point at which it has a chance to recover its fees. Many defendants will likely not want to incur those costs, especially if the plaintiff appears to lack significant assets or has a plausible basis for its claims (even with the interest party expansion of proposed § 285(b)).
This provision may, in fact, create an incentive for patent trolls, especially in cases where they have a strong patent but the damages are not significant. By defaulting to a loser pays system, there is a greater likelihood that patent trolls will file additional lawsuits and defendants in these kinds of cases will be required to pay the troll’s litigation costs, even when a troll would have been unlikely to prove willful infringement.
Finally, there are real questions about what it means to be prevailing party and what the “substantially justified” standard means. For instance, what happens if a plaintiff prevails on one claim, but the jury find non-infringement on another? Are both parties prevailing parties? Or, if the plaintiff prevails on one patent, but the defendant invalidates the other asserted patent? What happens if a target of a demand letter files a declaratory judgment action and forces a patentee into a lawsuit that it never intended to file?
Also, when, exactly, does a non-prevailing party have to be substantially justified in its position? At that time it first asserts the position? At the end of the litigation? At any time? These are not trivial concerns. A defendant at the initial stages of a lawsuit often will assert non-infringement and invalidity defenses and counterclaims before having much time to analyze the claims or having the benefit of the court’s claim constructions. Those positions may be only in their initial stages with modest support, but later blossom into very strong positions. Similarly, what appear to be strong positions can turn into weak ones once the court issues its claim construction. In which of these situations are the positions substantially justified?
Courts will undoubtedly struggle with interpreting these standards and deciding who, exactly, “deserves” to pay and who does not. Moreover, while these new rules are clearly targeted towards fighting patent trolls, they apply equally in all patent cases, including the traditional competitor vs. competitor lawsuits. By changing the rules, it will create additional pressures that are more likely to be borne by defendants, who have no control over whether they are sued, than by plaintiffs, who can have significant control over when they sue and which patents/claims they sue on.
The Innovation Act looks likely to pass the Senate and be signed into law by the President. It will be interesting to see if it accomplishes what it purports to set out to do.
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.
In a growing response to concerns about patent “trolls” and the tactics they use in litigation, the President and Congress are calling for changes in the patent laws to assist the targets of these patent assertion entities (PAEs). Currently, there are six bills pending in Congress that address, in some respect, these concerns. In the final part of this series, we are looking at the four remaining pieces of legislation, which are all more narrow in focus, and what changes are being proposed in them. (Parts one and two of our series are here and here.)
Stopping the Offensive Use of Patents Act (H.R. 2766—STOP Act)
Saving High-Tech Innovators from Egregious Legal Disputes Act of 2013 (H.R. 845)
The SHIELD Act is designed to shift the costs of litigation to certain kinds of patentees that lose patent infringement lawsuits. Specifically, patentees that (1) are not the original inventor or assignee of the patent, (2) have not made a “substantial investment” to exploit the patent through production or sale of item covered by the patent, or (3) are not a university or a university’s technology transfer organization will be required to pay the full costs and attorneys’ fees of the prevailing party that asserted invalidity or non-infringement, unless the court finds that exceptional circumstances exist.
A party asserting invalidity or non-infringement may move the court for a judgment that the patentee does not fall within one of these three classifications. If the motion is made before initial disclosures are due, the court must stay discovery, except for that necessary to resolve this motion. If the motion is made after the initial disclosures, the court may wait until after entry of final judgment to decide the motion.
There are a couple of interesting points about this proposed litigation. First, there is no good faith or reasonable basis exception explicitly contained in the determination of whether to award fees. Thus, unless courts consider a good-faith basis for filing the suit to be an “exceptional circumstance,” entities that do not fall within one of the three categories must pay a defendant’s costs and fees regardless of the reasonableness of the lawsuit.
Second, the bill does not indicate what happens with mixed verdicts. If a patentee prevails on all but one claim, is a defendant entitled to collect all of its costs and fees, or only some pro-rated amount?
Third, how would this bill affect declaratory judgment actions? The language is not written in terms of plaintiff or defendant, but in terms of the “party asserting invalidity or noninfringement.” If a company receives a cease-and-desist letter from an entity that does not fall within one of the three categories and files a declaratory judgment action, is the patentee subject to this rule? Presumably, it would be, which means that these kinds of patentees would have to be extremely careful when sending licensing or cease-and-desist letters.
