How a Patent Office Agency Undermines Patent Rights and Cripples Innovation – and What Can Be Done About It

Alden Abbott —  14 August 2017

On August 14, the Federalist Society’s Regulatory Transparency Project released a report detailing the harm imposed on innovation and property rights by the Patent Trial and Appeals Board, a Patent and Trademark Office patent review agency created by the infelicitously-named “America Invents Act” of 2011.  As the report’s abstract explains:

Patents are property rights secured to inventors of new products or services, such as the software and other high-tech innovations in our laptops and smart phones, the life-saving medicines prescribed by our doctors, and the new mechanical designs that make batteries more efficient and airplane engines more powerful. Many Americans first learn in school about the great inventors who revolutionized our lives with their patented innovations, such as Thomas Edison (the light bulb and record player), Alexander Graham Bell (the telephone), Nikola Tesla (electrical systems), the Wright brothers (airplanes), Charles Goodyear (cured rubber), Enrico Fermi (nuclear power), and Samuel Morse (the telegraph). These inventors and tens of thousands of others had the fruits of their inventive labors secured to them by patents, and these vital property rights have driven America’s innovation economy for over 225 years. For this reason, the United States has long been viewed as having the “gold standard” patent system throughout the world.

In 2011, Congress passed a new law, called the America Invents Act (AIA), that made significant changes to the U.S. patent system. Among its many changes, the AIA created a new administrative tribunal for invalidating “bad patents” (patents mistakenly issued because the claimed inventions were not actually new or because they suffer from other defects that create problems for companies in the innovation economy). This administrative tribunal is called the Patent Trial & Appeal Board (PTAB). The PTAB is composed of “administrative patent judges” appointed by the Director of the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO). The PTAB administrative judges are supposed to be experts in both technology and patent law. They hold administrative hearings in response to petitions that challenge patents as defective. If they agree with the challenger, they cancel the patent by declaring it “invalid.” Anyone in the world willing to pay a filing fee can file a petition to invalidate any patent.

As many people are aware, administrative agencies can become a source of costs and harms that far outweigh the harms they were created to address. This is exactly what has happened with the PTAB. This administrative tribunal has become a prime example of regulatory overreach

Congress created the PTAB in 2011 in response to concerns about the quality of patents being granted to inventors by the USPTO. Legitimate patents promote both inventive activity and the commercial development of inventions into real-world innovation used by regular people the world over. But “bad patents” clog the intricate gears of the innovation economy, deterring real innovators and creating unnecessary costs for companies by enabling needless and wasteful litigation. The creation of the PTAB was well intended: it was supposed to remove bad patents from the innovation economy. But the PTAB has ended up imposing tremendous and unnecessary costs and creating destructive uncertainty for the innovation economy.

In its procedures and its decisions, the PTAB has become an example of an administrative tribunal run amok. It does not provide basic legal procedures to patent owners that all other property owners receive in court. When called upon to redress these concerns, the courts have instead granted the PTAB the same broad deference they have given to other administrative agencies. Thus, these problems have gone uncorrected and unchecked. Without providing basic procedural protections to all patent owners, the PTAB has gone too far with its charge of eliminating bad patents. It is now invalidating patents in a willy-nilly fashion. One example among many is that, in early 2017, the PTAB invalidated a patent on a new MRI machine because it believed this new medical device was an “abstract idea” (and thus unpatentable).

The problems in the PTAB’s operations have become so serious that a former federal appellate chief judge has referred to PTAB administrative judges as “patent death squads.” This metaphor has proven apt, even if rhetorically exaggerated. Created to remove only bad patents clogging the innovation economy, the PTAB has itself begun to clog innovation — killing large numbers of patents and casting a pall of uncertainty over every patent that might become valuable and thus a target of a PTAB petition to invalidate it.

The U.S. innovation economy has thrived because inventors know they can devote years of productive labor and resources into developing their inventions for the marketplace, secure in the knowledge that their patents provide a solid foundation for commercialization. Pharmaceutical companies depend on their patents to recoup billions of dollars in research and development of new drugs. Venture capitalists invest in startups on the basis of these vital property rights in new products and services, as viewers of Shark Tank see every week.

The PTAB now looms over all of these inventive and commercial activities, threatening to cancel a valuable patent at any moment and without rhyme or reason. In addition to the lost investments in the invalidated patents themselves, this creates uncertainty for inventors and investors, undermining the foundations of the U.S. innovation economy.

This paper explains how the PTAB has become a prime example of regulatory overreach. The PTAB administrative tribunal is creating unnecessary costs for inventors and companies, and thus it is harming the innovation economy far beyond the harm of the bad patents it was created to remedy. First, we describe the U.S. patent system and how it secures property rights in technological innovation. Second, we describe Congress’s creation of the PTAB in 2011 and the six different administrative proceedings the PTAB uses for reviewing and canceling patents. Third, we detail the various ways that the PTAB is now causing real harm, through both its procedures and its substantive decisions, and thus threatening innovation.

The PTAB has created fundamental uncertainty about the status of all patent rights in inventions. The result is that the PTAB undermines the market value of patents and frustrates the role that these property rights serve in the investment in and commercial development of the new technological products and services that make many aspects of our modern lives seem like miracles.

In June 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the Oil States Energy case, raising the question of whether PTAB patent review “violates the Constitution by extinguishing private property rights through a non-Article III forum without a jury.”  A Supreme Court finding of unconstitutionality would be ideal.  But in the event the Court leaves PTAB patent review intact, legislation to curb the worst excesses of PTAB – such as the bipartisan “STRONGER Patent Act of 2017” – merits serious consideration.  Stay tuned – I will have more to say in detail about potential patent law reforms, including the reining in of PTAB, in the near future.

Alden Abbott

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I am a Senior Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. I write on antitrust, domestic and international regulatory policy, and law and economics. I am an Adjunct Faculty Member at George Mason Law School.

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