Archives For Patent

An important new paper was recently posted to SSRN by Commissioner Joshua Wright and Joanna Tsai.  It addresses a very hot topic in the innovation industries: the role of patented innovation in standard setting organizations (SSO), what are known as standard essential patents (SEP), and whether the nature of the contractual commitment that adheres to a SEP — specifically, a licensing commitment known by another acronym, FRAND (Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory) — represents a breakdown in private ordering in the efficient commercialization of new technology.  This is an important contribution to the growing literature on patented innovation and SSOs, if only due to the heightened interest in these issues by the FTC and the Antitrust Division at the DOJ.

http://ssrn.com/abstract=2467939.

“Standard Setting, Intellectual Property Rights, and the Role of Antitrust in Regulating Incomplete Contracts”

JOANNA TSAI, Government of the United States of America – Federal Trade Commission
Email:
JOSHUA D. WRIGHT, Federal Trade Commission, George Mason University School of Law
Email:

A large and growing number of regulators and academics, while recognizing the benefits of standardization, view skeptically the role standard setting organizations (SSOs) play in facilitating standardization and commercialization of intellectual property rights (IPRs). Competition agencies and commentators suggest specific changes to current SSO IPR policies to reduce incompleteness and favor an expanded role for antitrust law in deterring patent holdup. These criticisms and policy proposals are based upon the premise that the incompleteness of SSO contracts is inefficient and the result of market failure rather than an efficient outcome reflecting the costs and benefits of adding greater specificity to SSO contracts and emerging from a competitive contracting environment. We explore conceptually and empirically that presumption. We also document and analyze changes to eleven SSO IPR policies over time. We find that SSOs and their IPR policies appear to be responsive to changes in perceived patent holdup risks and other factors. We find the SSOs’ responses to these changes are varied across SSOs, and that contractual incompleteness and ambiguity for certain terms persist both across SSOs and over time, despite many revisions and improvements to IPR policies. We interpret this evidence as consistent with a competitive contracting process. We conclude by exploring the implications of these findings for identifying the appropriate role of antitrust law in governing ex post opportunism in the SSO setting.

[First posted to the CPIP Blog on June 17, 2014]

Last Thursday, Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of Tesla Motors, issued an announcement on the company’s blog with a catchy title: “All Our Patent Are Belong to You.” Commentary in social media and on blogs, as well as in traditional newspapers, jumped to the conclusion that Tesla is abandoning its patents and making them “freely” available to the public for whomever wants to use them. As with all things involving patented innovation these days, the reality of Tesla’s new patent policy does not match the PR spin or the buzz on the Internet.

The reality is that Tesla is not disclaiming its patent rights, despite Musk’s title to his announcement or his invocation in his announcement of the tread-worn cliché today that patents impede innovation. In fact, Tesla’s new policy is an example of Musk exercising patent rights, not abandoning them.

If you’re not puzzled by Tesla’s announcement, you should be. This is because patents are a type of property right that secures the exclusive rights to make, use, or sell an invention for a limited period of time. These rights do not come cheap — inventions cost time, effort, and money to create and companies like Tesla then exploit these property rights in spending even more time, effort and money in converting inventions into viable commercial products and services sold in the marketplace. Thus, if Tesla’s intention is to make its ideas available for public use, why, one may wonder, did it bother to expend the tremendous resources in acquiring the patents in the first place?

The key to understanding this important question lies in a single phrase in Musk’s announcement that almost everyone has failed to notice: “Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.” (emphasis added)

What does “in good faith” mean in this context? Fortunately, one intrepid reporter at the L.A. Times asked this question, and the answer from Musk makes clear that this new policy is not an abandonment of patent rights in favor of some fuzzy notion of the public domain, but rather it’s an exercise of his company’s patent rights: “Tesla will allow other manufacturers to use its patents in “good faith” – essentially barring those users from filing patent-infringement lawsuits against [Tesla] or trying to produce knockoffs of Tesla’s cars.” In the legalese known to patent lawyers and inventors the world over, this is not an abandonment of Tesla’s patents, this is what is known as a cross license.

In plain English, here’s the deal that Tesla is offering to manufacturers and users of its electrical car technology: in exchange for using Tesla’s patents, the users of Tesla’s patents cannot file patent infringement lawsuits against Tesla if Tesla uses their other patents. In other words, this is a classic deal made between businesses all of the time — you can use my property and I can use your property, and we cannot sue each other. It’s a similar deal to that made between two neighbors who agree to permit each other to cross each other’s backyard. In the context of patented innovation, this agreement is more complicated, but it is in principle the same thing: if automobile manufacturer X decides to use Tesla’s patents, and Tesla begins infringing X’s patents on other technology, then X has agreed through its prior use of Tesla’s patents that it cannot sue Tesla. Thus, each party has licensed the other to make, use and sell their respective patented technologies; in patent law parlance, it’s a “cross license.”

