Understanding the role of non-practicing entities (or "NPEs" for short) in patent litigation is important. For one reason, patent litigators appear to be polarizing into a plaintiffs' bar and a defense bar. This polarization in lawyers is new to patent litigation, but has existed for many years in other areas of the law, such as medical malpractice, products liability, and labor law. In addition to the lawyers, certain industries have experienced more infringement allegations by NPEs, which have created rifts in many debates about patent reform. The topic of NPEs in patent litigation – their costs and benefits – has been featured prominently in the press, including extensive coverage of a study reporting that the "direct cost" of NPEs was $29 billion in 2011.
We recently wrote a short paper called Analyzing the Role of Non-Practicing Entities in the Patent System, which attempts to set forth a coherent way to conceptualize NPEs.
Before we can meaningfully study or even discuss NPEs, it is important to precisely define what is an NPE. Unfortunately, there is very little agreement on this point. Technically, individual inventors and universities are non-practicing entities. However, they appear very different from each other, and they are also different from start-up companies that have unsuccessfully attempted to commercialize their patented technologies. In addition, the term NPE is often used to refer to both small patent holding companies and large patent aggregators who purchase portfolios of patents from inventors and others for the primary purpose of enforcement. Any credible study of NPEs should distinguish among these different constituents and report empirical information separately.
Beyond the definitional issue, numerous arguments have been offered about the positive and negative aspects of the rise of NPEs in patent litigation. We discuss below several of these arguments, and what the existing empirical evidence suggests.
1. Criticisms of NPEs:
One common criticism of NPEs (however that term is defined) is that they initiate patent infringement lawsuits seeking to enforce patents of dubious quality or with questionable infringement claims, and then settling for amounts far less than the defendants' litigation costs. The story is that NPEs take strategic advantage of the notoriously high cost of patent litigation, which requires several million dollars in attorneys' fees to litigate through the close of discovery.
There is a little firm empirical evidence supporting this scenario of the combination of dubious patent assertions with low settlement demands. There is evidence that NPEs settle more quickly compared to other patent holders, which could indicate the possibility of nuisance settlements. But there is also evidence that the patents asserted by NPEs are similar to patents asserted by practicing entities. There is some evidence that the most litigious NPEs lose more often when the cases are taken to a final judgment, but like other types of complex civil litigation, the vast majority of patent cases settle before judgment.
If widespread opportunistic conduct by NPEs is in fact true, then we need less expensive ways to invalidate patents (e.g., cheaper post-grant review and inter partes review) and to resolve infringement actions (e.g., with a small claims court for cases with less than $3 million in damages or with early ADR).
But before we conclude that such widespread opportunistic conduct is occurring, we need better data on the merits of NPE patent cases, settlement amounts in those cases, the length of time they last, and the amount of attorneys' fees paid by defendants and NPEs to get a true picture of what the reality is. Recently, James Bessen and Michael Meurer from Boston University released a highly publicized study estimating that the direct cost of NPE patent assertions is "substantial, totaling about $29 billion in accrued costs in 2011." We have criticized their methodology and findings, which has been reported on here, here, and here. Briefly, we believe that the $29 billion estimate is likely skewed too high for several reasons. The estimate is based upon a biased sample of NPE defendants. It also includes the settlements, verdicts, and judgments to NPEs as part of the costs, when in reality these are the transfers to patent holders at the very core of the patent system. We find their analysis unsatisfying, and our article offers various suggested improvements to their methodology. Their study also does not consider the merits of the underlying cases.
A second common criticism is that certain types of NPEs – those who are unrelated to the original inventors – pocket a large part of the settlement amounts received and pass little on to the inventors who initially developed the patented technology. We need more data to assess this, but what we currently know appears to point to the opposite conclusion. For instance, Acacia Research Group, perhaps the largest publicly traded NPE, reported that in 2011, it paid more in royalties to inventors than it did to contingent fee attorneys who enforced their patents in litigation.
A third common criticism is that NPEs are not true innovators. Rather, they wait for another to expend resources to commercialize a product with the patented technology and then demand a "tax" on it. We think that existing patent law doctrines can be used to analyze this criticism: Are the asserted patent claims invalid as obvious? Does the accused product embody the asserted claims? Is there some other defense to infringement that has merit? What is the appropriate amount of damages for infringement? And does equity support the entry of an injunction?
2. Benefits of NPEs:
Most agree that university faculty and graduate students are often true innovators. But even NPEs unrelated to the original inventors may provide benefits. This is difficult to empirically assess because nearly all such NPEs are privately-held companies, and there is little publicly available information about these entities. If the concern is that settlement dollars transferred to NPEs are not provided to R&D or inventors, we suggest that private NPEs be surveyed. A survey of NPEs on issues such as litigation costs, settlements, transfers to inventors, and other issues, could be of tremendous value. We do not believe that any such survey has ever been conducted. A survey of NPEs has the additional advantage of exploring both sides of this issue. It could reveal a more complete and balanced picture of patent litigation than what can be obtained from surveying only one side, the accused infringers.
Even NPEs who merely purchase patents with an eye toward enforcement may serve a useful purpose by creating a market for patent rights. They purchase patents from those who do not have the resources or expertise to take their patented technologies to market such as individual inventors. These individual inventors often do not have the resources to hire lawyers that bill by the hour and instead must look for alternate arrangements, such as contingency fee representation or a sale of their portfolios to NPEs. Thus, NPEs create opportunities, perhaps the only opportunities, for non-manufacturing patentees to monetize their patents.
From an economic perspective, many believe that NPEs may serve an important market need. They absorb the risks and uncertainties of patent litigation, and yet may provide an important service permitting non-manufacturing patentees to reap some monetary rewards for their innovations. This potential benefit is premised upon the assumption that the patents are not of dubious quality. With respect to the debate about NPEs, we believe that focusing solely on the costs from and the distributions of funds by NPEs is somewhat beside the point. The better question is whether NPE lawsuits are being brought because the defendants are infringers of a valid patent, or because the defendants are merely easy targets for a nuisance lawsuit. This determination requires looking beyond the identity of the patent holder. Rather, it means we need to evaluate the patents being asserted to determine if there are credible patent claims that are valid, enforceable, and infringed. To the extent changes are needed to the patent system, we suggest focusing on reducing transaction costs (e.g., lawyers' fees) in patent litigation, offering cheaper mechanisms to challenge issued patents (the AIA's post-grant challenges and other administrative procedures for challenging validity appear to be a step in the right direction), and providing cheaper and quicker adjudication through a new small claims court for patent lawsuits, instead of focusing solely on whether the patent holder is a non-practicing entity.
In sum, the debate about NPEs underscores the fundamental point that patent litigation is about whether a valid and enforceable patent claim has been infringed. The more efficiently we can determine this answer in a lawsuit, the better off we will be.
The full article, which includes suggestions for improving the patent system, areas for future study, and criticisms of the study by other academics is available here.