End Anonymous Patents Act (H.R. 2024)
This act is fairly straightforward. It simply requires that a patent owner file a disclosure with the USPTO of the real party in interest of any patent when (1) the patent issues, (2) a maintenance fee is paid, and (3) within 90 days of any transfer of ownership. If a patent owner does not, it cannot collect any damages in a patent infringement lawsuit until it cures its failure to do so.
Patent Quality Improvement Act of 2013 (S. 866) and Stopping the Offensive Use of Patents Act (H.R. 2766)
These two acts are basically mirror images of one another, except one was introduced in the Senate and one in the House. Both remove the sunset provision in 35 U.S.C. § 321 note, subsection (a)(3), which provides for a streamlined post-grant review of financial business method patents, and makes the program permanent. The acts would also expand the scope of review from financial business method patents to all types of business method patents.
The STOP Act also requires the USPTO to work with and support intellectual property law associations with pro bono programs “to assist financially under-resourced re-sellers, users, implementers, distributors, or customers of an allegedly infringing product or process.”
Conclusions and Final Thoughts
All six pieces of legislation target the patent “troll” problem, but do so in different ways. None of these approaches seem to be the silver bullet to solve this problem, however. In fact, some of them are likely to cause significant issues in the traditional patent litigation context. Also, there are many questions and ambiguities about how these laws would be applied. It will be interesting to see if any of these proposal garner enough support to become law (and whether any changes are made to do so).
In a growing response to concerns about patent “trolls” and the tactics they use in litigation, the President and Congress are calling for changes in the patent laws to assist the targets of these patent assertion entities (PAEs). Currently, there are six bills pending in Congress that address, in some respect, these concerns. In this series, we are looking at the pending legislation and what changes are being proposed. (Parts one and three of our series are here and here.)
Stopping the Offensive Use of Patents Act (H.R. 2766—STOP Act)
Patent Litigation and Innovation Act of 2013 (H.R. 2639)
Sponsors: Representatives Jeffries and Farenthold
The Patent Litigation and Innovation Act of 2013 (“PLIA”) is in many ways very similar to the Patent Abuse Reduction Act of 2013 (“PARA”) we discussed in the first part of this series, although there are some notable differences. These two bills are the most comprehensive and far-reaching of the currently proposed legislation. The bill would make five major changes to the patent laws that will affect all patent lawsuits, not just the “troll” variety.
First, like the PARA, the PLIA would require a patentee to plead substantially more information than is currently required in a complaint, including (1) identifying the patents that are allegedly infringed; (2) identifying the claims that are allegedly infringed; (3) identifying each allegedly infringing product, method, process, etc., including the specific name and model numbers; (4) identifying how each element of each claim is infringed; (5) identifying whether the infringement is literal or under the doctrine of equivalents; (6) for indirect infringement, identifying the acts and parties who directly infringed and the indirect infringer’s acts that give rise to liability; (7) identifying the basis of the patentee’s right to sue; (8) describing the principal business of the patentee; (9) identifying the owners, assignees, and exclusive licensees of the patents; and (10) identifying anyone who has a legal right to enforce the patents.
Unlike the PARA, the PLIA does not require that the patentee identify any previously-filed complaints involving the patents, whether the patent is subject to any licensing or pricing commitments, or the identity of anyone who has a financial interest in the patent (and the basis for that interest).
Given that the bare-bones nature of the current model Form 18 for patent lawsuits, the bill would also require that Form 18 be updated to include this information.
Second, like the PARA, the PLIA would require courts to join any interested parties on a defendant’s motion if the defendant shows that the plaintiff’s interest in the patent is limited “primarily to asserting any such patent claim in litigation.” The court may deny the motion if the interested party is not subject to service or would deprive the court of subject matter jurisdiction.
Third, the PLIA provides a mechanism for staying any actions against “secondary parties,” who are defined to be those whose alleged infringement is based on the use, distribution, resale, or consumption of a product or process by a primary party. Primary parties are those who manufacture or supply the product or process that allegedly infringes. If the primary and secondary parties agree, they can move the court, which then must stay the action against the secondary parties. The secondary party will then be treated as a non-party for purposes of discovery, hearings, and trials. However, the secondary party will be bound by any judgment against the primary party relating to common issues between the two.
Fourth, the PLIA creates a number of automatic stays of discovery. The court must stay discovery while ruling on any motion to dismiss, motion to transfer, or claim construction, although there are provisions for lifting the stay in extraordinary circumstances. The court can also allow whatever discovery is necessary to decide these issues.
Finally, the PLIA provides that the court must include specific findings in its final adjudication regarding the parties’ and attorneys’ compliance with Rule 11(b) and may impose sanctions for any violations.
