Archives For Patents

On Thursday, March 30, Friday March 31, and Monday April 3, Truth on the Market and the International Center for Law and Economics presented a blog symposium — Agricultural and Biotech Mergers: Implications for Antitrust Law and Economics in Innovative Industries — discussing three proposed agricultural/biotech industry mergers awaiting judgment by antitrust authorities around the globe. These proposed mergers — Bayer/Monsanto, Dow/DuPont and ChemChina/Syngenta — present a host of fascinating issues, many of which go to the core of merger enforcement in innovative industries — and antitrust law and economics more broadly.

The big issue for the symposium participants was innovation (as it was for the European Commission, which cleared the Dow/DuPont merger last week, subject to conditions, one of which related to the firms’ R&D activities).

Critics of the mergers, as currently proposed, asserted that the increased concentration arising from the “Big 6” Ag-biotech firms consolidating into the Big 4 could reduce innovation competition by (1) eliminating parallel paths of research and development (Moss); (2) creating highly integrated technology/traits/seeds/chemicals platforms that erect barriers to new entry platforms (Moss); (3) exploiting eventual network effects that may result from the shift towards data-driven agriculture to block new entry in input markets (Lianos); or (4) increasing incentives to refuse to license, impose discriminatory restrictions in technology licensing agreements, or tacitly “agree” not to compete (Moss).

Rather than fixating on horizontal market share, proponents of the mergers argued that innovative industries are often marked by disruptions and that investment in innovation is an important signal of competition (Manne). An evaluation of the overall level of innovation should include not only the additional economies of scale and scope of the merged firms, but also advancements made by more nimble, less risk-averse biotech companies and smaller firms, whose innovations the larger firms can incentivize through licensing or M&A (Shepherd). In fact, increased efficiency created by economies of scale and scope can make funds available to source innovation outside of the large firms (Shepherd).

In addition, innovation analysis must also account for the intricately interwoven nature of agricultural technology across seeds and traits, crop protection, and, now, digital farming (Sykuta). Combined product portfolios generate more data to analyze, resulting in increased data-driven value for farmers and more efficiently targeted R&D resources (Sykuta).

While critics voiced concerns over such platforms erecting barriers to entry, markets are contestable to the extent that incumbents are incentivized to compete (Russell). It is worth noting that certain industries with high barriers to entry or exit, significant sunk costs, and significant costs disadvantages for new entrants (including automobiles, wireless service, and cable networks) have seen their prices decrease substantially relative to inflation over the last 20 years — even as concentration has increased (Russell). Not coincidentally, product innovation in these industries, as in ag-biotech, has been high.

Ultimately, assessing the likely effects of each merger using static measures of market structure is arguably unreliable or irrelevant in dynamic markets with high levels of innovation (Manne).

Regarding patents, critics were skeptical that combining the patent portfolios of the merging companies would offer benefits beyond those arising from cross-licensing, and would serve to raise rivals’ costs (Ghosh). While this may be true in some cases, IP rights are probabilistic, especially in dynamic markets, as Nicolas Petit noted:

There is no certainty that R&D investments will lead to commercially successful applications; (ii) no guarantee that IP rights will resist to invalidity proceedings in court; (iii) little safety to competition by other product applications which do not practice the IP but provide substitute functionality; and (iv) no inevitability that the environmental, toxicological and regulatory authorization rights that (often) accompany IP rights will not be cancelled when legal requirements change.

In spite of these uncertainties, deals such as the pending ag-biotech mergers provide managers the opportunity to evaluate and reorganize assets to maximize innovation and return on investment in such a way that would not be possible absent a merger (Sykuta). Neither party would fully place its IP and innovation pipeline on the table otherwise.

For a complete rundown of the arguments both for and against, the full archive of symposium posts from our outstanding and diverse group of scholars, practitioners and other experts is available at this link, and individual posts can be easily accessed by clicking on the authors’ names below.

We’d like to thank all of the participants for their excellent contributions!

Nicolas Petit is Professor of Law at the University of Liege (Belgium) and Research Professor at the University of South Australia (UniSA)

This symposium offers a good opportunity to look again into the complex relation between concentration and innovation in antitrust policy. Whilst the details of the EC decision in Dow/Dupont remain unknown, the press release suggests that the issue of “incentives to innovate” was central to the review. Contrary to what had leaked in the antitrust press, the decision has apparently backed off from the introduction of a new “model”, and instead followed a more cautious approach. After a quick reminder of the conventional “appropriability v cannibalizationframework that drives merger analysis in innovation markets (1), I make two sets of hopefully innovative remarks on appropriability and IP rights (2) and on cannibalization in the ag-biotech sector (3).

Appropriability versus cannibalization

Antitrust economics 101 teach that mergers affect innovation incentives in two polar ways. A merger may increase innovation incentives. This occurs when the increment in power over price or output achieved through merger enhances the appropriability of the social returns to R&D. The appropriability effect of mergers is often tied to Joseph Schumpeter, who observed that the use of “protecting devices” for past investments like patent protection or trade secrecy constituted a “normal elemen[t] of rational management”. The appropriability effect can in principle be observed at firm – specific incentives – and industry – general incentives – levels, because actual or potential competitors can also use the M&A market to appropriate the payoffs of R&D investments.

But a merger may decrease innovation incentives. This happens when the increased industry position achieved through merger discourages the introduction of new products, processes or services. This is because an invention will cannibalize the merged entity profits in proportions larger as would be the case in a more competitive market structure. This idea is often tied to Kenneth Arrow who famously observed that a “preinvention monopoly power acts as a strong disincentive to further innovation”.

Schumpeter’s appropriability hypothesis and Arrow’s cannibalization theory continue to drive much of the discussion on concentration and innovation in antitrust economics. True, many efforts have been made to overcome, reconcile or bypass both views of the world. Recent studies by Carl Shapiro or Jon Baker are worth mentioning. But Schumpeter and Arrow remain sticky references in any discussion of the issue. Perhaps more than anything, the persistence of their ideas denotes that both touched a bottom point when they made their seminal contribution, laying down two systems of belief on the workings of innovation-driven markets.

Now beyond the theory, the appropriability v cannibalization gravitational models provide from the outset an appealing framework for the examination of mergers in R&D driven industries in general. From an operational perspective, the antitrust agency will attempt to understand if the transaction increases appropriability – which leans in favour of clearance – or cannibalization – which leans in favour of remediation. At the same time, however, the downside of the appropriability v cannibalization framework (and of any framework more generally) may be to oversimplify our understanding of complex phenomena. This, in turn, prompts two important observations on each branch of the framework.

