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.