The Consequences of This Proposed Legislation
While this bill is clearly directed at curbing abusive patent litigation, its effects will be felt in all patent lawsuits. Given that, all patent litigators should be aware of how patent litigation may change. In particular, there are many unanswered questions about this bill that could have some interesting consequences.
First, as with the PARA, the amount of information required in a complaint is extraordinary, especially in comparison to what is required now under the notice pleading standard of the federal rules. The same concerns discussed in the article on the PARA apply equally to the PLIA. As a practical matter, it is difficult to see what the purpose behind these changes is, especially in jurisdictions that have local patent rules that require this type of disclosure early in the process. Most plaintiffs, whether of the “troll” variety or not, have put together detailed infringement charts as part of their due diligence. While pleading this information will be time consuming, it should not be particularly difficult. In addition, what is the recourse if a plaintiff is “wrong”? A court should not be resolving questions of fact on a motion to dismiss. On the other hand, requiring this kind of information, whether in the pleadings or early in the litigation, is extremely helpful for defendants to understand the scope of the lawsuit and what products and claims are actually at issue and should help streamline the litigation. Whether it should be required in the complaint or as part of early disclosures is another matter.
Second, the provisions regarding staying the action against secondary parties are potentially very helpful in reducing the distractions caused by this kind of litigation tactic. It will be interesting to see how secondary parties react and whether they are willing to be bound to whatever judgments are entered against the primary party. In theory, a primary party should have a far greater interest in defending the lawsuit and the greater knowledge to do so.
Third, the stay of discovery while the court is construing claims could be helpful, but it also could prove problematic. For instance, sometimes it is difficult to know exactly what claims could be at issue until a defendant provides the details of how its product works or what the steps in its process are. Certain elements or steps may be unknowable without access to source code or knowledge of the precise process used. And, this cuts both ways. Sometimes, a patentee may believe that additional claims are infringed after learning more about the defendant’s products, but it could also be the reverse, where discovery reveals that certain claims that it believed were infringed are not infringed. In addition, a patentee may not appreciate that a particular claim term needs to be construed until it sees how the accused products work and the positions that the defendant is taking. Courts are unlikely to be thrilled at the prospect of having to engage in the claim construction process multiple times or having to construe claim terms that later turn out to be irrelevant once additional discovery is done.
Finally, it is unclear how useful the requirement that courts make specific findings regarding Rule 11(b) compliance will actually be. Presumably, if one of the parties or the court felt that another party’s behavior was inappropriate, they would have raised that issue anyway. Further, it is unlikely that a court will have sufficient evidence to make any findings of inappropriate behavior in those cases that settle early, even if the case actually had little merit.
There are clearly issues with patent litigation now, especially with respect to suits brought by “trolls.” While not as drastic as the PARA, it is not clear how helpful the PLIA will actually be in addressing some of the abuses that currently exist. It will also be interesting to see the discussions surrounding this piece of legislation and whether it ever becomes law.
In a growing response to concerns about patent “trolls” and the tactics they use in litigation, the President and Congress are calling for changes in the patent laws to assist the targets of these patent assertion entities (PAEs). Currently, there are six bills pending in Congress that address, in some respect, these concerns. In this three-part series, we will look at the pending legislation and what changes are being proposed. (Parts two and three of our series are here and here.)
Stopping the Offensive Use of Patents Act (H.R. 2766—STOP Act)
Patent Abuse Reduction Act of 2013 (S. 1013)
Sponsor: Senator Cornyn
Along with the Patent Litigation and Innovation Act of 2013 that will be discussed in the next installment, the Patent Abuse Reduction Act of 2013 is the most comprehensive and far-reaching of the currently proposed legislation. The bill would make four major changes to the patent laws that will affect all patent lawsuits, not just the “troll” variety.
First, the bill would require a patentee to plead substantially more information than is currently required in a complaint, including (1) identifying the patents that are allegedly infringed; (2) identifying the claims that are allegedly infringed; (3) identifying each allegedly infringing product, method, process, etc., including the specific name and model numbers; (4) identifying how each element of each claim is infringed; (5) identifying whether the infringement is literal or under the doctrine of equivalents; (6) for indirect infringement, identifying the acts and parties who directly infringed and the indirect infringer’s acts that give rise to liability; (7) identifying the basis of the patentee’s right to sue; (8) describing the principal business of the patentee; (9) listing each previously filed complaint relating to the asserted patents; (10) identifying whether the patent is subject to any licensing terms or pricing commitments; (11) identifying the owners, assignees, and exclusive licensees of the patents; (12) identifying anyone who has a legal right to enforce the patents; (13) identifying anyone with a direct financial interest in the lawsuit or its proceeds; and (14) describing the basis for that direct financial interest.