Appropriability and IP rights

Any antitrust agency committed to promoting competition and innovation should consider mergers in light of the degree of appropriability afforded by existing protecting devices (essentially contracts and entitlements). This is where Intellectual Property (“IP”) rights become relevant to the discussion. In an industry with strong IP rights, the merging parties (and its rivals) may be able to appropriate the social returns to R&D without further corporate concentration. Put differently, the stronger the IP rights, the lower the incremental contribution of a merger transaction to innovation, and the higher the case for remediation.

This latter proposition, however, rests on a heavy assumption: that IP rights confer perfect appropriability. The point is, however, far from obvious. Most of us know that – and our antitrust agencies’ misgivings with other sectors confirm it – IP rights are probabilistic in nature. There is (i) no certainty that R&D investments will lead to commercially successful applications; (ii) no guarantee that IP rights will resist to invalidity proceedings in court; (iii) little safety to competition by other product applications which do not practice the IP but provide substitute functionality; and (iv) no inevitability that the environmental, toxicological and regulatory authorization rights that (often) accompany IP rights will not be cancelled when legal requirements change. Arrow himself called for caution, noting that “Patent laws would have to be unimaginably complex and subtle to permit [such] appropriation on a large scale”. A thorough inquiry into the specific industry-strength of IP rights that goes beyond patent data and statistics thus constitutes a necessary step in merger review.

But it is not a sufficient one. The proposition that strong IP rights provide appropriability is essentially valid if the observed pre-merger market situation is one where several IP owners compete on differentiated products and as a result wield a degree of market power. In contrast, the proposition is essentially invalid if the observed pre-merger market situation leans more towards the competitive equilibrium and IP owners compete at prices closer to costs. In both variants, the agency should thus look carefully at the level and evolution of prices and costs, including R&D ones, in the pre-merger industry. Moreover, in the second variant, the agency ought to consider as a favourable appropriability factor any increase of the merging entity’s power over price, but also any improvement of its power over cost. By this, I have in mind efficiency benefits, which can arise as the result of economies of scale (in manufacturing but also in R&D), but also when the transaction combines complementary technological and marketing assets. In Dow/Dupont, no efficiency argument has apparently been made by the parties, so it is difficult to understand if and how such issues have played a role in the Commission’s assessment.

Cannibalization, technological change, and drastic innovation

Arrow’s cannibalization theory – namely that a pre-invention monopoly acts as a strong disincentive to further innovation – fails to capture that successful inventions create new technology frontiers, and with them entirely novel needs that even a monopolist has an incentive to serve. This can be understood with an example taken from the ag-biotech field. It is undisputed that progress in crop protection science has led to an expanding range of resistant insects, weeds, and pathogens. This, in turn, is one (if not the main) key drivers of ag-tech research. In a 2017 paper published in Pest Management Science, Sparks and Lorsbach observe that:

resistance to agrochemicals is an ongoing driver for the development of new chemical control options, along with an increased emphasis on resistance management and how these new tools can fit into resistance management programs. Because resistance is such a key driver for the development of new agrochemicals, a highly prized attribute for a new agrochemical is a new MoA [method of action] that is ideally a new molecular target either in an existing target site (e.g., an unexploited binding site in the voltage-gated sodium channel), or new/under-utilized target site such as calcium channels.

This, and other factors, leads them to conclude that:

even with fewer companies overall involved in agrochemical discovery, innovation continues, as demonstrated by the continued introduction of new classes of agrochemicals with new MoAs.

Sparks, Hahn, and Garizi make a similar point. They stress in particular that the discovery of natural products (NPs) which are the “output of nature’s chemical laboratory” is today a main driver of crop protection research. According to them:

NPs provide very significant value in identifying new MoAs, with 60% of all agrochemical MoAs being, or could have been, defined by a NP. This information again points to the importance of NPs in agrochemical discovery, since new MoAs remain a top priority for new agrochemicals.

More generally, the point is not that Arrow’s cannibalization theory is wrong. Arrow’s work convincingly explains monopolists’ low incentives to invest in substitute invention. Instead, the point is that Arrow’s cannibalization theory is narrower than often assumed in the antitrust policy literature. Admittedly, Arrow’s cannibalization theory is relevant in industries primarily driven by a process of cumulative innovation. But it is much less helpful to understand the incentives of a monopolist in industries subject to technological change. As a result of this, the first question that should guide an antitrust agency investigation is empirical in nature: is the industry under consideration one driven by cumulative innovation, or one where technology disruption, shocks, and serendipity incentivize drastic innovation?

Note that exogenous factors beyond technological frontiers also promote drastic innovation. This point ought not to be overlooked. A sizeable amount of the specialist scientific literature stresses the powerful innovation incentives created by changing dietary habits, new diseases (e.g. the Zika virus), global population growth, and environmental challenges like climate change and weather extremes. In 2015, Jeschke noted:

In spite of the significant consolidation of the agrochemical companies, modern agricultural chemistry is vital and will have the opportunity to shape the future of agriculture by continuing to deliver further innovative integrated solutions. 

Words of wisdom caution for antitrust agencies tasked with the complex mission of reviewing mergers in the ag-biotech industry?

Shubha Ghosh is Crandall Melvin Professor of Law and Director of the Technology Commercialization Law Program at Syracuse University College of Law

How should patents be taken into consideration in merger analysis? When does the combining of patent portfolios lead to anticompetitive concerns? Two principles should guide these inquiries. First, as the Supreme Court held in its 2006 decision Independent Ink, ownership of a patent does not confer market power. This ruling came in the context of a tying claim, but it is generalizable. While ownership of a patent can provide advantages in the market, such as access to techniques that are more effective than what is available to a competitor or the ability to keep competitors from making desirable differentiations in existing products, ownership of a patent or patent portfolio does not per se confer market power. Competitors might have equally strong and broad patent portfolios. The power to limit price competition is possibly counterweighted by competition over technology and product quality.

A second principle about patents and markets, however, bespeaks more caution in antitrust analysis. Patents can create information problems while at the same time potentially resolving some externality problems arising from knowledge spillovers. Information problems arise because patents are not well-defined property rights with clear boundaries. While patents are granted to novel, nonobvious, useful, and concrete inventions (as opposed to abstract, disembodied ideas), it is far from clear when a patented invention is actually nonobvious. Patent rights extend to several possible embodiments of a novel, useful, and nonobvious conception. While in theory this problem could be solved by limiting patent rights to narrow embodiments, the net result would be increased uncertainty through patent thickets and divided ownership. Inventions do not come in readily discernible units or engineered metes and bounds (despite the rhetoric).

The information problems created by patents do not create traditional market power in the sense of having some control over the price charged to consumers, but they do impose costs on competitors that can give a patent owner some control over market entry and the market conditions confronting consumers. The Court’s perhaps sanguine decoupling of patents and market power in its 2006 decision has some valence in a market setting where patent rights are somewhat equally distributed among competitors. In such a setting, each firm faces the same uncertainties that arise from patents. However, if patent ownership is imbalanced among firms, competition authorities need to act with caution. The challenge is identifying an unbalanced patent position in the marketplace.

