HBO’s ‘Silicon Valley’ tackled an issue that’s all too familiar to startups: The threat of frivolous patent litigation. Even after a recent Supreme Court win against patent trolls, startups must remain engaged in patent reform.
Today, the Supreme Court delivered a blow to patent trolls by unanimously reversing the Federal Circuit’s decision in TC Heartland v. Kraft Foods Group Brands LLC. The high court ruled that defendants in patent cases can only be sued where they are incorporated or have a regular and established place of business. The decision will make it significantly harder for patent trolls to file lawsuits in jurisdictions that patent-friendly but otherwise unrelated to the claims at issue—most notably the Eastern District of Texas, where almost forty percent of patent cases were filed last year.
Today, Engine hosted Austin Meyer, the director of the new documentary “The Patent Scam,” at the Capitol Hill Visitor Center. The screening and subsequent discussion with real victims of patent litigation abuse demonstrated the extent that the U.S. patent system is failing to protect small businesses and startups from patent trolls.
After almost five years of legal volleying, the U.S. Supreme Court finally issued a decision in the highly anticipated Apple v. Samsung design patent case late last year. On Tuesday, Dec. 5, the court delivered a unanimous decision in favor of Samsung, finding that damages for design patent infringement may be limited to revenues attributable to a component of an article of manufacture rather than profits from the entire article. While this is an important victory for startups and innovators—from global corporations to inventors toiling in garages—courts must still work to provide the guidance and clarity necessary to prevent bad actors from abusing the patent system to the detriment of innovation. And they have a new opportunity to do so: On Feb. 7, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit took a significant step in that direction by remanding the Apple v. Samsung case to the Northern District of California court.
Under Director Michelle Lee, the Patent Office has made real strides toward fixing patent quality. While much work in that area remains to be done, we are encouraged by the steps she and her team have taken and are pleased that she will remain in her role in the incoming Administration so that this important work can continue. Startups in particular rely on a well-functioning patent system, and under Director Lee's leadership, the Patent Office has welcomed the startup community to play a role in that debate. We look forward to continuing working with her to ensure that that the patent system promotes rather than hinders innovation.
The Supreme Court’s December 2016 decision in Apple vs. Samsung reversed a dangerous lower court decision that would have allowed patent plaintiffs to claim the total value of a product containing an allegedly infringing design feature, even if that design feature only provides a small amount of the product’s value. While total profits awards may arguably have been more plausible in an age when devices were less complicated and the design of the object constituted a significant portion of its value, the complexity of modern devices renders total profits awards for design patent infringement particularly illogical.
The patent system was established by our founding fathers as a tool to promote innovation and invention. But too often, America’s most creative, forward-thinking startups find themselves interacting with the patent system in a less-than-ideal way: on the receiving end of an infringement suit or a letter threatening as much. Bad actors that have amassed hundreds and thousands of overbroad, low-quality patents (colloquially known as “patent trolls”) target businesses, using these patents as proverbial weapons with the goal of forcing companies into costly settlements.
Considering tech’s strong presence in DC politics, it’s hard to believe that half a decade ago, the notion that the internet community was capable of any unified political engagement seemed far-fetched. But exactly five years ago today, the nation’s political apparatus quickly came to understand just how powerful a constituency the internet community could be.
The Copyright Office’s announcement on New Year’s Eve 2015 that it was launching a public review of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) set the tone for a varied and busy year in intellectual property policy. While there was no “Next Great Copyright Act” or comprehensive patent reform bill in 2016, courts, agencies, and elected officials addressed a wide range of IP issues, setting the stage for even more significant developments in 2017.
This morning, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Samsung’s favor in a case against Apple involving how damages should be calculated and awarded in design patent cases. In a win for the startup community, the court held that an award for design patent infringement does not necessarily allow the patent holder to obtain damages equivalent to the total profits of a product in which the patented design is used, as the lower court originally ruled. Rather, courts can award design patent damages for the particular components in which the patent was used. The decision may result in the lower court drastically decreasing its original award of almost $400 million to Apple, though the Supreme Court did not rule on how the modified damage amount should be calculated.
As a non-profit policy organization committed to making the world better for startups, Engine has a long history of engagement on copyright reform issues. Indeed, Engine began as an effort to harness the political power of the startup community that emerged from the tech world’s fight against the ill-fated SOPA/PIPA copyright bills. While the SOPA/PIPA battle remains a critical milestone in the emergence of tech as a political force, our work to return copyright law to a system that promotes rather than hinders innovation is only beginning. To help further this crucial mission, we are proud to join the Re:Create Coalition, a group of creators, innovators, and users working to ensure that copyright laws are balanced and foster innovation, creativity, and economic growth.
The patent system was enshrined in the American Constitution as a tool to promote innovation and invention. But as we have lamented again, and again, and again, the current system often has the opposite effect. In recent years, patent trolls—more politely known as non-practicing entities or NPEs—have hijacked the patent system, amassing hundreds and thousands of overbroad, low-quality patents with the sole purpose of suing and forcing companies into costly settlements. Unfortunately, this abusive patent litigation disproportionately impacts startups, entrepreneurs, and innovators (more than 80 percent of patent troll victims are small- and medium-sized businesses, and 55 percent of troll suits are filed against companies with revenues of less than $10 million).
Historically, startups have had little occasion to pay attention to the proceedings of our nation’s highest court. While arcane questions of constitutional law have an enormous impact on broader society, the Supreme Court’s activities are often too far removed from the challenges entrepreneurs must handle every day to simply keep their businesses afloat. But, an upcoming case on the Supreme Court’s docket may warrant a shift from this traditional mindset, as the outcome of the dispute could have a resounding impact on startups and small businesses in all industries.
