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Author: David Schwartz

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Proxy Patent Litigation II

Previously I posted on the issue of proxy patent litigation. Basically, mass patent aggregators (entities which own or control a large number of patents that they have acquired from elsewhere) litigate only a few of the patents in their portfolio against a large accused infringer. The litigated patents serve as proxies for the quality of their entire portfolio. If the aggregator is successful on the merits (or at least in preliminary rulings, such as defeating the accused infringer’s motions for summary judgment on invalidity and non-infringement), it strengthens their hand considerably in negotiations for a license for the entire portfolio. The proxy litigation is also only one part of a broader dynamic from the aggregator’s perspective:  the aggregator’s success in court against one practicing entity not only puts it in a stronger bargaining position against that entity, it may also do so with the rest of industry as well (i.e., other firms may be willing to pay more for a portfolio license).

I now attempt to answer a question I posed in my previous post. Specifically, if the court understood the underlying dispute was litigation-by-proxy, would it (or could it) proceed any differently?

I think it is useful to consider this question through the prism of the classic project management triangle. According to theory, a project has three core attributes: speed, quality, and cost. There is tension among the three attributes, and consequently, one can never maximize more than two of them. For instance, if one wants a project of the highest quality in the fastest time, then it can’t be cheap. Alternatively, if one wants a project fast and cheap, then it can’t be of the highest quality.

Now let’s translate the project management triangle into the judicial process. Several core attributes of a case are speed of resolution, depth and thoroughness of the analysis, and accuracy or correctness of the decision. If the project management triangle is correct and applies to the courts, then all three of these can’t be maximized at once. While the court and litigants want speedy, thorough, and accurate justice, not all are possible in a case.

Now turn back to the proxy litigation by patent aggregators. I submit that the optimal level of speed, thoroughness, and accuracy may be different in proxy litigation than run-of-the-mill litigation. The depth and thoroughness of the opinions may be of less importance in proxy litigation because the adjudicated dispute is not the entire dispute between the parties. Accuracy may be more important since the results of the single dispute will be used to determine the value of a larger portfolio.

Thoughts on the analysis?

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Proxy Patent Litigation

In the last decade or so, patent litigation in the United States has undergone enormous changes. Perhaps most profound is the rise in enforcement of patents held by people and entities who don’t make any products or otherwise participate in the marketplace. Some call these patent holders ‘non-practicing entities’ (NPEs), while others use the term ‘patent assertion entities’ (PAEs), and some pejoratively refer to some or all of these patent holders as ‘trolls.’ These outsiders come in many different flavors: individual inventors, universities, failed startups, and holding companies that own a patent or family of patents. 

This post is about a particular type of outsider that is relatively new: the mass patent aggregator. The mass patent aggregator owns or controls a significant number of patents – hundreds or even thousands – which it acquired from different sources, including from companies that manufacture products. These mass aggregators often seek to license their portfolios to large practicing entities for significant amounts of money, sometimes using infringement litigation as the vehicle. Aggregators often focus their portfolios on certain industries such as consumer electronics.

Mass aggregator patent litigation and ordinary patent litigation appear to differ in one important aspect. Mass aggregators sue on a few patents in their portfolio, which serve as proxies for the quality of their entire portfolio. The parties use the court’s views of the litigated patents to determine how to value the full patent portfolio. By litigating only a small subset of their portfolio, the aggregator and potential licensee avoid the expense of litigating all of the patents. But the court adjudicates the dispute completely oblivious to the proxy aspect of the litigation. Instead, the court handles it like every other case – by analyzing the merits of the various claims and defenses.

If the court understood the underlying dispute was litigation-by-proxy, would it (or could it) proceed any differently? I will discuss my thoughts on this question in another blog post. For now, I have a question: does proxy litigation occur in other areas of law?

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The Varying Use of Legal Scholarship by the U.S. Supreme Court across Issues

While patent law is my core area of scholarly interest, I have also studied the use of legal scholarship by the courts. My co-author Lee Petherbridge from Loyola-LA and I have conducted several comprehensive empirical studies using large datasets on the issue. More precisely, we have analyzed how often federal courts cite to law review articles in their decisions. We have empirically analyzed the issue from a variety of angles. We have studied the use of legal scholarship by the U.S. Supreme Court (available here), by the regional U.S. Courts of Appeals (study available here), and by the Federal Circuit (available here). I won’t recount the finding of those studies here. Instead, I will report some new information and ask readers for potential explanations of the data.

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Software Patent Eligibility

This post reflects my initial impressions of an important Federal Circuit development in patent law, which is my primary area of scholarly focus. On Friday, the Federal Circuit, sitting en banc, ruled on a controversial and divisive patent law issue, whether software inventions are patent eligible subject matter. Unfortunately, I find the decision in this case, CLS Bank v. Alice Corp., quite unsatisfying.

The court, sitting with 10 judges, issued 7 separate opinions spanning 135 pages. The court only agreed upon a very brief – 55 words – per curiam opinion affirming the district court ruling that the asserted patents were invalid. The per curiam opinion explained that the “method” and “computer readable media” claims were deemed not patent eligible by the Federal Circuit, while the court was equally divided on the status of the “system” claims. (Basically, there are several different ways that a software invention can be claimed in a patent, including as a process/method of performing steps; as software embedded upon a computer readable medium (i.e., a DVD); and as a system (i.e., software running on a machine/computer).) None of the remaining substantive opinions garnered more than 5 votes – thus, none are binding precedent. Although a majority of the Federal Circuit judges found the method and media claims invalid, a majority could not agree upon the reasoning. Below I will briefly provide a few preliminary observations about the opinions.

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Should Empirical Legal Scholars Have Special Responsibilities?

Before delving into the substance of my first post, I wanted to thank the crew at Concurring Opinions for inviting me to guest blog this month.

Recently, I have been thinking about whether empirical legal scholars have or should have special ethical responsibilities. Why special responsibilities? Two basic reasons. First, nearly all law reviews lack formal peer review. The lack of peer review potentially permits dubious data to be reported without differentiation alongside quality data. Second, empirical legal scholarship has the potential to be extremely influential on policy debates because it provides “data” to substantiate or refute claims. Unfortunately, many consumers of empirical legal scholarship — including other legal scholars, practitioners, judges, the media, and policy makers — are not sophisticated in empirical methods. Even more importantly, subsequent citations of empirical findings by legal scholars rarely take care to explain the study’s qualifications and limitations. Instead, subsequent citations often amplify the “findings” of the empirical study by over-generalizing the results. 

My present concern is about weak data. By weak data, I don’t mean data that is flat out incorrect (such as from widespread coding errors) or that misuses empirical methods (such as when the model’s assumptions are not met). Others previously have discussed issues relating to incorrect data and analysis in empirical legal studies. Rather, I am referring to reporting data that encourages weak or flawed inferences, that is not statistically significant, or that is of extremely limited value and thus may be misused. The precise question I have been considering is under what circumstances one should report weak data, even with an appropriate explanation of the methodology used and its potential limitations. (A different yet related question for another discussion is whether one should report lots of data without informing the reader which data the researcher views as most relevant. This scattershot approach has many of the same concerns as weak data.)

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