The only thing unique about this cross licensing offer is that Tesla publicly announced it as an open offer for anyone willing to accept it. This is not a patent “free for all,” and it certainly is not tantamount to Tesla “taking down the patent wall.” These are catchy sound bites, but they in fact obfuscate the clear business-minded nature of this commercial decision.

For anyone perhaps still doubting what is happening here, the same L.A Times story further confirms that Tesla is not abandoning the patent system. As stated to the reporter: “Tesla will continue to seek patents for its new technology to prevent others from poaching its advancements.” So much for the much ballyhooed pronouncements last week of how Tesla’s new patent (licensing) policy “reminds us of the urgent need for patent reform”! Musk clearly believes that the patent system is working just great for the new technological innovation his engineers are creating at Tesla right now.

For those working in the innovation industries, Tesla’s decision to cross license its old patents makes sense. Tesla Motors has already extracted much of the value from these old patents: Musk was able to secure venture capital funding for his startup company and he was able to secure for Tesla a dominant position in the electrical car market through his exclusive use of this patented innovation. (Venture capitalists consistently rely on patents in making investment decisions, and for anyone who doubts this need to watch only a few episodes of Shark Tank.) Now that everyone associates radical, cutting-edge innovation with Tesla, Musk can shift in his strategic use of his company’s assets, including his intellectual property rights, such as relying more heavily on the goodwill associated with the Tesla trademark. This is clear, for instance, from the statement to the LA Times that companies or individuals agreeing to the “good faith” terms of Tesla’s license agree not to make “knockoffs of Tesla’s cars.”

There are other equally important commercial reasons for Tesla adopting its new cross-licensing policy, but the point has been made. Tesla’s new cross-licensing policy for its old patents is not Musk embracing “the open source philosophy” (as he asserts in his announcement). This may make good PR given the overheated rhetoric today about the so-called “broken patent system,” but it’s time people recognize the difference between PR and a reasonable business decision that reflects a company that has used (old) patents to acquire a dominant market position and is now changing its business model given these successful developments.

At a minimum, people should recognize that Tesla is not declaring that it will not bring patent infringement lawsuits, but only that it will not sue people with whom it has licensed its patented innovation. This is not, contrary to one law professor’s statement, a company “refrain[ing] from exercising their patent rights to the fullest extent of the law.” In licensing its patented technology, Tesla is in fact exercising its patent rights to the fullest extent of the law, and that is exactly what the patent system promotes in the myriad business models and innovative

On July 24, the Federal Trade Commission issued a modified complaint and consent order in the Google/Motorola case. The FTC responded to the 25 comments on the proposed Order by making several amendments, but the Final Order retains the original order’s essential restrictions on injunctions, as the FTC explains in a letter accompanying the changes. With one important exception, the modifications were primarily minor changes to the required process by which Google/Motorola must negotiate and arbitrate with potential licensees. Although an improvement on the original order, the Complaint and Final Order’s continued focus on the use of injunctions to enforce SEPs presents a serious risk of consumer harm, as I discuss below.

The most significant modification in the new Complaint is the removal of the original UDAP claim. As suggested in my comments on the Order, there is no basis in law for such a claim against Google, and it’s a positive step that the FTC seems to have agreed. Instead, the FTC ended up resting its authority solely upon an Unfair Methods of Competition claim, even though the Commission failed to develop any evidence of harm to competition—as both Commissioner Wright and Commissioner Ohlhausen would (sensibly) require.

Unfortunately, the FTC’s letter offers no additional defense of its assertion of authority, stating only that

[t]he Commission disagrees with commenters who argue that the Commission’s actions in this case are outside of its authority to challenge unfair methods of competition under Section 5 and lack a limiting principle. As reflected in the Commission’s recent statements in Bosch and the Commission’s initial Statement in this matter, this action is well within our Section 5 authority, which both Congress and the Supreme Court have expressly deemed to extend beyond the Sherman Act.

Another problem, as noted by Commissioner Ohlhausen in her dissent from the original order, is that

the consent agreement creates doctrinal confusion. The Order contradicts the decisions of federal courts, standard-setting organizations (“SSOs”), and other stakeholders about the availability of injunctive relief on SEPs and the meaning of concepts like willing licensee and FRAND.

The FTC’s statements in Bosch and this case should not be thought of as law on par with actual court decisions unless we want to allow the FTC to determine the scope of its own authority unilaterally.

