Patent Reform 2013: Adding Clarity and Transparency to the System

By Dennis Crouch

President Obama today released information on planed executive orders and push for new legislation that will attempt to block companies from asserting their patents unless they are also manufacturing a product based upon the patented design. And at the same time, the President’s National Economic Council and Council of Economic Advisers released a report a report titled “Patent Assertion and U.S. Innovation.” The report generally takes the viewpoint that Patent Assertion Entities are bad for the US Economy and makes the bold claim that, in the past year PAE’s have threatened “over 100,000 companies with patent infringement.” The bulk of the report that identifies the “problem” is based upon the work of professor Colleen Chien (Santa Clara); Jim Bessen & Mike Meurer (BU); Mark Lemley (Stanford) and Michele Boldrin (WUSTL) & David K. Levine (WUSTL).

Despite the unknowing hyperbole of the report, the suggested actions are, for the most, welcome and will benefit the patent system as a whole. In fact, this move to finally address the problem of predictability of patent scope and patent validity hits the sweet spot of where problems emerge in the system. Of course, the devil will be in the details of these approaches.

Executive Actions:

1. Knowing Who Owns the Patents: Through the PTO a new rule will require patent applicants and owners to regularly update ownership information with the “real party of interest” so that the assignment records are accurate complete.

2. Tightening Functional Claiming. The PTO will provide new targeted training to its examiners on scrutiny of functional claims and will, over the next six months develop strategies to improve claim clarity, such as by use of glossaries in patent specifications to assist examiners in the software field.

In my view, these two elements are sorely needed and will generally improve the patent system without actually limiting the ability of patent assertion entities to derive value from their innovations through patent assertion. In addition, the PTO will begin a number of outreach mechanisms intended to provide assistance to non-patent-insiders who receive patent demand letter.

Legislative Actions:

1. Require patentees and applicants to disclose the “Real Party-in-Interest,” by requiring that any party sending demand letters, filing an infringement suit or seeking PTO review of a patent to file updated ownership information, and enabling the PTO or district courts to impose sanctions for non-compliance. [DC: This would add statutory back-up for the PTO rulemaking]

2. Permit more discretion in awarding fees to prevailing parties in patent cases, providing district courts with more discretion to award attorney’s fees under 35 USC 285 as a sanction for abusive court filings (similar to the legal standard that applies in copyright infringement cases). [DC: This can be helpful if allowed to go both-ways, although courts generally find that patent litigators are the most well-prepared and honorable of any that they see in court.]

3. Expand the PTO’s transitional program for covered business method patents to include a broader category of computer-enabled patents and permit a wider range of challengers to petition for review of issued patents before the Patent Trial and Appeals Board (PTAB). [DC: This has the potential of capturing a substantial percentage of issued patents, but that may be fine.]

4. Protect off-the-shelf use by consumers and businesses by providing them with better legal protection against liability for a product being used off-the-shelf and solely for its intended use. Also, stay judicial proceedings against such consumers when an infringement suit has also been brought against a vendor, retailer, or manufacturer. [DC: We are on our way here toward a fair use of patents.]

5. Change the ITC standard for obtaining an injunction to better align it with the traditional four-factor test in eBay Inc. v. MercExchange, to enhance consistency in the standards applied at the ITC and district courts. [DC: The focus here is to get patent assertion entities out of the ITC]

6. Use demand letter transparency to help curb abusive suits, incentivizing public filing of demand letters in a way that makes them accessible and searchable to the public. [DC: This sounds good, I wonder how those writing demand letters would respond.]

7. Ensure the ITC has adequate flexibility in hiring qualified Administrative Law Judges. [DC: However, must ensure that the flexibility is not used to hire because of particular political bent.]