Mergers among patent-owning firms invite antitrust scrutiny for these reasons. Metrics of patent ownership focusing solely on the quantity of patents owned, adjusting for the number of claims, can offer a snapshot of ownership distribution. But patent numbers need to be connected to the costs of operating the firm. Patents can lower a firm’s costs, create a niche for a particular differentiated product, and give a firm a head start in the next generation of technologies. Mergers that lead to an increased concentration of patent ownership may raise eyebrows, but those that lead to significant increase in costs to competitors and create potential impediments to market entry require a response from competition authorities. This response could be a blocking of the merger or perhaps more practically, in most instances, a divestment of the patent portfolio through requirements of licensing. This last approach is particularly appropriate where the technologies at issue are analogous to standard essential patents in the standard setting with FRAND context.

Claims of synergies should, in many instances, be met with skepticism when the patent portfolios of the merging companies are combined. While the technologies may be complementary, yielding benefits that go beyond those arising from a cross-licensing arrangement, the integration of portfolios may serve to raise costs for potential rivals in the marketplace. These barriers to entry may arise even in the case of vertical integration when the firms internalize contracting costs for technology transfer through ownership. Vertical integration of patent portfolios may raise costs for rivals both at the manufacturing and the distribution levels.

These ideas are set forth as propositions to be tested, but also general policy guidance for merger review involving companies with substantial patent portfolios. The ChemChina-Syngenta merger perhaps opens up global markets, but may likely impose barriers for companies in the agriculture market. The Bayer-Monsanto and Dow-DuPont mergers have questionable synergies. Even if potential synergies, these projected benefits need to be weighed against the very identifiable sources for market foreclosure. While patents may not create market power per se, according to the Supreme Court, the potential for mischief should not be underestimated.

On December 6 the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its much anticipated decision in Samsung Electronic Co. v. Apple Inc.  The opinion deferred for another day clarification of key policy questions raised by the design patent system.

Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor reversed and remanded a Federal Circuit decision upholding a $399 million damages award to Apple for infringement of its design patents by smartphone manufacturers.  Section 289 of the Patent Act  makes it unlawful to manufacture or sell an “article of manufacture” to which a patented design or a colorable imitation thereof has been applied and makes an infringer liable to the patent holder “to the extent of his total profit.”  A jury found that various smartphones manufactured by Samsung and other companies infringed design patents owned by Apple that covered a rectangular front face with rounded edges and a grid of colorful icons on a black screen.  Apple was awarded $399 million in damages—Samsung’s entire profit from the sale of its infringing smartphones. The Federal Circuit affirmed the damages award, rejecting Samsung’s argument that damages should be limited because the relevant articles of manufacture were the front face or screen rather than the entire smartphone.  The court reasoned that such a limit was not required because the components of Samsung’s smartphones were not sold separately to ordinary consumers and thus were not distinct articles of manufacture.  The Supreme Court rejected the Federal Circuit’s statutory interpretation, holding that an “article of manufacture,” which is simply a thing made by hand or machine, encompasses both a product sold to a consumer and a component of that product.  Because the term “article of manufacture” is broad enough to embrace both a product sold to a consumer and a component of that product, whether sold separately or not, the Court opined that the Federal Circuit’s narrower reading could not be squared with Section 289’s text.

The Court, however, declined to resolve the “big question” in this case, which had been discussed during oral argument – namely, whether the relevant article of manufacture for each design patent at issue here was the smartphone or a particular smartphone component.  In leaving resolution of this “and any other issues” to the Federal Circuit on remand, the Court in effect “punted.”  (The Justice Department suggested an inherently malleable and vague “four consideration test” to this question in its Samsung v. Apple amicus brief.)  Expert commentators have highlighted this issue (see, for example, here), which, because of the plain language of Section 289 (“extent of the total profit”), bears directly on the quantum of damages for which a design patent infringer may be held liable.  How the Federal Circuit deals with the “article of manufacture” question may have significant implications for incentives to obtain and protect design patents.

An even bigger unanswered question is the appropriateness of the federal legal structure for the protection of designs.  Design patents are fairly readily obtained – they do not have to satisfy the multiple requirements for patentability (centered on inventiveness, novelty, and advance over prior art) that must be met by utility patents (hurdles that have become even harder to surmount over the last decade due to a host of Supreme Court decisions that have made it harder to obtain and defend utility patents).  Moreover, unlike utility patents, other federal intellectual property laws, covering trade dress and copyright, offer protections similar in kind (albeit not exact substitutes) to that offered by the design patent system.  Accordingly, whether existing federal legal measures covering designs are suboptimal and merit being “redesigned” merits further study.  Stay tuned.

It’s not quite so simple to spur innovation. Just ask the EU as it resorts to levying punitive retroactive taxes on productive American companies in order to ostensibly level the playing field (among other things) for struggling European startups. Thus it’s truly confusing when groups go on a wholesale offensive against patent rights — one of the cornerstones of American law that has contributed a great deal toward our unparalleled success as an innovative economy.

Take EFF, for instance. The advocacy organization has recently been peddling sample state legislation it calls the “Reclaim Invention Act,” which it claims is targeted at reining in so-called “patent trolls.” Leaving aside potential ulterior motives (like making it impossible to get software patents at all), I am left wondering what EFF actually hopes to achieve.

“Troll” is a scary sounding word, but what exactly is wrapped up in EFF’s definition? According to EFF’s proposed legislation, a “patent assertion entity” (the polite term for “patent troll”) is any entity that primarily derives its income through the licensing of patents – as opposed to actually producing the invention for public consumption. But this is just wrong. As Zorina Khan has noted, the basic premise upon which patent law was constructed in the U.S. was never predicated upon whether an invention would actually be produced:

The primary concern was access to the new information, and the ability of other inventors to benefit from the discovery either through licensing, inventing around the idea, or at expiration of the patent grant. The emphasis was certainly not on the production of goods; in fact, anyone who had previously commercialized an invention lost the right of exclusion vested in patents. The decision about how or whether the patent should be exploited remained completely within the discretion of the patentee, in the same way that the owner of physical property is allowed to determine its use or nonuse.

Patents are property. As with other forms of property, patent holders are free to transfer them to whomever they wish, and are free to license them as they see fit. The mere act of exercising property rights simply cannot be the basis for punitive treatment by the state. And, like it or not, licensing inventions or selling the property rights to an invention is very often how inventors are compensated for their work. Whether one likes the Patent Act in particular or not is irrelevant; as long as we have patents, these are fundamental economic and legal facts.