This is no small issue. On July 30, the FTC used the Google settlement, along with the settlement in Bosch, as examples of the FTC’s authority in the area of policing SEPs during a hearing on the issue. And as FTC Chairwoman Ramirez noted in response to questions for the record in a different hearing earlier in 2013,

Section 5 of the FTC Act has been developed over time, case-by-case, in the manner of common law. These precedents provide the Commission and the business community with important guidance regarding the appropriate scope and use of the FTC’s Section 5 authority.

But because nearly all of these cases have resulted in consent orders with an administrative agency and have not been adjudicated in court, they aren’t, in fact, developed “in the manner of common law.” Moreover, settlements aren’t binding on anyone except the parties to the settlement. Nevertheless, the FTC has pointed to these sorts of settlements (and congressional testimony summarizing them) as sufficient guidance to industry on the scope of its Section 5 authority. But as we noted in our amicus brief in the Wyndham litigation (in which the FTC makes this claim in the context of its “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” authority):

Settlements (and testimony summarizing them) do not in any way constrain the FTC’s subsequent enforcement decisions; they cannot alone be the basis by which the FTC provides guidance on its unfairness authority because, unlike published guidelines, they do not purport to lay out general enforcement principles and are not recognized as doing so by courts and the business community.

Beyond this more general problem, the Google Final Order retains its own, substantive problem: considerable constraints upon injunctions. The problem with these restraints are twofold: (1) Injunctions are very important to an efficient negotiation process, as recognized by the FTC itself; and (2) if patent holders may no longer pursue injunctions consistently with antitrust law, one would expect a reduction in consumer welfare.

In its 2011 Report on the “IP Marketplace,” the FTC acknowledged the important role of injunctions in preserving the value of patents and in encouraging efficient private negotiation.

Second, the credible threat of an injunction deters infringement in the first place. This results from the serious consequences of an injunction for an infringer, including the loss of sunk investment. Third, a predictable injunction threat will promote licensing by the parties. Private contracting is generally preferable to a compulsory licensing regime because the parties will have better information about the appropriate terms of a license than would a court, and more flexibility in fashioning efficient agreements. But denying an injunction every time an infringer’s switching costs exceed the economic value of the invention would dramatically undermine the ability of a patent to deter infringement and encourage innovation. For this reason, courts should grant injunctions in the majority of cases.

Building on insights from Commissioner Wright and Professor Kobayashi, I argued in my comments that injunctions create conditions that

increase innovation, the willingness to license generally and the willingness to enter into FRAND commitments in particular–all to the likely benefit of consumer welfare.

Monopoly power granted by IP law encourages innovation because it incentivizes creativity through expected profits. If the FTC interprets its UMC authority in a way that constrains the ability of patent holders to effectively police their patent rights, then less innovation would be expected–to the detriment of consumers as well as businesses.

And this is precisely what has happened. Innovative technology companies are responding to the current SEP enforcement environment exactly as we would expect them to—by avoiding the otherwise-consumer-welfare enhancing standardization process entirely.

Thus, for example, at a recent event sponsored by Global Competition Review (gated), representatives from Nokia, Ericsson, Siemens and Qualcomm made no bones about the problems they see and where they’re headed if they persist:

[Jenni Lukander, global head of competition law at Nokia] said the problem of “free-riding”, whereby technology companies adopt standard essential patents (SEPs) without complying with fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) licensing terms was a “far bigger problem” than patent holders pursuing injunctive relief. She said this behaviour was “unsustainable”, as it discouraged innovation and jeopardised standardisation.

Because of the current atmosphere, Lukander said, Nokia has stepped back from the standardisation process, electing either not to join certain standard-setting organisations (SSOs) or not to contribute certain technologies to these organisations.

The fact that every licence negotiation takes places “under the threat of injunction litigation” is not a sign of failure, said Lukander, but an indicator of the system working “as it was designed to work”.

This, said [Dan Hermele, director of IP rights and licensing for Qualcomm Europe], amounted to “reverse hold-up”. “The licensor is pressured to accept less than reasonable licensing terms due to the threat of unbalanced regulatory intervention,” he said, adding that the trend was moving to an “infringe and litigate model”, which threatened to harm innovators, particularly small and medium-sized businesses, “for whom IPR is their life blood”.

Beat Weibel, chief IP counsel at Siemens, said…innovation can only be beneficial if it occurs within a “safe and strong IP system,” he said, where a “willing licensee is favoured over a non-willing licensee” and the enforcer is not a “toothless tiger”.

