Richard Epstein replies to Judge Posner’s Apple v. Motorola opinion and follow-up article in The Atlantic.
The anti-patent sentiment has just been fueled by a remarkable opinion by Judge Richard Posner, my long-time colleague at the University of Chicago, sitting as a trial judge in the major case, Apple v. Motorola. The high-profile case concerns five patents—four by Apple and one by Motorola—that are involved in mobile phone technology, and it has drawn more than its fair share of attention. Judge Posner took the extraordinary step of dismissing the claims of both sides with prejudice—meaning, the case cannot be filed again elsewhere—on the grounds that neither side could make good on its argument for either damages or injunctions.
Thus, when the dust settled, there was no reason at all to have a trial on whether either side had infringed the patents of the other. In a subsequent piece written for The Atlantic, grandly entitled “Why There are Too Many Patents in America,” Posner delivered a general critique of the patent system, discussing the broader issues involved in his judicial decision.
There is much of interest, as always, in Epstein’s column. But the closing section on damages and injunctions is where the action is:
What is so striking about Posner’s relentless dissection of the imprecision in these claims was that he could apply it with equal conviction in any patent software dispute. The estimates of damages under the law are not confined to a single standard, but often involve an uncertain choice between reasonable royalties for licensing the patent and actual damages that were incurred because the patents were not licensed. The injunctive relief is (or at least should be) awarded precisely because it is so difficult to figure out what those damages really ought to be.
But Posner said that he would not allow an injunction if the best that the plaintiffs could garner was $1 in nominal damages. That surely seems over the top, because if there is infringement, the one number that is manifestly wrong is $1. A more sensible approach here, therefore, is to mix and marry the two remedies, so that the injunction does not pull the past product off the market, but awards some damages for past losses, while giving the infringer some period of time—say three to six months—to invent around the patent for future output. This then sets the stage for a negotiated license if that is cheaper.
By putting the remedial cart before the liability horse, we have the odd situation that no one can find out anything about the strength of the patent or the potential range of damages. If that is done on a common basis, then we will have knocked out the entire patent system for software, without having the slightest idea of the relative strength of the Apple and Motorola contentions.
The Posner decision looks doubly worrisome against the backdrop of his ominous Atlantic column, which shows his ill-concealed disdain for a complex industry with which he has had no direct engagement. It is an odd way to make patent policy. Right now, a similar Apple-Samsung dispute is before Judge Lucy Koh, which will involve a real trial. The Posner opinion is already on the fast track to appeal before the Federal Circuit, which will give us more information as to whether these submarine assaults on the patent system will take hold. Let us hope that Posner’s mysterious patent adventurism dies a quick and deserved death.
Do go read the whole thing. For interested readers, here is Posner’s Atlantic column.