Further, the view implicit in EFF’s legislative proposal completely ignores the fact that the people or companies that may excel at inventing things (the province of scientists, for example) may not be so skilled at commercializing things (the province of entrepreneurs). Moreover, inventions can be enormously expensive to commercialize. In such cases, it could very well be the most economically efficient result to allow some third party with the requisite expertise or the means to build it, to purchase and manage the rights to the patent, and to allow them to arrange for production of the invention through licensing agreements. Intermediaries are nothing new in society, and, despite popular epithets about “middlemen,” they actually provide a necessary function with respect to mobilizing capital and enabling production.

Granted, some companies will exhibit actual “troll” behavior, but the question is not whether some actors are bad, but whether the whole system overall optimizes innovation and otherwise contributes to greater social welfare. Licensing patents in itself is a benign practice, so long as the companies that manage the patents are not abusive. And, of course, among the entities that engage in patent licensing, one would assume that universities would be the most unobjectionable of all parties.

Thus, it’s extremely disappointing that EFF would choose to single out universities as aiders and abettors of “trolls” — and in so doing recommend punitive treatment. And what EFF recommends is shockingly draconian. It doesn’t suggest that there should be heightened review in IPR proceedings, or that there should be fee shifting or other case-by-case sanctions doled out for unwise partnership decisions. No, according to the model legislation, universities would be outright cut off from government financial aid or other state funding, and any technology transfers would be void, unless they:

determine whether a patent is the most effective way to bring a new invention to a broad user base before filing for a patent that covers that invention[;] … prioritize technology transfer that develops its inventions and scales their potential user base[;] … endeavor to nurture startups that will create new jobs, products, and services[;] … endeavor to assign and license patents only to entities that require such licenses for active commercialization efforts or further research and development[;] … foster agreements and relationships that include the sharing of know-how and practical experience to maximize the value of the assignment or license of the corresponding patents; and … prioritize the public interest in all patent transactions.

Never mind the fact that recent cases like Alice Corp., Octane Fitness, and Highmark — as well as the new inter partes review process — seem to be putting effective downward pressure on frivolous suits (as well as, potentially, non-frivolous suits, for that matter); apparently EFF thinks that putting the screws to universities is what’s needed to finally overcome the (disputed) problems of excessive patent litigation.

Perhaps reflecting that even EFF itself knows that its model legislation is more of a publicity stunt than a serious proposal, most of what it recommends is either so ill-defined as to be useless (e.g., “prioritize public interest in all patent transactions?” What does that even mean?) or is completely mixed up.

For instance, the entire point of a university technology transfer office is that educational institutions and university researchers are not themselves in a position to adequately commercialize inventions. Questions of how large a user base a given invention can reach, or how best to scale products, grow markets, or create jobs are best left to entrepreneurs and business people. The very reason a technology transfer office would license or sell its patents to a third party is to discover these efficiencies.

And if a university engages in a transfer that, upon closer scrutiny, runs afoul of this rather fuzzy bit of legislation, any such transfers will be deemed void. Which means that universities will either have to expend enormous resources to find willing partners, or will spend millions on lawsuits and contract restitution damages. Enacting these feel-good  mandates into state law is at best useless, and most likely a tool for crusading plaintiff’s attorneys to use to harass universities.

Universities: Don’t you dare commercialize that invention!

As I noted above, it’s really surprising that groups like EFF are going after universities, as their educational mission and general devotion to improving social welfare should make them the darlings of social justice crusaders. However, as public institutions with budgets and tax statuses dependent on political will, universities are both unable to route around organizational challenges (like losing student aid or preferred tax status) and are probably unwilling to engage in wholesale PR defensive warfare for fear of offending a necessary political constituency. Thus, universities are very juicy targets — particularly when they engage in “dirty” commercial activities of any sort, no matter how attenuated.

And lest you think that universities wouldn’t actually be harassed (other than in the abstract by the likes of EFF) over patents, it turns out that it’s happening even now, even without EFF’s proposed law.

For the last five years Princeton University has been locked in a lawsuit with some residents of Princeton, New Jersey who have embarked upon a transparently self-interested play to divert university funds to their own pockets. Their weapon of choice? A challenge to Princeton’s tax-exempt status based on the fact that the school licenses and sells its patented inventions.

The plaintiffs’ core argument in Fields v. Princeton is that the University should be  a taxpaying entity because it occasionally generates patent licensing revenues from a small fraction of the research that its faculty conducts in University buildings.

The Princeton case is problematic for a variety of reasons, one of which deserves special attention because it runs squarely up against a laudable federal law that is intended to promote research, development, and patent commercialization.

In the early 1980s Congress passed the Bayh-Dole Act, which made it possible for universities to retain ownership over discoveries made in campus labs. The aim of the law was to encourage essential basic research that had historically been underdeveloped. Previously, the rights to any such federally-funded discoveries automatically became the property of the federal government, which, not surprisingly, put a damper on universities’ incentives to innovate.

When universities collaborate with industry — a major aim of Bayh-Dole — innovation is encouraged, breakthroughs occur, and society as a whole is better off. About a quarter of the top drugs approved since 1981 came from university research, as did many life-changing products we now take for granted, like Google, web browsers, email, cochlear implants and major components of cell phones. Since the passage of the Act, a boom in commercialized patents has yielded billions of dollars of economic activity.

Under the Act innovators are also rewarded: Qualifying institutions like Princeton are required to share royalties with the researchers who make these crucial discoveries. The University has no choice in the matter; to refuse to share the revenues would constitute a violation of the terms of federal research funding. But the Fields suit ignores this reality an,d in much the same way as EFF’s proposed legislation, will force a stark choice upon Princeton University: engage with industry, increase social utility and face lawsuits, or keep your head down and your inventions to yourself.

A Hobson’s Choice

Thus, things like the Fields suit and EFF’s proposed legislation are worse than costly distractions for universities; they are major disincentives to the commercialization of university inventions. This may not be the intended consequence of these actions, but it is an entirely predictable one.

Faced with legislation that punishes them for being insufficiently entrepreneurial and suits that attack them for bothering to commercialize at all, universities will have to make a hobson’s choice: commercialize the small fraction of research that might yield licensing revenues and potentially face massive legal liability, or simply decide to forego commercialization (and much basic research) altogether.

The risk here, obviously, is that research institutions will choose the latter in order to guard against the significant organizational costs that could result from a change in their tax status or a thicket of lawsuits that emerge from voided technology transfers (let alone the risk of losing student aid money).

But this is not what we want as a society. We want the optimal level of invention, innovation, and commercialization. What anti-patent extremists and short-sighted state governments may obtain for us instead, however, is a status quo much like Europe where the legal and regulatory systems perpetually keep innovation on a low simmer.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous June 13 decision (per Chief Justice John Roberts) in Halo Electronics v. Pulse Electronics, overturning the Federal Circuit’s convoluted Seagate test for enhanced damages, is good news for patent holders.  By reducing the incentives for intentional patent infringement (due to the near impossibility of obtaining punitive damages relief under Seagate), Halo Electronics helps enhance the effectiveness of patent enforcement, thereby promoting a more robust patent system.