It remains to be seen if the costs to consumers from firms curtailing their investments in R&D or withholding their patents from the standard-setting process will outweigh the costs (yes, some costs do exist; the patent system is not frictionless and it is far from perfect, of course) from the “over”-enforcement of SEPs lamented by critics. But what is clear is that these costs can’t be ignored. Reverse hold-up can’t be wished away, and there is a serious risk that the harm likely to be caused by further eroding the enforceability of SEPs by means of injunctions will significantly outweigh whatever benefits it may also confer.

Meanwhile, stay tuned for tomorrow’s TOTM blog symposium on “Regulating the Regulators–Guidance for the FTC’s Section 5 Unfair Methods of Competition Authority” for much more discussion on this issue.

Over at the blog for the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property, I posted a short essay discussing the Federal Circuit’s recent decision in Douglas Dynamics v. Buyers Products (Fed. Cir. May 21, 2013).  Here’s a small taste:

The Federal Circuit’s recent decision in Douglas Dynamics, LLC, v. Buyers Products Co. (Fed. Cir. May 21, 2013) is very important given the widespread, albeit mistaken, belief today that the Supreme Court’s decision in eBay v. MercExchange (2005) established that damages and not injunctions are the presumptive remedy for patent infringement. ….

On appeal, Chief Judge Randall Rader resoundingly disagreed with Judge Conley’s belief that the “public interest” is always better served by the introduction of a new competitor who is selling cheaper products.  This is what happened in this case, as Douglas Dynamics and Buyers Products Company are competitors in the sale of snowplow blades.  Instead, Chief Judge Rader recognized that its act of infringement as such is what gave Buyers Products Company its market advantage in undercutting Douglas Dynamics’ prices.  Because it did not have to incur Douglas Dynamics’ ex ante expenses in engaging in innovative research and development, Buyers Products Company’s infringement permitted it the economic advantage of being able to undercut Douglas Dynamics prices’ and thus enter the allegedly “untapped market segment” of cheaper snowplow blades. It was precisely this expansion of a consumer market that the district court relied on in its denial of Douglas Dynamics’ requested injunction. In sum, the district court used an infringement-created expansion of the market to justify denying an injunction and awarding a compulsory license to the patent-owner, which effectively rewarded Buyer Products Company for its act of infringement.

In reversing the district court’s award of a reasonable royalty, Chief Judge Rader explained the basic economic principle of dynamic efficiency that animates the Patent Act in securing property rights to inventors in their patented innovation ….

As bloggers are wont to say, go read the whole thing.

The State of the Patent System: A Discussion with Chief Judge Rader

A teleforum on Thursday, April 11, at 2pm. Hosted by George Mason Law School’s Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property Teleforum and the Federalist Society‘s Intellectual Property Practice Group.

Today, people read daily complaints about the “broken” patent system, and thus it’s unsurprising that there are numerous and wide-ranging attempts to “reform” the patent system. Legislative reform efforts include the proposed SHIELD Act, which would impose a losing-plaintiff-pays litigation system solely on patent-licensing companies and further revisions to the America Invents Act of 2011. Regulatory agencies also have skin in the patent reform game: the FTC recently reached settlements with Bosch and Google that restricted their rights to enforce their patents in standardized technology, and the FTC is currently considering whether to condemn the patent-licensing business model as “anti-competitive.” The courts are heavily involved as well: in addition to the many patent cases it has decided in recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has four major patent cases on its docket this year, which suggests that it also agrees that the patent system is in serious need of legal reform. Yet, patents today secure innovation once imagined only as science fiction – tablet computers, smart phones, genetically modified seeds, genetic testing for cancer, personalized medical treatments for debilitating diseases, and many others – and these technological marvels are now a commonplace feature of our lives. This Teleforum with the Honorable Randall Rader, Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit – a digital “fireside chat” – will explore these and other issues in assessing whether the patent system is broken or whether it is fundamentally sound.

Featuring:

Hon. Randall R. Rader, Chief Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals, Federal Circuit
Moderator: Prof. Adam Mossoff, Co-Director, Academic Programs and Senior Scholar, Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property, George Mason Law School

Agenda:

Call begins at 2:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Thursday, April 11, 2013.

More information here.

I respect Alex Tabarrock immensely, but his recent post on the relationship between “patent strength” and innovation is, while pretty, pretty silly. The entirety of the post is the picture I have pasted here.

The problem is that neither Alex nor anyone else actually knows that this is “where we are,” nor exactly what the relationship between innovation and patent strength is — in large part because we don’t really know what the strength of patents is.

