Guest Post by Professor Bernard Chao
Last year, I wrote about the problem of courts that injudiciously seal records in patent cases. See Bernard Chao, Not So Confidential: A Call for Restraint in Sealing Court Records, 2011 Patently-O Patent L.J. 6. In that essay, I explained how allowing access to court records is important because it teaches the public about our legal system. This in turn provides an important check on the law. Public outcry over unjust decisions can often lead to legislative or judicial reform.
Unfortunately, this problem has raised its ugly head again in the high profile Monsanto v. DuPont patent case. This case has made headlines because Monsanto has recovered $1 billion in damages even though DuPont has never even been accused of selling any seeds that infringe Monsanto’s patent for genetically modified Roundup Ready soybeans. Rather, the infringement is based on some Roundup Ready soybeans that the defendants developed but did not sell and the award appears to be based on the royalties that DuPont would have paid had it negotiated a license ahead of time. I use “appears” because Monsanto’s damages theory is hidden from the public view.
I have previously written on patent damages and was puzzled by how DuPont could be liable for $1 billion when it did not actually sell any infringing seeds. Consequently, I went to the case’s docket in the Eastern District of Missouri hoping to learn about Monsanto’s damages theory. There are several entries that might explain the theory that led to a $1 billion verdict. For example, DuPont filed a motion to exclude the opinions of Monsanto’s damages expert, Michael Keeley. Of course Monsanto filed a response and DuPont replied. These briefs and their exhibits were filed entirely under seal. In other words, there is no public redacted version of any of these documents. What’s more there is nothing in the docket that shows how the district court ruled on the DuPont’s motion. Even if the court’s ruling were in the docket, it probably would not have been available. Other docket entries show that the court has regularly sealed many of its other rulings including decisions on several motions for partial summary judgments, a motion to compel and a motion to strike. In other words, there is no way to understand many of the basic theories underlying Monsanto’s case and Dupont’s defenses.
Now you don’t need to read all the press coverage to understand that Monsanto v. DuPont is one of the most important cases in patent law. There appears to be a novel damages theory that led to $1 billion verdict. There are likely issues of first impression that relate to patents on genetically modified organisms. Indeed, the outcome has important ramifications for agribusiness generally. Yet, the critical court records are under seal and everyone is left in the dark. I won’t repeat my entire argument here. But, I will repeat my plea. At a minimum, the court should force parties in patent cases to file public versions of their briefs. They can leave out their profit margins and trade secrets. We don’t care about such things. But the public needs to know the basic facts and theories underlying these cases. Similarly, to the extent that courts seal their decisions, they need to publish public versions that explain the reasoning underlying their rulings.