The complexity and unwieldiness of the Seagate test is readily apparent from this description:

35 U.S.C. § 284 provides simply that “the court may increase the damages up to three times the amount found or assessed.” Nevertheless, in In re Seagate Technology, LLC, 497 F.3d 1360 (2007) (en banc) the Federal Circuit erected a two-part barrier for patentees to clear before a district court could exercise its enhancement discretion under the statute. First, a patent owner must “show by clear and convincing evidence that the infringer acted despite an objectively high likelihood that its actions constituted an infringement of a valid patent.” This first part of the test is not met if the infringer, during infringement proceedings, raises a substantial question as to the validity or non-infringement of the patent, regardless of whether the infringer’s prior conduct was egregious. Second, the patentee must demonstrate that the risk of infringement “was either known or so obvious that it should have been known to the accused infringer.” On appeal, the Federal Circuit would review the first step of the test—objective recklessness—de novo; the second part—subjective knowledge—for substantial evidence; and the ultimate decision—whether to award enhanced damages—for abuse of discretion.

In short, under Seagate, even if (1) the patentee presented substantial evidence that the infringer intentionally infringed its patent (under the second part of the test), and (2) the infringer’s prior conduct was egregious, the infringer could avoid enhanced damages merely by raising a “substantial question” as to the validity or non-infringement of the patent.  Because in most cases mere “questions” as to validity or non-infringement could readily be ginned up ex post, intentional infringers, including truly “bad actors,” could largely ignore the risk of being assessed anything more than actual damages.

Moreover, the Seagate test should be viewed in light of other major policy changes that have diminished the value of patents, such as the near impossibility of obtaining permanent injunctive relief for patent infringement following the Supreme Court’s 2006 eBay decision (see, for example, here), plus the recent downward trend in patent damage awards (see, for example, here) and increasingly common administrative patent invalidations (see, for example, here).  All told, these developments have incentivized parties to “go ahead and produce,” without regard to the patents they might be infringing, in the knowledge that, at worst, they might at some future time be held liable for something akin to the reasonable royalties they should have agreed to pay in the first place.

Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion for the Court in Halo Electronics in effect reinstates the longstanding historical understandings that in patent infringement cases:  (1) district court judges enjoy broad discretion to assess enhanced damages “for egregious infringement behavior”; and (2) the standard “preponderance of the evidence” standard of civil litigation (rather than the far more exacting “clear and convincing evidence” standard of proof) applies to enhanced damages determinations.  In so doing, it puts potential infringers on notice that exemplary damages for egregious infringing actions cannot be avoided after the fact by manufactured theories (“questions”) of possible patent invalidity or non-applicability of a patent’s claims to the conduct in question.  This in turn should raise the expected costs of intentional patent infringement, thereby increasing the incentive for technology implementers to negotiate ex ante with patent holders over license terms.  To the extent this incentive change results in a higher incidence of licensing ex ante, a lower incidence of costly infringement litigation, and higher returns to patentees, economic welfare should tend to rise.

Halo Electronics’ “halo effect” should not, of course, be oversold.  The meaning of “egregious infringement behavior” will have to be hashed out in federal litigation, and it is unclear to what extent federal district courts may show a greater inclination to assess enhanced damages.   Furthermore, recent legislative and regulatory policy changes and uncertainties (including rising “anti-patent” sentiments in the Executive Branch, see, for example, here) continue to constrain incentives to patent, to the detriment of economic welfare.  Nevertheless, while perhaps less than “heavenly” in its impact, the Halo Electronics decision should have some effect in summoning up “the better angels of technology implementers’ nature” (paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln, a firm believer in a robust patent system) and causing them to better respect the property rights imbedded in the patented innovations on which they rely.

[Below is an excellent essay by Devlin Hartline that was first posted at the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property blog last week, and I’m sharing it here.]

ACKNOWLEDGING THE LIMITATIONS OF THE FTC’S “PAE” STUDY

By Devlin Hartline

The FTC’s long-awaited case study of patent assertion entities (PAEs) is expected to be released this spring. Using its subpoena power under Section 6(b) to gather information from a handful of firms, the study promises us a glimpse at their inner workings. But while the results may be interesting, they’ll also be too narrow to support any informed policy changes. And you don’t have to take my word for it—the FTC admits as much. In one submission to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which ultimately decided whether the study should move forward, the FTC acknowledges that its findings “will not be generalizable to the universe of all PAE activity.” In another submission to the OMB, the FTC recognizes that “the case study should be viewed as descriptive and probative for future studies seeking to explore the relationships between organizational form and assertion behavior.”

However, this doesn’t mean that no one will use the study to advocate for drastic changes to the patent system. Even before the study’s release, many people—including some FTC Commissioners themselves—have already jumped to conclusions when it comes to PAEs, arguing that they are a drag on innovation and competition. Yet these same people say that we need this study because there’s no good empirical data analyzing the systemic costs and benefits of PAEs. They can’t have it both ways. The uproar about PAEs is emblematic of the broader movement that advocates for the next big change to the patent system before we’ve even seen how the last one panned out. In this environment, it’s unlikely that the FTC and other critics will responsibly acknowledge that the study simply cannot give us an accurate assessment of the bigger picture.

Limitations of the FTC Study 

Many scholars have written about the study’s fundamental limitations. As statistician Fritz Scheuren points out, there are two kinds of studies: exploratory and confirmatory. An exploratory study is a starting point that asks general questions in order to generate testable hypotheses, while a confirmatory study is then used to test the validity of those hypotheses. The FTC study, with its open-ended questions to a handful of firms, is a classic exploratory study. At best, the study will generate answers that could help researchers begin to form theories and design another round of questions for further research. Scheuren notes that while the “FTC study may well be useful at generating exploratory data with respect to PAE activity,” it “is not designed to confirm supportable subject matter conclusions.”

One significant constraint with the FTC study is that the sample size is small—only twenty-five PAEs—and the control group is even smaller—a mixture of fifteen manufacturers and non-practicing entities (NPEs) in the wireless chipset industry. Scheuren reasons that there “is also the risk of non-representative sampling and potential selection bias due to the fact that the universe of PAEs is largely unknown and likely quite diverse.” And the fact that the control group comes from one narrow industry further prevents any generalization of the results. Scheuren concludes that the FTC study “may result in potentially valuable information worthy of further study,” but that it is “not designed in a way as to support public policy decisions.”

Professor Michael Risch questions the FTC’s entire approach: “If the FTC is going to the trouble of doing a study, why not get it done right the first time and a) sample a larger number of manufacturers, in b) a more diverse area of manufacturing, and c) get identical information?” He points out that the FTC won’t be well-positioned to draw conclusions because the control group is not even being asked the same questions as the PAEs. Risch concludes that “any report risks looking like so many others: a static look at an industry with no benchmark to compare it to.” Professor Kristen Osenga echoes these same sentiments and notes that “the study has been shaped in a way that will simply add fuel to the anti–‘patent troll’ fire without providing any data that would explain the best way to fix the real problems in the patent field today.”