I love, for example, when the anti-patent crowd crows about patent thickets and their alleged disastrous consequences for complex devices like smartphones — often posted to Twitter from their smart phones.  The reality is that we have smartphones and innumerable other complex products besides.  Would we have more or better ones if the patent system were different?  Maybe – show me the data.  Defining the but-for world is notoriously difficult, and I’m not saying one can’t make principled arguments about the patent system without proving a negative.  But Alex’s graph and most comments by the patent haters imply a lot more precision about what we know than we actually have.  The relevant question is the marginal one, but a lot of the criticism of the patent system seems to me to take advantage of our uncertainty to imply that the benefits of weaker patents would be practically infinite.  You can criticize patents for making complex products more difficult to bring to market on the basis of basic economic logic, but when your analysis defines costs with little more rigor than Alex’s napkin contains, your policy footing should be vanishingly small.  Frankly, as Richard Epstein points out, Judge Posner’s recent foray into this debate, although longer, is equally short on evidence.

Meanwhile Adam Mossoff has explored these issues with some compelling evidence and in great detail in his paper on the sewing machine wars of the 1850s and draws a very different lesson.

In the modern world the evidence supporting dire claims is equally weak, although you wouldn’t know it from media coverage and academic discourse that gloms on to events like the recent Apple-Samsung trial as evidence that the new Dark Ages are upon us.  Between the software Alex used to make that graph, the computer on which that software was run, and the enormous range of other innovations that brought it from his mind to my digital doorstep, we seem to be managing to produce and use an enormous amount of innovation.  What value, exactly, does Alex think is contained in the innovation delta between his red dot and the top of the curve?  As Richard Epstein put it:

Nor is there any obvious global sign of patent malaise in the software industry. Last I looked, the level of technological improvement in the electronics and software industries has continued to impress. The rise of the iPad, the rapid growth of social media, the increased use of the once humble cell phone as a mobile platform for a dizzying array of applications—these do not point to industries in their death throes. It may well be the case that a better patent system could have seen more rapid growth in technology.

I think he meant to add something like: “but we don’t know that, and we sure don’t know how much “better” and at what cost.”

Most important, the patent system just isn’t as “strong” most critics would have you believe.  Our liability regime (especially post-eBay) injects enormous uncertainty into the process.  Enforcement costs are high.  And the patent system doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  Antitrust laws, tax laws, trade laws, financial regulation, consumer protection rules, layer upon layer of regulatory oversight, etc., etc. serve to weaken these “optimal” incentives to innovate that simplistic analyses of the patent system largely assume away.  Ideally, perhaps, we’d remove all that detritus and then follow the critics’ advice.  But that isn’t going to happen, and in the meantime the interactions between various overlapping regulatory and legal rules — including the patent system itself, of course — are complex and poorly-understood.  Perhaps we could do better, but it is by no means clear that further weakening patent rights will get us there.  And in the meantime, reports of innovation’s death seem like a bit of an exaggeration.

In a thorough and convincing paper, “The FTC’s Proposal for Regulating IP through SSOs Would Replace Private Coordination with Government Hold-Up,” Richard Epstein, Scott Kieff and Dan Spulber assess and then decimate the FTC’s proposal on patent notice and remedies, “The Evolving IP Marketplace: Aligning Patent Notice and Remedies with Competition.”  Note Epstein, Kieff and Spulber:

In its recent report entitled “The Evolving IP Marketplace,” the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) advances a far‐reaching regulatory approach (Proposal) whose likely effect would be to distort the operation of the intellectual property (IP) marketplace in ways that will hamper the innovation and commercialization of new technologies. The gist of the FTC Proposal is to rely on highly non-­standard and misguided definitions of economic terms of art such as “ex ante” and “hold-­up,” while urging new inefficient rules for calculating damages for patent infringement. Stripped of the technicalities, the FTC Proposal would so reduce the costs of infringement by downstream users that the rate of infringement would unduly increase, as potential infringers find it in their interest to abandon the voluntary market in favor of a more attractive system of judicial pricing. As the number of nonmarket transactions increases, the courts will play an ever larger role in deciding the terms on which the patents of one party may be used by another party. The adverse effects of this new trend will do more than reduce the incentives for innovation; it will upset the current set of well-­‐functioning private coordination activities in the IP marketplace that are needed to accomplish the commercialization of new technologies. Such a trend would seriously undermine capital formation, job growth, competition, and the consumer welfare the FTC seeks to promote.