Given that the bare-bones nature of the current model Form 18 for patent lawsuits, the bill would also require that Form 18 be updated to include this information.
Second, the bill would require courts to join any interested parties on a defendant’s motion if the defendant shows that the plaintiff’s interest in the patent is limited “primarily to asserting any such patent claim in litigation.” The court may deny the motion if the interested party is not subject to service or would deprive the court of subject matter jurisdiction.
Third, the bill would substantially change the timing and scope of discovery, including shifting the costs for non-core discovery materials. If a court determines that claim construction is required, discovery is limited to only that necessary for construction until after the court issues its ruling. After that ruling, discovery is divided into two groups—core documentary evidence and additional discovery. Core documentary evidence is limited to documents that (1) relate to conception, reduction to practice, and application for the patent; (2) are sufficient to show the technical operation of the accused products or services; (3) relate to invalidating prior art; (4) relate to prior licensing of the patent; (5) are sufficient to show the revenues attributed to the invention; (6) are sufficient to show the organizational structure of each party; (7) relate to the defendant’s awareness of the patent or infringement before the lawsuit was filed; and (8) are sufficient to show any marking, lack of marking, or notice of infringement.
Notably, computer code and electronic communications (e-mail, text messages, etc.) are not core discovery, unless the court finds good cause to classify them as such. Additional discovery is the discovery of every other kind of evidence. Each party bears the burden of producing its own core discovery, as is currently the case. However, the burdens shift with respect to additional discovery. There, a requesting party is not entitled to the additional discovery unless it pays for it (including both actual costs and reasonable attorneys’ fees) or posts a bond in that amount.
Finally, the court is to award costs, expenses, and attorneys’ fees to the prevailing party, unless the non-prevailing party’s positions and conduct were objectively reasonable and substantially justified or exceptional circumstances make such an award unjust. If the non-prevailing party cannot pay these costs, the court can make them recoverable against any interested party.
The Consequences of This Proposed Legislation
While this bill is clearly directed at curbing abusive patent litigation, its effects will be felt in all patent lawsuits. Given the far-reaching impact of these proposed changes, all patent litigators should be aware of how patent litigation may change. In particular, there are many unanswered questions about this bill that could have significant consequences.
First, the amount of information required in a complaint is extraordinary, especially in comparison to what is required now. Some of this information may be very difficult for a plaintiff to know at the filing stage, even with substantial pre-filing due diligence. For instance, it may be difficult to determine all of defendant’s allegedly infringing products beforehand. Indeed, discovery often reveals additional products that infringe. What are the consequences if a plaintiff later discovers infringing products? How can they be added to the lawsuit? Interestingly, there is no equivalent requirement for defendants to plead this level of detail with respect to their non-infringement or invalidity positions.
Second, how will these pleading changes affect declaratory judgment lawsuits? Normally, an infringement counterclaim must be raised in an answer as a mandatory counterclaim. These pleading requirements apply for counterclaims, as well as the initial complaint. What happens if a patentee is sued based on a licensing demand and does not have this information? Or does not have this information for all of the accused infringer’s products? Patentees would have to be extremely careful before sending out cease-and-desist or licensing letters.
Third, given that core discovery specifically excludes e-mails, how will the parties obtain some of the core discovery that may only be in e-mail format? For instance, a defendant’s awareness of the patent or infringement may only be found internal e-mail communications. Core discovery also excludes computer code. Presumably, a court will find this code to be core discovery for computer software patents or inventions that use a computer, but that is not clear.
Fourth, the bill states that a party is not entitled to additional discovery until it first pays for it. How will those issues be addressed? What happens if there is a dispute over the reasonableness of the costs? Will courts have to micromanage litigation budgets and fees? What happens if a party cannot afford the discovery? Is it completely barred from obtaining it? Is this a due process concern?
Fifth, core discovery is defined as “core documentary evidence” and only includes documents relating to the topics described above. How are depositions and expert discovery treated? What about interrogatories? Are they “additional discovery” that must be paid for by the requesting party? If so, this is especially problematic with experts. Unlike document requests and interrogatories, a party has no control over what experts (or how many) the other side hires. The bill is silent on how to address these issues.
