Guest Post by David O. Taylor, Associate Professor of Law at SMU Dedman School of Law. Professor Taylor recently drafted an article summarizing the results of a survey of venture capitalists and private equity investors. The survey explores how the Supreme Court’s recent patent eligibility cases have influenced firm decisions to invest in companies developing technology. -Jason
Numerous inventors, lawyers, companies, industry groups, professors, and judges have decried the Supreme Court’s recent patent eligibility cases—particularly its 2012 decision in Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc. and its 2014 decision in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank International. These cases replaced the longstanding patent eligibility standard with a new one requiring, in particular, a so-called “inventive concept.”
Building upon judges’ views that they are bound by the Supreme Court’s new standard and their concerns that that standard is having devastating consequences, the American Intellectual Property Law Association and the Intellectual Property Owners Association believe the situation is so untenable that they have proposed that Congress overturn that standard.
Others, however, disagree. They effectively ask: To what extent have the Court’s cases shifting eligibility law actually impacted decisions to invest in the development of technology? Moreover, exactly how have these cases actually impacted investment decisions? And to the extent these cases have had a significant impact on investment decisions, has that impact proven to be positive or negative in the sense of increased or decreased investment?
Existing literature provides surprisingly little data even to begin to answer these questions. And, make no mistake, these questions are fundamental, and the accuracy of their answers is important. Answers to these questions will either support congressional intervention in the law of patent eligibility or counsel against it. Thus, the questions ought to be asked and—more importantly—answered by reference to hard data rather than gut feeling or prognostication. Quite literally, future innovation—perhaps even lifesaving innovation—hangs in the balance.
And so that is exactly what I have done: gathered data to help begin identifying accurate answers to these questions. In particular, I have conducted a survey of 475 venture capital and private equity investors to study the impact of the Court’s eligibility cases on their firms’ decisions to invest in companies developing technology. This survey is the first of its kind, and the data it has provided is sorely needed.
In an article summarizing my findings, I present detailed results of the survey and identify and consider four principal findings.
First, the investors who responded to the survey overwhelmingly believe patent eligibility is an important consideration when their firms decide whether to invest in companies developing technology. Indeed, overall 74% of the investors agreed that patent eligibility is an important consideration in firm decisions whether to invest in companies developing technology; only 14% disagreed. Likewise, investors reported that reduced patent eligibility for a technology makes it less likely that their firm will invest in companies developing that technology. For example, overall 62% of the investors agreed that their firms were less likely to invest in a company developing technology if patent eligibility makes patents unavailable, while only 20% disagreed. These results, while perhaps not surprising, nonetheless confirm one of the central premises upon which the patent system rests: that patents help to spur investment in development of technology.
Second, reduced patent eligibility correlates with particular investment behaviors in particular industries. Investors overwhelmingly indicated, for example, that the elimination of patents would either not impact their firm’s decisions whether to invest in companies or only slightly decrease investments in companies developing technology in the construction (89%), software and Internet (80%), transportation (84%), energy (79%), and computer and electronic hardware (72%) industries. But investors, by contrast, overwhelmingly indicated that the elimination of patents would either somewhat decrease or strongly decrease their firm’s investments in the biotechnology (77%), medical device (79%), and pharmaceutical industries (73%). Thus, according to these investors, on average each industry would see reduced investment, but the impact on particular industries would be different. And the life sciences industries would be the ones most negatively affected.
Third, the Supreme Court’s eligibility cases have impacted many firms’ investments and, more significantly going forward, their firm’s investment behaviors. Almost 40% of the investors who knew about at least one of the Court’s eligibility cases indicated that the Court’s decisions had somewhat negative or very negative effects on their firm’s existing investments, while only about 15% of these investors reported somewhat positive or very positive effects. On a going forward basis, moreover, almost 33% of the investors who knew about at least one of the Court’s eligibility cases indicated that these cases affected their firms’ decisions whether to invest in companies developing technology. These investors reported primarily decreased investments, but also shifting of investments between industries. In particular they identified shifting of investments out of the biotechnology, medical device, pharmaceutical, and software and Internet industries. Again, the life sciences industries represent the most negatively affected of all industries.
Fourth, investors familiar with the Supreme Court’s eligibility cases indicated different changes in firm investment behavior as compared to investors without this familiarity. As discussed above, about 33% of investors with this familiarity reported that these cases impacted their firms’ investment behavior, with these investors reporting shifting of investments away from the software and Internet industry along with the biotechnology, medical device, and pharmaceutical industries. Investors without familiarity with these cases, by contrast, overwhelmingly reported that decreased availability of patents since 2009 (prior to the Supreme Court’s eligibility cases) has not impacted their firms’ changes in investment behavior. Indeed, a full 95% indicated no impact on any change in their firm’s investments. Moreover, investors without familiarity with these cases indicated more often, as compared to investors with familiarity, that their firms have shifted investments into the software and Internet industries as compared to all other industries. In short, eligibility knowledgeable investors report the Supreme Court’s cases have resulted in reduced investment in software and the Internet, while unknowledgeable investors report increased investment in software and the Internet over the same time period. As investor’s transition from non-knowledgeable to knowledgeable (once they learn about the Court’s cases and their impact on patent eligibility), investment in software and the Internet will seemingly decrease. Thus, the life sciences industries are by no means the only industries impacted by the Court’s cases.
The results of the survey provide critical data for an evidence-based evaluation of competing arguments in the ongoing debate about the need for congressional intervention in the law of patent eligibility. Proponents of reform will no doubt tout the results of the survey as representing a clarion call for reform. The best that can be said by those that prefer the status quo is that most investors do not report changing their investment decisionmaking based upon the Supreme Court’s eligibility decisions. A significant part of this group of investors, however, represents those uninformed about the Court’s cases.
The reality is that the results of the survey highlight the importance of patent eligibility and the negative impact of the Supreme Court’s eligibility cases generally on investment, but particularly in the most important areas of technological development in terms of its impact on public health: the biotechnology, medical device, and pharmaceutical industries—the life sciences industries. That said, it is important to highlight that the results show the Court’s decisions have negatively impacted each and every area of technological development studied.
As a consequence, the results do support the idea that the time has come for Congress to at least consider overturning the Supreme Court’s new eligibility standard to prevent additional lost investment in technological development in the United States. Indeed, given the results of the survey, it seems likely that the Supreme Court’s eligibility decisions have resulted in lost investment in the life sciences that has delayed or altogether prevented the development of medicines and medical procedures.
Research funding disclosure: I prepared this Article supported by grants from Microsoft Corporation, the Tsai Center for Law, Science and Innovation, and the Clark J. Matthews, II Faculty Research Endowment Fund.