Feb 16 2009

The Evils of Patent Litigation

The Evils of Patent Litigation

There have been a lot of posts over the years on the blogs I read about patents and how they are problematic.  I know Brad has done a bunch, including this one. I wrote one once about a dumb patent issued in the email space, which is here. 

And of course no listing of great patent posts would be complete without a nod to my colleague Whitney McNamara, who I believe coined the term "ass patent" starting with this post.  In fact, Whit has a whole category of posts on his blog about ass patents.  

But one of the most thoughtful, accurate, and proscriptive ones I've read is what Fred wrote a couple days ago.

And I should know.  We are the company that he refers to who spent about half a million dollars successfully defending ourselves (for now – who knows what appeals might bring) against a baseless suit by a patent troll.  For the record, we did try to settle and were presented with a multi-million dollar option only.  I have been advised by our lawyer not to write about this case because there are elements of it that are still pending, but I don't care.  I'm irritated enough about it that I want to get this out there while it's still fresh in my mind.  And I'm not going to use names here or say anything I wouldn't say publicly in any other forum.

I've thought about this problem a lot for the last several years, as you might imagine.  Fred's two patent reforms — that plaintiffs who lose a suit have to pay defendant legal fees, and that patents should have a "use it or lose it" clause like trademarks — would totally do the job. 

I'm a fan of the "losing plaintiff pays" clause, but one challenge is that it would discourage a certain percentage of legitimate suits and claims, particularly from small inventors, out of fear that high-priced defense counsel will not only win on some technicality BUT will then cost a disproportionate amount of money since the risk is completely transferred to the other side.  This is probably a challenge that's worth living with, but it has the potential to be a "lesser of two evils" solution.

I love the "use it or lose it" one in particular, because it would not just force companies to use the invention, but it would also more clearly articulate what the patent is.  In many cases with business process patents, it's too unclear what the patent actually covers and whether or not other inventions are in conflict with it.  Too much is left up to wording interpretations.  That would not be the case if the invention was actually in use!

Here's another problem with the system that I think requires a third simple solution.  I'll call it The BigCo problem, and it happened to us in our case.  The BigCo problem is that the same troll who sued us also sued two other companies, one of them a Fortune 100 technology company, concurrently and similarly baselessly over the same patents.  But here was the problem:  the troll suing us wouldn't consider a modest settlement with us, even knowing that our resources were limited, because doing so would make it harder for them to pursue their case against BigCo and get a Big Settlement.

So here's my proposed third simple solution:  a defendant-initiated settlement should be confidential and not influence the outcome of related pending litigation.  Why should little guys have to suck up costs because BigCo has deep pockets?

I hope last year's ruling around business process patents (creating a more narrow definition of what is patentable) helps with patent trolls, one of the real scourges of the Internet — possibly even a new member of the Internet Axis of Evil — but it won't solve the problem the way Fred's two suggestions will.

UPDATE:  Great comment from Mike Masnick: 

another very very very useful solution to the problems you face would be (finally) allowing an "independent invention" defense to patents. The problem is that almost no patent infringement lawsuits are actually due to someone "copying" someone else's product or patent. The vast majority are due to "independent invention." I think two things should happen: 1. If sued, and you can show an independent invention defense the case is over. And… 2. If you can show that independent invention defense and it works, the patent itself should be invalidated. This is because patents are only supposed to be granted for inventions that are new and non-obvious to those skilled in the art. If those skilled in the art are coming up with the same concept independently, I'd say it fails the non-obvious to those skilled in the art scenario. Do that and much of the patent problem goes away, while still "protecting" the scenario where some company just flat out copies an invention.