Ted Sichelman is a Professor of Law and Director of the Technology Entrepreneurship and Intellectual Proerty Clinic and Center for Intellectual Property Law & Markets at the University of San Diego School of Law.
Representative Bob Goodlatte’s bill, HR 9 (the “Innovation Act”), has been receiving much attention in the press and on the Hill. The Innovation Act is largely identical to the one (HR 3309) that passed the full House in late 2013, so of all the pending patent reform bills, it is likely to receive the most play in Congress this term.
The Innovation Act includes what seems to be a neutral fee-shifting provision. Specifically, it would require a court to “award, to a prevailing party, reasonable fees and other expenses … unless the court finds that the position and conduct of the nonprevailing party or parties were reasonably justified in law and fact or that special circumstances (such as severe economic hardship to a named inventor) make an award unjust.”
Unfortunately, many commentators have focused the issue of whether this provision creates a presumption in favor of fee-shifting without carefully considering the many affiliated provisions in the bill. These additional provisions are particularly important because—contrary to the language quoted above—they significantly skew the effects of fee-shifting against patent holders. Given this lopsided effect, the fee-shifting provisions would probably increase patent assertion entity (PAE) activity. As I explain further below, this is because the provisions would most likely substantially reduce PAEs’ costs of acquiring patents.
A close reading of these additional fee-shifting provisions makes their skewed nature readily apparent. Take, for instance, the provision for “interested” third-party liability. It essentially makes those with a “direct financial interest in the patent . . . damages [award] or . . . licensing revenue” liable in the event a losing patent holder cannot pay a fee award (subject to certain exclusions). By its terms, the third-party liability provision only benefits “a prevailing party defending against an allegation of infringement of a patent claim” (emphasis added). So while third-party liability is quite expansive for those affiliated with losing patent holders, it is nonexistent for those affiliated with losing accused infringers.
Beyond discriminating against patent holders, the third-party liability provision further discriminates against non-practicing patent holders. Third-parties may only be joined in the event that the “prevailing party shows that the nonprevailing party has no substantial interest in the subject matter at issue other than asserting such patent claim in litigation.” This limitation would clearly capture non-practicing entities (NPEs), at least those who do not perform any R&D—although whether and when R&D is sufficient to meet the “substantial interest” threshold is undefined in the statute and thus unclear. If fee-shifting is truly designed to reduce low-quality suits, there is little basis to limit third-party liability only to NPEs. Anyone who has litigated knows that practicing entities, like NPEs, bring both strong and weak suits. There is a substantial economic interest in preventing frivolous suits regardless of the plaintiff’s business model.
Another example of the skewed nature of HR 9 is that settlement counts as a win for the accused infringer when the patentee “unilaterally extends to [the accused infringer] a covenant not to sue for infringement,” unless the patentee could have voluntarily dismissed the action without a court order. My understanding from experienced litigators is that these unilateral covenants tend to occur when the patent holder simply runs out of money and cannot continue to litigate. In this case, courts will often force the patent holder to provide a covenant not to sue in exchange for allowing it to drop the action. Presumably a patent holder providing such a covenant would sometimes not be able pay a fee award, which—if the patent holder is non-practicing—would allow the court to impose judgment on qualifying “interested” third-parties. On the other hand, if an accused infringer goes bankrupt, leading to a default judgment, the patent holder cannot join interested third-parties of the accused infringer when attorneys’ fees are owed.
The upshot of these provisions is to massively skew fee-shifting against the interests of patent holders, leading to an asymmetric risk that would very likely cause risk-averse inventors and assignees to avoid directly enforcing their patents, sometimes even strong ones. This is especially so because patent litigation is highly uncertain and costly, and the relevant test in the provision is the fairly open-ended “reasonably justified in law and fact” standard. Indeed, “reasonable fees and other expenses” in patent cases can be quite high—in large cases, well over $5 million—which would generally be a huge sticker shock to small companies and individual inventors with limited resources. Even a small percentage chance of a paying these fees could deter risk-averse inventors and assignees. In my personal experience running and dealing with many startups and individual inventors, they often are very risk averse when it simply comes to paying their own litigation expenses, much less the opposing party’s fees.
Oddly, the asymmetric nature of the Innovation Act’s fee-shifting provision may have the very opposite effect of what it purports to achieve by reducing so-called “patent troll” suits. As others have argued, the reason is straightforward: PAEs can more easily absorb the risk of bringing suit in the face of potential fee-shifting than startups and individuals. As I already pointed out, startups, individual inventors, and small companies are generally highly risk-averse patent holders. They would therefore fear liability being imposed on them for the direct enforcement of their patents (or if they simply retained an “interest” in a patent that was enforced by a third-party). As such, they would be more likely to sell their patents outright to PAEs instead of retaining a percentage in the litigation (as is standard today).
In fact, PAEs and their funders have already become savvy in this regard and often use single-purpose litigation entities with passive equity investors who cannot “influence, direct, or control” the litigation, removing these investors from liability under the Innovation Act. This approach makes the risk that the plaintiff would not be able to pay fee awards even more acute, leaving the original inventors on the hook if they retain a percentage stake of the proceeds (or probably even an equity stake in the single-purpose entity, because arguably the inventors can “influence” the litigation via their direct involvement). Indeed, even large companies and universities that monetize their patents via PAEs may decide to sell their patents outright to these PAEs, rather than retain a percentage stake, because of the unnecessary risk of placing their assets on the line. (Although the Innovation Act contains an escape valve whereby third parties can renounce all interest in the patents and avoid liability, it must be done very soon after a complaint is filed, which makes it of little use in a typical PAE deal.)
This shift from percentage deals to outright purchases would likely substantially drive down PAE patent acquisition costs. Because independent inventors and startups are risk averse—and some larger companies and universities likely are as well—these entities would expand the number of patents available for direct purchase by PAEs. This would likely push costs low enough that PAEs could afford to acquire much larger pools of patents, thereby increasing PAE assertions and reducing funds remitted back to original inventors and assignees.
Conversely, even though the Innovation Act is highly biased in favor of accused infringers, a risk-neutral PAE or large practicing patentee may be able to extract greater settlements from risk-averse accused infringers, such as startups and small companies, by credibly threatening to take a strong case to trial. This is contrary to the poorly reasoned analysis by organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which wrongly assumes that PAEs are “patent trolls” that file “weak” suits and also seemingly forgets small companies are regularly sued by larger competitors. Thus, the Innovation Act’s fee-shifting provisions could very well hurt small companies and startups that are defendants accused of infringement.
In sum, the gains from the Innovation Act’s fee-shifting provision, may simply go to large, risk-neutral companies, regardless of whether they are the Intellectual Ventures or Ciscos of the world, just as scholarly analysis has shown how fee-shifting operates in other areas of the law. Perhaps that is why it is not a coincidence that the Intellectual Property Owners Association , which is dominated by large companies, does not oppose it, while the National Venture Capital Association effectively does oppose it. Like the America Invents Act, the Innovation Act’s fee-shifting provisions would probably shift today’s innovation footprint away from the radical and disruptive (associated more with startups and individuals) towards the incremental (associated more with large, established companies).
There is no solid evidence that the potential benefits of the Innovation Act’s biased fee-shifting provision would outweigh its likely substantial costs. These costs could be so large that that even if we include the touted benefits from all of the other provisions in the Innovation Act, some of which could prove useful, I doubt the Act is worth it. In the very least, we should not impose radical and potentially very costly changes in the patent system without very good evidence. As such, anyone who cares about innovation as a whole should oppose the Innovation Act as it stands.