Sixth, this bill turns patent litigation into a loser pays proposition. In other words, it is the equivalent of a default finding of exceptional circumstances in our current system. The bill is silent as to what happens if a position that was reasonable becomes unreasonable in the middle of the litigation. For instance, an infringement or non-infringement position may become unreasonable after the court issues its claim construction. What happens then? If a plaintiff does not withdraw its suit or a defendant does not immediately settle, are they liable for all of the fees? Only those fees after the ruling? A defendant may not be able to extricate itself on reasonable terms at that point, especially if the plaintiff now knows it will be able to collect its attorneys’ fees.
Finally, while this payment requirement can be challenged, this change will create even more pressure on a defendant to settle a case, especially if it is likely to be costly. Plaintiffs can presumably take more precautions to make sure that their positions are reasonable and substantially justified before they choose to file suit. A defendant may not have that luxury.
There are clearly issues with patent litigation now, especially with respect to suits brought by “trolls.” It is not clear whether the Patent Abuse Reduction Act of 2013 will help or hurt more, however. It will be interesting to see the discussions surrounding this piece of legislation and whether it ever becomes law.
With the House and Senate passing versions of the America Invents Act that will reform the patent laws as we know them, I thought it would be interesting to look back at how patent false marking litigation burst onto the scene in 2010 and how it appears to be flaming out now in 2011. In the last two years, the patent world has been abuzz with claims of false marking brought by individuals against some of the largest companies in America. There were fears that this litigation would result in monstrous penalties where there was little “wrongful” action. As typically happens, these fears appear to have been overblown. While certainly a headache for those companies that were sued and for those companies that have gone to great lengths to verify compliance with the statute, the result seems to be more of a short-term inconvenience.
History of False Marking Law
False patent marking has been around for a long time, first appearing in the Patent Act of 1842, which prohibited the false marking of products with the intent to deceive the public with a fine of not less than $100. Later, in 1952, Congress changed the statute to impose a penalty of not more than $500 per offense:
(a) Whoever, without the consent of the patentee, marks upon, or affixes to, or uses in advertising in connection with anything made, used, offered for sale, or sold by such person within the United States, or imported by the person into the United States, the name or any imitation of the name of the patentee, the patent number, or the words “patent,” “patentee,” or the like, with the intent of counterfeiting or imitating the mark of the patentee, or of deceiving the public and inducing them to believe that the thing was made, offered for sale, sold, or imported into the United States by or with the consent of the patentee; or Whoever marks upon, or affixes to, or uses in advertising in connection with any unpatented article, the word “patent” or any word or number importing that the same is patented for the purpose of deceiving the public; or Whoever marks upon, or affixes to, or uses in advertising in connection with any article, the words “patent applied for,” “patent pending,” or any word importing that an application for patent has been made, when no application for patent has been made, or if made, is not pending, for the purpose of deceiving the public– Shall be fined not more than $500 for every such offense.
35 U.S.C. § 292(a). Prior to 2009, courts interpreting these statutes held that the penalty should not be imposed for each article falsely marked, but rather should be imposed for the decision to falsely mark a product line. See, e.g., London v. Everett H. Dunbar Corp., 179 F. 506 (1st Cir. 1910). As a result, there was little incentive for a litigant to bring a false marking claim and few cases were filed.
Pequignot v. Solo Cup and Forest Group v. Bon Tool
In 2007, things began to change. Matthew Pequignot, a patent attorney, filed suit against Solo Cup for falsely marking its plastic cup lids with expired patent numbers. Pequignot argued that the prior holdings were incorrect and that penalties should be imposed per article. Because there were potentially over 21 billion cups that were falsely marked, Solo Cup theoretically faced more than $10 trillion in potential penalties under Pequignot’s interpretation.
As the case was winding its way through the courts, the Federal Circuit heard an appeal in an unrelated case Forest Group, Inc. v. Bon Tool Co., 590 F.3d 1295 (Fed. Cir. 2009) that would ultimately spark a huge new cottage industry. Forest Group had a patent covering stilts commonly used in construction and sued Bon Tool for infringement of its patent. Bon Tool counterclaimed, alleging that Forest Group falsely marked its stilts. The court found that (1) Bon Tool did not infringe; (2) Forest Group had falsely marked some of its stilts and fined it $500 for a single offense of false marking; and (3) the case was not exceptional, so the court did not award attorney fees. Bon Tool appealed the last two findings, and the Federal Circuit determined that the fine under the false marking statute applies to each article falsely marked, not the decision to mark as the district court had held. (The Federal Circuit affirmed the decision not to award attorney fees). On remand, the district court imposed a fine of $180 for each of the 38 stilts that were falsely marked. Thus, the case that lit the false marking industry on fire and resulted in thousands of subsequent lawsuits was ultimately over a $6,840 fine.