Focusing in particular on SSOs, the trio homes in on the potential incentive problem created by the FTC’s proposal:

The central problem with the FTC’s approach is that it would interfere seriously with the helpful incentives all parties in the IP marketplace presently have to contract with each other. The FTC’s approach ignores the powerful incentives that it creates in putative licenses to spurn the voluntary market in order to obtain a strategic advantage over the licensor. In any voluntary market, the low rates that go to initial licensees reflect the uncertainty of the value of the patented technology at the time the license is issued. Once that technology has proven its worth, there is no sound reason to allow any potential licensee who instead held out from the originally offered deal to get bargain rates down the road. Allowing such an option would make the holdout better off than the contracting party. Such holdouts would not need to take licenses for technologies with low value, while resting assured they would still get technologies with high value at below market rates. The FTC seems to overlook that a well-­‐functioning patent damage system should do more than merely calibrate damages after the fact. An efficient approach to damages is one that also reduces the number of infringements overall by making sure that the infringer cannot improve his economic position by his own wrong.

The FTC Proposal rests on the misguided conviction that the law should not allow a licensor to “demand and obtain royalty payments based on the infringer’s switching costs” once the manufacturer has “sunk costs into using the technology;” and it labels any such payments as the result of “hold-­up.”

As Epstein, et al. discuss, current private ordering (reciprocal dealing, repeat play, RAND terms, etc.) works perfectly well to address real hold-up problems, and the FTC seems to be both defining the problem oddly and, thus, creating a problem that doesn’t really exist.

Although not discussed directly, the paper owes a great deal to the great Ben Klein and especially his paper, Why Hold-Ups Occur: The Self-Enforcing Range of Contractual Relationships (to say nothing of Klein, Crawford & Alchian, of course).  Likewise, although not discussed in the paper, Josh and Bruce Kobayashi’s excellent paper, Federalism, Substantive Preemption and Limits on Antitrust: An Application to Patent Holdup is an essential precursor to this paper, addressing the comparative merits of antitrust  and contract-based evaluation of claimed patent holdups in SSOs.

Highly-recommended and an important addition to the ever-interesting antitrust/IP discussion.

The day before yesterday I posted on the fascinating and important TiVo v. EchoStar case.  Today I wanted to follow up with some, let’s say, color commentary on EchoStar’s litigation tactics.  This isn’t dispositive, of course, but it does seem to add some insight into the notion that EchoStar is taking advantage of questionable litigation tactics rather than respecting property rights in its dealings with TiVo.

You’ll recall that, in the case, EchoStar lost at trial, ignored the judge’s order to stop infringing, was held in contempt, and continues infringing today.  This has resulted in numerous legal proceedings, all managing to keep TiVo bogged down in litigation as EchoStar continues to misappropriate TiVo’s intellectual property.  Although EchoStar has accrued substantial legal expenses—and damage awards from both a jury and the judge—they are dwarfed by its DVR revenues.

It turns out that courtroom shenanigans are no stranger to EchoStar.

Just last week, a state trial judge in Manhattan found that EchoStar exhibited grossly negligent behavior in a case involving Cablevision’s VOOM subsidiary.  The language in VOOM v. EchoStar characterized EchoStar’s misconduct  (allowing critical e-mail evidence to be destroyed) in an exceedingly harsh manner, holding that EchoStar “systematically destroyed evidence in direct violation of the law and in the face of a ruling by a federal court that criticized EchoStar for the same bad-faith conduct . . . .” The judge went on to characterize EchoStar as engaging in “procedural gamesmanship” and noted “EchoStar’s pattern of questionable — and, at times, blatantly improper — litigation tactics.”

The court further described EchoStar’s conduct as “precisely the type of offensive conduct that cannot be tolerated by the courts.” It rebuked “EchoStar’s last-minute finagling with expert reports, believing that it can play fast and loose with the rules of procedure in order to enhance its litigation posture . . . throughout this litigation, EchoStar has been hoist by its own petard.”

Arguably EchoStar has made this type of legal strategy part of its business model.

In the TiVo case, like many others, EchoStar’s gamesmanship and its propensity to abuse the law has become a central issue. In an amicus brief submitted by agricultural organizations in the TiVo case, the groups argue: “EchoStar’s conduct in this case . . . and in other cases, displays a propensity to flout court orders,” and goes on to cite several examples of this behavior, including:

  • breaking promises to the court (CBS Broad. Inc. v. EchoStarCommc’ns Corp., 276 F. Supp. 2d 1237, 1246 (S.D. Fl. 2003));
  • patently unmeritorious claims of error (CBS Broadcasting Inc. v. EchoStar Commc’ns Corp., 450 F.3d 505, 523, 526 (11th Cir. 2006));
  • misleading and coercive communication (Air Commun. & Satellite Inc. v. Echostar Satellite Corp., 38 P.3d 1246, 1254 (Colo. 2002));
  • and even frivolous actions (Dominion Video Satellite, Inc. v. EchoStar Satellite L.L.C., 430 F.3d 1269, 1278 (10th Cir. 2005)).
  • Further, in a 2004 case, one federal judge claimed that “EchoStar’s action rises to the level of conscious wrongdoing” (EchoStar Satellite Corp. v. Brockbank Ins. Servs., No. 00-MK-1513, 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31130 (D. Colo. Feb. 4, 2004)),
  • another chided EchoStar for failing “in its duty of candor . . . .We admonish EchoStar for this abuse of process” (EchoStar Satellite Corp. v. Young Broad. Inc., 16 F.C.C.R. 15070, 15076 (Aug. 2, 2001)).