Osenga further argues that the study is flawed since the FTC’s definition of PAEs perpetuates the myth that patent licensing firms are all the same. The reality is that many different types of businesses fall under the “PAE” umbrella, and it makes no sense to impute the actions of a small subset to the entire group when making policy recommendations. Moreover, Osenga questions the FTC’s “shortsighted viewpoint” of the potential benefits of PAEs, and she doubts how the “impact on innovation and competition” will be ascertainable given the questions being asked. Anne Layne-Farrar expresses similar doubts about the conclusions that can be drawn from the FTC study since only licensors are being surveyed. She posits that it “cannot generate a full dataset for understanding the conduct of the parties in patent license negotiation or the reasons for the failure of negotiations.”

Layne-Farrar concludes that the FTC study “can point us in fruitful directions for further inquiry and may offer context for interpreting quantitative studies of PAE litigation, but should not be used to justify any policy changes.” Consistent with the FTC’s own admissions of the study’s limitations, this is the real bottom line of what we should expect. The study will have no predictive power because it only looks at how a small sample of firms affect a few other players within the patent ecosystem. It does not quantify how that activity ultimately affects innovation and competition—the very information needed to support policy recommendations. The FTC study is not intended to produce the sort of compelling statistical data that can be extrapolated to the larger universe of firms.

FTC Commissioners Put Cart Before Horse

The FTC has a history of bias against PAEs, as demonstrated in its 2011 report that skeptically questioned the “uncertain benefits” of PAEs while assuming their “detrimental effects” in undermining innovation. That report recommended special remedy rules for PAEs, even as the FTC acknowledged the lack of objective evidence of systemic failure and the difficulty of distinguishing “patent transactions that harm innovation from those that promote it.” With its new study, the FTC concedes to the OMB that much is still not known about PAEs and that the findings will be preliminary and non-generalizable. However, this hasn’t prevented some Commissioners from putting the cart before the horse with PAEs.

In fact, the very call for the FTC to institute the PAE study started with its conclusion. In her 2013 speech suggesting the study, FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez recognized that “we still have only snapshots of the costs and benefits of PAE activity” and that “we will need to learn a lot more” in order “to see the full competitive picture.” While acknowledging the vast potential benefits of PAEs in rewarding invention, benefiting competition and consumers, reducing enforcement hurdles, increasing liquidity, encouraging venture capital investment, and funding R&D, she nevertheless concluded that “PAEs exploit underlying problems in the patent system to the detriment of innovation and consumers.” And despite the admitted lack of data, Ramirez stressed “the critical importance of continuing the effort on patent reform to limit the costs associated with some types of PAE activity.”

This position is duplicitous: If the costs and benefits of PAEs are still unknown, what justifies Ramirez’s rushed call for immediate action? While benefits have to be weighed against costs, it’s clear that she’s already jumped to the conclusion that the costs outweigh the benefits. In another speech a few months later, Ramirez noted that the “troubling stories” about PAEs “don’t tell us much about the competitive costs and benefits of PAE activity.” Despite this admission, Ramirez called for “a much broader response to flaws in the patent system that fuel inefficient behavior by PAEs.” And while Ramirez said that understanding “the PAE business model will inform the policy dialogue,” she stated that “it will not change the pressing need for additional progress on patent reform.”

Likewise, in an early 2014 speech, Commissioner Julie Brill ignored the study’s inherent limitations and exploratory nature. She predicted that the study “will provide a fuller and more accurate picture of PAE activity” that “will be put to good use by Congress and others who examine closely the activities of PAEs.” Remarkably, Brill stated that “the FTC and other law enforcement agencies” should not “wait on the results of the 6(b) study before undertaking enforcement actions against PAE activity that crosses the line.” Even without the study’s results, she thought that “reforms to the patent system are clearly warranted.” In Brill’s view, the study would only be useful for determining whether “additional reforms are warranted” to curb the activities of PAEs.

It appears that these Commissioners have already decided—in the absence of any reliable data on the systemic effects of PAE activity—that drastic changes to the patent system are necessary. Given their clear bias in this area, there is little hope that they will acknowledge the deep limitations of the study once it is released.

Commentators Jump the Gun

Unsurprisingly, many supporters of the study have filed comments with the FTC arguing that the study is needed to fill the huge void in empirical data on the costs and benefits associated with PAEs. Some even simultaneously argue that the costs of PAEs far outweigh the benefits, suggesting that they have already jumped to their conclusion and just want the data to back it up. Despite the study’s serious limitations, these commentators appear primed to use it to justify their foregone policy recommendations.

For example, the Consumer Electronics Association applauded “the FTC’s efforts to assess the anticompetitive harms that PAEs cause on our economy as a whole,” and it argued that the study “will illuminate the many dimensions of PAEs’ conduct in a way that no other entity is capable.” At the same time, it stated that “completion of this FTC study should not stay or halt other actions by the administrative, legislative or judicial branches to address this serious issue.” The Internet Commerce Coalition stressed the importance of the study of “PAE activity in order to shed light on its effects on competition and innovation,” and it admitted that without the information, “the debate in this area cannot be empirically based.” Nonetheless, it presupposed that the study will uncover “hidden conduct of and abuses by PAEs” and that “it will still be important to reform the law in this area.”

Engine Advocacy admitted that “there is very little broad empirical data about the structure and conduct of patent assertion entities, and their effect on the economy.” It then argued that PAE activity “harms innovators, consumers, startups and the broader economy.” The Coalition for Patent Fairness called on the study “to contribute to the understanding of policymakers and the public” concerning PAEs, which it claimed “impose enormous costs on U.S. innovators, manufacturers, service providers, and, increasingly, consumers and end-users.” And to those suggesting “the potentially beneficial role of PAEs in the patent market,” it stressed that “reform be guided by the principle that the patent system is intended to incentivize and reward innovation,” not “rent-seeking” PAEs that are “exploiting problems.”

The joint comments of Public Knowledge, Electronic Frontier Foundation, & Engine Advocacyemphasized the fact that information about PAEs “currently remains limited” and that what is “publicly known largely consists of lawsuits filed in court and anecdotal information.” Despite admitting that “broad empirical data often remains lacking,” the groups also suggested that the study “does not mean that legislative efforts should be stalled” since “the harms of PAE activity are well known and already amenable to legislative reform.” In fact, they contended not only that “a problem exists,” but that there’s even “reason to believe the scope is even larger than what has already been reported.”