The RIAA and its allies in the traditional music industry continue to ramp up their efforts to undo one of the key laws that made the modern internet possible, releasing a letter to Congress yesterday signed by dozens of musicians arguing that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is somehow ruining the music industry.
On New Year’s Eve 2015, while most people were out celebrating, the Copyright Office quietly issued an notice of inquiry seeking public input on an incredibly important topic: the effectiveness of Section 512 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). For those who didn’t skip their New Year’s Eve party to brush up on copyright policy, here’s a refresher: the DMCA is a law from 1998 that, among other things, grants online service providers (OSPs)—basically, all your favorite websites—a legal “safe harbor” from facing lawsuits arising from user copyright infringements.
This week, Senators Flake, Gardner, and Lee introduced a piece of legislation targeting one of the most egregious—and, frankly, ridiculous—problems with our current patent system. Specifically, the Venue Equity and Non-Uniformity Elimination (VENUE) Act would get patent cases out of the Eastern District of Texas, where patent trolls most commonly file their specious lawsuits. Together with the comprehensive reform legislation found in the PATENT Act, this bill would help put an end to a dangerous patent troll problem that continues to prey on this country’s startups and innovators.
Copyright law has always had a complicated relationship with software. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer presaged the difficulties in applying copyright law to software in a seminal law review article in 1970, and despite a few legislative revisions of copyright law since then, many of those same inherent difficulties persist. In the past year, these problems received public attention in a few high profile news stories, including John Deere’s claim that tractor purchasers don’t actually “own” the tractors they buy. Instead, purchasers merely receive an implied license to operate the vehicle and the software it contains. To just about any rational person, this seems like a Kafka-esque absurdity that only the most creative lawyer could dream up. But as more and more of our everyday products become computerized and connected, it’s likely that we’ll see many more examples of how copyright laws meant to encourage creative production can produce bizarre outcomes when applied to products containing embedded software.
Spurred in large part by the John Deere story, the Copyright Office opened a public inquiry seeking commentary on the legal and policy challenges related to copyright’s application to software embedded in everyday products. Last week, Engine filed comments with the Copyright Office identifying the many challenges to startup innovation that arise from this application. Written by a crack team of legal students at Stanford Law School’s Juelsgaard Intellectual Property and Innovation Clinic under the guidance of Phil Malone and Jef Pearlman, the comments examine difficult questions surrounding the appropriate scope of software copyrights, focusing on how granting copyright protection to essentially functional code can hurt startup competition by undermining interoperability between platforms and services, and how limiting a user’s right to modify software in devices they own poses a range of threats to innovation and security.
The innovation-stifling threat of overbroad copyright protection for software is perhaps best encapsulated in the ongoing litigation between Google and Oracle over the copyrightability of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) that facilitate communication between computer programs. As the comments explain, “APIs have been and are indispensable to interoperability in standalone software platforms and products and will be equally indispensable to software-enabled consumer devices,” such that allowing companies to assert copyrights over APIs to will create “incentives for incumbents in almost any industry to misuse copyright law to try to exclude new entrants and emerging competition.” Particularly in the emerging Internet of Things, where startups will be well-positioned to build apps and services that interact with the innumerable connected devices that will soon be a part of everyday life, protecting interoperability is paramount to encouraging innovation and competition. This competition will foster both enormous economic growth and consumer value, so it’s critical that we rein in rules that give incumbents the power to use ill-fitting copyright laws to exclude competitors.
The comments make a compelling case for sensible copyright rules in the age of embedded software, and we at Engine are incredibly grateful for the fantastic work of the Stanford team. Read the full submission here.
Are you a startup or inventor wondering what to do about our broken patent system? Want to know what your options are? Check out Hacking the Patent System, an updated white paper published in partnership with EFF and students from the Juelsgaard Intellectual Property Clinic at Stanford Law School.
This paper includes important and timely advice for technology entrepreneurs attempting to navigate a dysfunctional and unfair system because, unfortunately, patent trolls remain a grave threat to startups and innovators. This is despite multiple attempts to pass reform legislation through Congress and an active Supreme Court working hard to fix a broken system. Not only does the threat of extortionary patent trolls still exist, but it’s actually getting worse. Lawsuits filed by patent trolls are up and significantly more than half of those cases are filed in the notorious Eastern District of Texas.
Despite these problems, startups often find themselves filing for patents, either because their investors tell them it’s a good idea or they plan to later use them defensively against lawsuit threats. This has led to a dangerous culture of “patenting up”—getting as many patents as possible in as short a time as possible.
To really fix the problem, a handful of things need to happen:
Congress must pass patent reform legislation that addresses fundamental inequities in the patent system that favor large patent holders and litigation plaintiffs.
Patent quality must be improved. Removing low-quality patents from the system will also remove the trolls’ deadliest weapon.
We must change the culture of “patenting up.” Big companies, investors, startups, and inventors need to come together to take a stand and return the system to its roots, which—as the Constitution provides—is meant to promote the progress of science and useful arts.
That all might take awhile. In the meantime, there are things that startups can do to navigate a broken patent system without hiring an expensive patent lawyer or even filing for a patent itself. We lay out some of those options here in an updated version of our Hacking the Patent System white paper, originally released in 2014. The paper takes a deep dive into alternative patent licenses: specifically, patent aggregators, patent pledges, and (new this year!) patent insurance.
Thanks to partners EFF and the Juelsgaard Intellectual Property Clinic at Stanford Law School—especially former students Marta Belcher and John Casey—for all their hard work.