Of course any good lawyer advocating for his client may push the envelope, and some of these procedural matters are governed by standards that are less than clear.  But this is a worrisome list of excesses, and should certainly raise eyebrows in the TiVo case.

Of a piece with this, in addition to the problem of EchoStar’s overall strategy of delay, avoidance and misappropriation in the TiVo case, is also EchoStar’s fantastic claim that upholding the lower court’s contempt proceeding would inflict serious hardship on the firm, causing it to lose a substantial fraction of its present and future customer base (to the tune of $90 million per month).  Unfortunately, this customer base was built, indisputably (that is, undisputed even by EchoStar which does not challenge the underlying infringement finding), on the back of TiVo’s misappropriated technology.  It is like the child who murders her parents and then throws herself on the mercy of the court as an orphan. It seems absurd to listen to EchoStar claim hardship from the prospect of losing business it never earned in the first place.

As Richard Epstein noted in his amicus brief in the case:

In effect EchoStar’s argument is that once it has built up a large business on the back of someone else’s patents, it should be allowed to reap those profits for the indefinite future.  The size of its own illicit gains becomes the tool it deftly uses to extend its illicit activity indefinitely.  This approach creates the perverse outcome that the longer the defendant is able to wiggle away from legal sanctions, the stronger is its case to continue on its unlawful path.  EchoStar’s claims of large future losses prove only one thing: that its large monthly losses make the damages awarded for TiVo in 2006 look puny relative to the continuing harm from EchoStar’s misbehavior.

The VOOM holding is just the latest in a serial pattern of courtroom distractions and legal delays. It seems EchoStar has made a practice out of disobeying court orders and pushing the legal system to the limits. Like the TiVo case, VOOM and others demonstrate that a determined party can drag out the legal process and prevent the other side from obtaining a remedy for harm it has suffered. As I noted the other day, this is particularly true for software devices and other complex products, where trivial changes can be exaggerated in an effort to run out the clock on a patent.

In the TiVo case the stakes are enormous. EchoStar is working to undermine the role of the courts in enforcing the intellectual property rights that facilitate innovation.  And more, a victory for EchoStar would send a message to large and small companies, innovators and capitalists that abusing the court’s rules of procedure is not only fair game, but also a legitimate business tactic.

On November 9, the en banc US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit heard oral arguments in an extremely important patent infringement case (mp3 of oral argument here). Hanging in the balance are the very incentives for technological innovation and the seeds of economic progress. The arguments made in the case by the infringer, EchoStar, would have the effect of reducing the certainty and thus the efficacy of patent rights by weakening the ability of the courts to define and enforce patents clearly, quickly and efficiently. While for some commentators this is probably a feature, and not a bug, of EchoStar’s position, I find its stance and its claims to be extremely troublesome.

The litigation, TiVo v. EchoStar, has been raging for more than six years, in which time TiVo has, in fact, prevailed at every turn. In brief, the substantive and procedural history of the case is as follows: The case revolves around TiVo’s valuable patent for digital video recorder (DVR) technology. In April 2006, a jury found that EchoStar had infringed TiVo’s patents and awarded TiVo close to $74 million in damages. The jury also found that EchoStar had acted willfully in infringing the patent. The District Court granted TiVo’s motion for an injunction, which required EchoStar to disable all DVR units for which it had not paid compensatory damages. In the ongoing litigation, EchoStar does not challenge the initial finding of infringement, the initial damage award, or the initial order for injunctive relief. Instead, it seeks to avoid a contempt citation issued by the District Court, in exercise of its continuing jurisdiction over the case, after EchoStar introduced a second device which purported to “design around” the original TiVo patent. After noting the similarity between EchoStar’s original and modified devices, the court conducted a short trial on the question of infringement, after which the court held that EchoStar’s modified device still infringed TiVo’s patent.

Upon examining the technology, the District Court found that EchoStar’s purported design workaround did not embody a new and independent device. Instead EchoStar consciously modified its original infringing device in small ways that it may have believed would preserve its desired functionality without violating TiVo’s ‘389 patent, but failed instead to remove itself from the reach of either TiVo’s patent or the court’s earlier order.