Given this pervasive and unfounded bias against PAEs, there’s little hope that these and other critics will acknowledge the study’s serious limitations. Instead, it’s far more likely that they will point to the study as concrete evidence that even more sweeping changes to the patent system are in order.

Conclusion

While the FTC study may generate interesting information about a handful of firms, it won’t tell us much about how PAEs affect competition and innovation in general. The study is simply not designed to do this. It instead is a fact-finding mission, the results of which could guide future missions. Such empirical research can be valuable, but it’s very important to recognize the limited utility of the information being collected. And it’s crucial not to draw policy conclusions from it. Unfortunately, if the comments of some of the Commissioners and supporters of the study are any indication, many critics have already made up their minds about the net effects of PAEs, and they will likely use the study to perpetuate the biased anti-patent fervor that has captured so much attention in recent years.

 

Last March, I published an op ed in the the Washington Times on the proposed VENUE Act, a recently introduced bill taken wholesale from a portion of HR 9 (the tendentiously titled “Innovation Act”).  HR 9 has rightly stalled given its widespread and radical changes to the patent system that weaken and dilute all property rights in innovation.  Although superficially more “narrow” because the VENUE Act contains only the proposed venue rule changes in HR 9, the VENUE Act is just the Son of Frankenstein for the innovation industries.  This bill simply continues the anti-patent owner bias in the DC policy debates that has gone almost completely unchecked since before the start of President Obama’s first term in office.

Here’s a portion of my op ed:

The VENUE Act is the latest proposal in a multi-year campaign by certain companies and interest groups to revise the rules of the patent system. The fundamental problem is that this campaign has created an entirely one-sided narrative about patent “reform”: all the problems are caused by patent owners and thus the solutions require removing the incentives for patent owners to be bad actors in the innovation economy. This narrative is entirely biased against patented innovation, the driver of America’s innovation economy for over two hundred years that has recognized benefits. As a result, it has produced an equally biased policy debate that inexorably leads to the same conclusion in every “reform” proposal arising from this campaign: these vital property rights must be weakened, watered down, or eliminated when it comes to their licensing in the marketplace or enforcement in courts.

….

In this narrower bill to address litigation abuse, for instance, it is an Alice in Wonderland state of affairs to be talking only about stopping abuse of the courts by patent owners while blatantly ignoring the same abuse by challengers of patents in the administrative review programs run by the Patent Trial and Appeals Board (PTAB). It is widely recognized that the PTAB is incredibly biased against patents in both its procedural and substantive rules. The Supreme Court recently agreed to hear just one of many appeals that are currently working their way through the courts that explicitly address these concerns. There is legitimate outcry about hedge fund managers exploiting the PTAB’s bias against patents by filing petitions to invalidate patents after shorting stocks for bio-pharmaceutical companies that own these patents. The PTAB has been called a “death squad” for patents, and with a patent invalidation rate between 79% to 100%, this is not entirely unjustified rhetoric.

The absence of any acknowledgment that reform of the PTAB is just as pressingly important as venue reform by those pushing for the VENUE Act is a massive elephant in the room. Unfortunately, it is unsurprising. But this is only because it is the latest example of a strikingly one-sided, biased narrative of the past several years about patent “reform.”

As bloggers like to say: Read the whole thing here.

UPDATE: A more in-depth, legal analysis of proposed “venue reform” and the resulting collateral damage it imposes on all patent owners is provided by Devlin Hartline in his essay, “Changes to Patent Venue Rules Risk Collateral to Innovators,” which can be read here.

Today, in ClearCorrect Operating, LLC v. International Trade Commission, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that electronic transmissions of digital data from abroad do not involve the importation of “articles” for purposes of Section 337 of the Tariff Act (“Section 337,” 19 U.S.C. § 1337), thereby stripping the U.S. International Trade Commission (“ITC”) of jurisdiction over infringement of intellectual property (IP) facilitated through such transmissions.  If allowed to stand, this unfortunate and ill-reasoned 2-1 panel decision will incentivize IP infringement schemes involving data imports, thereby harming U.S. IP holders (including holders of federally-protected patents, copyrights, trademarks, and designs) and rewarding unfair methods of import competition, contrary to the broad statutory purpose of Section 337.

Align Technology, Inc. held various patents covering the production of orthodontic tooth-straightening appliances, known as aligners.  ClearCorrect Operating, LLC (“ClearCorrect US”) used patented Align Technology without authorization to create digital models of patients’ teeth, and electronically transmitted those models to its Pakistani affiliate, Clear Correct Pakistan.  The Pakistani affiliate manipulated those models and then transmitted final digital models back to the United States, which ClearCorrect US utilized to make orthodontic aligners.  Align Technology complained to the ITC, which found that Clear Correct Pakistan engaged in infringing activity in Pakistan and that data transmission of its digital models to the U.S. violated Section 337(a)(1)(B)(ii), in that it involved the importation of articles covered by the claims of a valid and enforceable United States patent.  ClearCorrect appealed the ITC’s determination to the Federal Circuit.

Judge Sharon Prost’s majority opinion, while conceding that the term “articles” is not defined in the Tariff Act, nevertheless found that because “dictionaries point to the fact that ‘articles’ means ‘material things’”, the term “’articles’ does not cover electronically transmitted digital data.”  Thus, finding the term “articles” to be clear (“commonsense dictates that there is a fundamental difference between electronic transmissions and ‘material things[.]’”), Judge Prost rejected the ITC’s findings under step one (is there statutory ambiguity) of Chevron deference analysis.  Even assuming that “articles” is ambiguous, however, Judge Prost held that the ITC’s interpretation of that term was “unreasonable,” and thus failed step two (was the agency’s interpretation permissible) of Chevron analysis.  Specifically, Judge Prost deemed the ITC’s definition as inconsistent with dictionary definitions and with the Tariff Act’s legislative history.

In her short concurring opinion, Judge Kathleen O’Malley reasoned that the ITC’s definition of “articles” would give it jurisdiction over all incoming international Internet data transmissions, something Congress had not foreseen – “[b]ecause Congress did not intend to delegate such authority to the Commission, I would find the two step Chevron inquiry inapplicable in this case”.  Judge O’Malley added, however, that assuming Chevron applies, “I agree with the majority’s ruling that the Commission erred when it determined that it had jurisdiction over the disputed digital data.”  (Judge O’Malley’s apparent concern that upholding the ITC’s determination would have given that agency excessive regulatory control over the Internet appears to wrongly conflate the protection of property rights through a targeted and carefully-tailored provision (Section 337) with far-reaching command and control regulation – something that is clearly beyond the scope of the ITC’s authority.)

