By Dennis Crouch
In many ways, a patent infringement demand letter is akin to a debt collection action. And, we know that debt collection is highly regulated under both Federal and State consumer protection laws. The current mood in Congress and amongst the state attorneys general is that patent demand letters should also be regulated to control their negative impact on the marketplace. The particular focus is on patentees who threaten litigation against the users of off-the-shelf technology (such as WiFi technology or Flat-Panel Screens) with little or no due diligence or pre-threat investigations. In some cases, patentees are threating litigation with no intention of actually filing suit and are hoping to use the high cost of patent litigation to drive settlement value rather than the underlying value of the patented invention.
Senators Leahy and Lee have proposed the Patent Transparency and Improvements Act (PTIA) of 2013 (S. 1720) as a quite weak form of regulation that would only address the most egregious cases of threats that operate as an unfair competition.
Now, Representatives Jared Polis (D-Co) and Tom Marino (R-Pa) have proposed their own legislation that would have more teeth. See the Demand Letter Transparency Act of 2013 (H.R.3540). Download HR3540
H.R. 3540 includes a number of interesting features:
Any demand letter must include:
- A listing of each claim being asserted and a listing of each accused device;
- If indirect infringement is claimed, an explanation of the underlying direct infringement;
- A description of the principle business of the party alleging infringement;
- A list of other cases and review proceedings where the patent was asserted;
- Identifying of any licensing term or pricing commitments associated with the asserted patent.
- A listing of all people who have a direct financial interest in the outcome of the action, and a description of the agreements providing the legal basis for these financial interests; and
- A statement to the recipient that 'You are not required to respond to this letter by law.'
- A 20-demand-level threshold that raises heightened requirements, including the submission of demand information regarding the demands to the USPTO that will then be publicly available. (i.e., once a patentee sends out 20 demand letters, then it must begin complying with certain reporting requirements).
- Failure to abide by the demand letter requirements would result in abandonment of the patent; other financial penalties; and also action by the FTC.
- Under the statute, a demand letter is defined broadly as any "written communication directed to an unaffiliated third party stating or indicating, directly or indirectly, that the intended recipient or anyone affiliated with that recipient is or may be infringing a patent, or may bear liability or owe compensation to another because of such patent."
While the Leahy-Lee proposal is likely under-inclusive, H.R. 3540 is over-inclusive and would serve as a trap for unwary business leaders looking to license their company's technology. Two tweaks would bring focus: (1) only apply the demand letter requirements to instances where more than 20-demand letters have been sent-out; and (2) narrow the definition of demand letters so that some amount of written technology license negotiations can occur without raising the threat of abandonment (perhaps this could be done through some sort of safe-harbor).