At no point prior to its deployment of its altered technology did EchoStar ask the District Court, which had continuing jurisdiction over the case, to review the new design for patent infringement. EchoStar announced the re-design in a January 2008 press release and in the following months, two years after the original jury verdict of infringement, the District Court learned of the use of the modified EchoStar device.

In light of its finding of near identity between EchoStar’s original and modified DVRs, the District Court relied on KSM Fastening Systems, Inc. v. H.A. Jones Co., Inc., 776 F.2d 1522 (Fed. Cir. 1985), to enter a contempt order against EchoStar for its violation of the original injunctive decree (first finding the two devices to be substantially similar and then assessing in a contempt hearing whether EchoStar’s unilateral deployment of the second device violated the Court’s injunction). EchoStar then sought a stay of the injunction pending appeal. The Federal Circuit granted a stay, but earlier this year it upheld the district court’s contempt finding. The matter was then rescheduled for an en banc hearing. During this entire time, EchoStar has continued to market and use its infringing devices to its immense profit. The question before the en banc Court is whether the District Court’s contempt decree was proper under the controlling precedent.

In essence, every federal judge who has heard this case (save the lone dissenter in the appeal from which the Federal Circuit rehearing was brought) has determined that TiVo was wronged and is owed significant monetary and equitable compensation from EchoStar, as well as the disablement of the adjudicated DVR devices. However, EchoStar has yet to curtail its infringing activity. EchoStar now argues that it should be allowed to continue to evade the judgments against it by forcing TiVo and the courts to endure yet another full trial—to start anew down an almost identical path assessing the propriety of EchoStar’s slightly-modified technology—rather than enforce the existing injunction.

EchoStar is seemingly within the reasonable bounds of due process to suggest that such an outcome might be required if its new technology is sufficiently different than its old. But the question is really one of process: who gets to decide if the technology is sufficiently similar—the District Court that heard the original case and issued the original injunction, or EchoStar? Seen this way, it is evident that the costly, strategic behavior lurking just under the surface of this case and that pervades EchoStar’s conduct belies the innocence of its arguments and points out the enormous cost that establishing such precedent could impose on innovation and the economy more broadly.

At root, this case tests whether courts can realistically enforce their judgments, including, as in this case, the judgment that a patentee has been denied the right to control the use of its patent. The central legal question presented is when a court may enforce its own injunction against an infringer who makes small tweaks to its infringing technology in an effort to avoid the reach of the injunction. Certainly, we want to encourage so-called “work-arounds” that add to the stock of innovation in our economy. But proponents of EchoStar’s view ignore or underweigh the effect on the original innovation itself, as well as the courts. If, by virtue of small tweaks, an infringer can tie up a patent in court for so long that it has the potential to run out the patent’s term, render its exclusivity period worthless, and all the while steal business from the patent-holder in violation of the patentee’s Constitutionally-empowered protection, then initial innovation will be sharply discouraged, to the public’s detriment. The courts should not (and the KSM case seems to me to make clear that they need not) abet this process.

And EchoStar is indeed stealing business from TiVo. The trial judge issued an injunction in this case precisely because EchoStar cannot compensate TiVo for the harm done once EchoStar had built its customer base on the back of TiVo’s unlicensed technology. Since the injunction was issued more than four years ago, EchoStar has continued to build and service its customer base, and has even gone so far as to argue that the lower court’s decision should not be upheld because doing so would harm EchoStar’s customers. These are the very customers who, if EchoStar had not violated TiVo’s intellectual property rights or if the injunction had been enforced, would never have been EchoStar’s customers at all!

Meanwhile, the uncertainty engendered by delayed enforcement and the curtailment of injunctive relief further erodes the value of patents and complicates, rather than eases, the process of economic development. In this case as in others, a potential licensee has chosen to misappropriate patented technology (and take its chances in court) rather than pay for it or forebear from its use. If EchoStar prevails, similarly-situated companies will have even less incentive to seek out deals with patent-holders, instead relying on the courts to carve out for them an extended period of unlicensed use with a bill that comes due years later—assuming the patent holder can afford to litigate for years—and in an amount almost certainly far below the actual benefit conferred.

It is difficult to see how either due process or economic efficiency is furthered by EchoStar’s position. This case demonstrates that a determined infringer can make minor changes, drag out judicial proceedings, and seek to run out the clock on a patent, thereby squandering both judicial resources as well as incentives for innovation. This is particularly true for devices that involve software or other complex products where inconsequential changes can be exaggerated. An EchoStar victory in this case will dim technological progress and diminish the role of the courts in enforcing the property rights that facilitate that progress.