In her dissent, Judge Pauline Newman pointed out that Section 337 was written in broad terms that are adaptable to changes in technology.  She noted compellingly that contrary to the majority’s crabbed reading of “articles,” the term “was intended to be all-encompassing”, and “[t]he Supreme Court [itself] defined ‘articles of commerce’ to include pure information”.  Accordingly, limiting Section 337’s application to the non-digital technology that existed in the 1920s and 1930s (when the statutory core of the Tariff Act was enacted) makes no sense.  Summing it up, Judge Newman trenchantly concluded that “[o]n any standard, the Commission’s determination is reasonable, and warrants respect.  The panel majority’s contrary ruling is not reasonable, on any standard.”

U.S. patentees are not the only IP holders that face serious harm from the Federal Circuit’s regrettable holding.  For example, the Motion Picture Association of America stated that “[t]his ruling, if it stands, would appear to reduce the authority of the ITC to address the scourge of overseas web sites that engage in blatant piracy of movies, television programs, music, books, and other copyrighted works”.

An en banc Federal Circuit (or, better yet Supreme Court) reversal of this decision would prove helpful, but judicial processes move slowly.  Given the potential for serious harm to U.S. IP-dependent industries stemming from this holding, Congress may wish to seriously consider clarifying that the term “articles” in Section 337 is applicable to all forms of commerce, including digital transmissions.

On August 10, in Suprema, Inc. v. ITC, the en banc Federal Circuit granted Chevron deference to a U.S. International Trade Commission (“ITC”) statutory interpretation in holding that goods that do not directly infringe a U.S. patent at the time they are imported nevertheless may be excluded from entry by the ITC if they are used, after importation, to directly infringe by the importer at the inducement of the goods’ seller.  Although this decision is good news for believers in strong U.S. patent enforcement against infringing imports, it is problematic as a matter of jurisprudence.  It may face stormy waters if it eventually is subject to U.S. Supreme Court review.  The gist of the case is as follows.

In May 2010, Cross Match Technologies, Inc. (“Cross Match”) filed a complaint with the ITC, alleging infringement of four patents it owned that involved certain fingerprint scanning devices.  The ITC found the scanners were manufactured abroad by a Korean company, Suprema, Inc. (“Suprema”).  An American company, Mentalix, Inc., bought the scanners and imported them into the United States.  Mentalix subsequently combined the scanners with Mentalix software, and used and sold the scanners in the U.S.  The ITC determined that Mentalix directly infringed a Cross Match patent claim by integrating its software with the Suprema scanners.  The ITC also found that Suprema was liable for inducing patent infringement by Mentalix, in that it “willfully blinded” itself to and “actively encouraged” Mentalix’s infringing U.S. activities.  (Furthermore, Suprema “aided and abetted” Mentalix’s infringement by assisting Mentalix in getting Mentalix software to work with the scanners.)  Consequently, the ITC imposed an exclusion order covering the importation of scanners used in the infringement, applying Section 337 of the Tariff Act of 1930 (“Section 337”), which declares unlawful “importing articles that . . . infringe a valid and enforceable United States patent.”  On appeal, a three-judge Federal Circuit panel disagreed and found no Section 337 violation, reasoning that there are no “articles that infringe” at the time of importation when direct infringement does not occur until after importation.  The Federal Circuit granted a rehearing en banc and a six-judge majority vacated the panel decision, with four judges dissenting.

The en banc majority opinion, authored by Judge Jimmie V. Reyna, applied Chevron deference to the ITC’s determination.  (The administrative law principle known as “Chevron deference,” enunciated in 1984 by the U.S. Supreme Court in Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. NRDC, gives judicial deference to an agency’s construction of federal statutory language if (1) the statutory language is ambiguous and (2) the agency’s interpretation is based on a “permissible” construction of the language.  An agency’s interpretation need not be the “best” or “most likely” statutory construction, it need only be “not unreasonable.”)  The opinion found first that because Section 337 refers to “articles that infringe,” not just to infringement (the subject of the Patent Act), textual uncertainty is introduced.  In other words, applying Chevron Step One, “Congress has not directly answered whether goods qualify as ‘articles that infringe’ when the [ITC] has found that an importer used such goods, after importation, to directly infringe at the inducement of the goods’ seller.”  Applying Chevron Step Two, Judge Reyna deemed reasonable the ITC’s determination that induced infringement was covered by Section 337:  “Induced infringement is one kind of infringement, and when it is accomplished by supplying an article, the article supplied can be an ‘article that infringes’ if the other requirements of inducement are met.”  Furthermore, “[t]he legislative history consistently evidence[d] Congressional intent to vest the ITC with broad enforcement authority to remedy unfair trade acts.”  Accordingly, Judge Reyna held that deference to the ITC’s interpretation of Section 337 was warranted.

A four-judge dissent, authored by Judge Kathleen M. O’Malley, found no ambiguity in the term “articles that infringe,” and stressed that “there is no actual harm to a patentee until an infringing use, and that harm only occurs after importation for method claims such as the ones at issue in this appeal. This is especially true for staple goods like Suprema’s scanners, where a broad assertion of the Commission’s power could prevent noninfringing goods from entering the country on the basis of what a customer may do with that item once it enters U.S. territory. Such considerations are the purview of the district courts, and fall outside the limited statutory jurisdiction of the [ITC].”  Notably, Judge O’Malley also relied heavily on the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Limelight Networks v. Akamai Technologies, when the Court held that inducement liability may arise if and only if there is direct patent infringement.  As Judge O’Malley explained, “[b]y permitting indirect infringement liability at the point of importation when there has been no direct infringement, the [Federal Circuit en banc] majority crafts patent policy where it believes there is a loophole ripe for abuse.”  But “[a]s the Supreme Court recently reminded us” in Limelight, “ ‘[t]he courts should not create liability for inducement of non-infringing conduct where Congress has elected not to extend that concept.’ ”

The dissent has the better case.  The fact is, the scanners did not infringe when they were imported, only when they were bundled subsequently with another company’s software in connection with their being marketed in the United States.  Finding ambiguity in the term “articles that infringe” involves an exercise in statutory construction that appears strained to the point of unreasonableness.  It would likely be viewed unfavorably by the Supreme Court, which recently has shown reluctance about routinely invoking Chevron deference (see, for example, the Court’s very recent summary rejection of such deference in Michigan v. EPA).  Furthermore, the en banc majority’s willingness to find inducement liability at a time when direct patent infringement has not yet occurred (the point of importation) is very hard to square with the teachings of Akamai.  Finally, Federal Circuit decisions have fared poorly before the Supreme Court in recent years, and Judge O’Malley’s thoughtful application of Akamais teachings makes the en banc majority’s opinion a particularly ripe target for Supreme Court reversal, should certiorari be granted. 

As Judge O’Malley pointed out, if U.S. patentees are being seriously harmed by induced infringement after the point of importation, a simple statutory tweak to Section 337 should deal with the problem.  Supporters of strong patent protection would be well advised to have such an amendment “in their back pocket” and ready to go should the Supreme Court elect to review the Suprema decision.