Forest Group Launches a Thousand Suits
From 2007 to 2009, only 47 false marking cases had been filed in federal courts, but after the December 28, 2009 decision in Forest Group, patent attorneys and litigants stormed court houses across the country, filing almost 1,500 cases in the next year and a half. Given the potential $500 per article fine, companies that mass produced products were understandably concerned about facing potentially huge liability for wrongly marking their products.
Because false marking is a qui tam action and the statute appeared to authorize anyone to file suit, there was no need for patent attorneys to find clients who had been actually injured by the alleged false marking. Instead, patent attorneys were filing suit on their own or creating their own corporations to file suit against alleged false markers. The lawsuits tended to focus on products that had expired patent numbers, rather than products that were marked with inappropriate, but still valid, patent numbers. The reason was obvious—there was no need to go through the costly exercise of proving that the patent did not cover the product when the patent had expired. One could immediately jump to the question of whether the product was falsely marked with the intent to deceive the public.
Two later decisions by the Federal Circuit only intensified the flames sparked by the Forest Group decision. In Pequignot v. Solo Cup Co., 608 F.3d 1356 (Fed. Cir. 2010), the Court confirmed that marking a product with an expired patent number fell within the scope of the false marking statute (although it affirmed the judgment against Pequignot because he could not prove that Solo Cup acted with an intent to deceive). And, in Stauffer v. Brooks Brothers, Inc., 619 F.3d 1321 (Fed. Cir. 2010), the Court confirmed that anyone had standing to bring suit under the false marking statute, even if they did not suffer any direct personal injury.
The Federal Circuit appeared to be showing no inclination to beat back this fire. All indications were that a new form of patent “trolling” litigation was here to stay.
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.
Posted By PSMN: Here is the take on this weeks Senate Judiciary Committee Action on the Patent Reform Act as reported by AIPLA DIRECT®:
Legislation/Patent Reform Senate Judiciary Approves Patent Reform Bill 15-0
The Senate Judiciary Committee on February 3, 2011, approved 15-0 the “Manager’s Amendment” to S. 23, patent reform legislation that would, among other things, implement a first-inventor-to-file system, revise provisions on damages awards, create a new post-grant review system, and grant the PTO fee setting authority.
At the Judiciary Committee markup session, several amendments to the bill were approved (1) to delete provisions that would have addressed willful infringement; (2) to delete provisions that would have repealed the requirement that Federal Circuit judges reside within 50 miles of the District of Columbia; and (3) to add a provision addressed to Holmes Group v. Vornado Air Circulation Sys., 535 U.S. 826 (2002), defining the Federal Circuit’s exclusive appellate jurisdiction as including compulsory counterclaims arising under the patent or plant variety protection laws.
AIPLA President David Hill said “the Senate Committee’s action is very encouraging, and Senator Leahy’s comments about his cooperation with the leadership in the House have us hopeful that patent reform may soon become a reality.” Referring to next week’s planned hearing in the House on reform legislation, AIPLA Executive Director Q. Todd Dickinson said “We are pleased that both houses are taking up patent reform so soon after convening, which we hope is a positive sign about eventual passage.”
Yet to be resolved are two important proposals: (1) provisions to give the PTO funding that protects against diversion of its fee revenue; and (2) a proposal to create a special reexamination procedure to reconsider the business method patents under Sections 101 and 112 of the Patent Act.
Some other changes have been made to the legislation to refine and clarify language or to make changes that conform to other provisions. For example:
Amendments to Section 292(b) in S. 515 would have eliminated qui tam actions for false marking, allowing only actions for those suffering competitive injury; S. 23 would now also amend Section 292(a) to expressly state that only the United States may bring a penalty action under that provision;
Section 32 on the statute of limitations for PTO actions against attorneys for misconduct no longer runs from discover, whenever that occurred; now the provision states that proceedings must begin either within 10 years of the misconduct or 1 year after the misconduct is discovered, whichever is earlier; and
Language in Section 282 on the presumption of validity which cross referenced Section 103(b) is deleted because Section 103(b), addressing patented processes to make biological products, would be repealed based on case law development and non-use of this provision.
To read the Manager’s Amendment approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, click here.
Thanks to AIPLA DIRECT® for this report and update.