MVS Filewrapper® Blog: Update on "Patent Troll" Legislation in the Wake of the 2014 Elections

Post by Luke Holst

In December of 2013, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 3309, the "Innovation Act," ostensibly to address the problem of abusive patent litigation, sometimes referred to as patent trolling.  While H.R. 3309 passed with bipartisan support by an overwhelming margin of 325-91 votes, its companion bill failed to clear the Senate.  Failure of the Senate bill is attributable to removal of controversial fee-shifting language from H.R. 3309 by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. The fee-shifting provisions required losing parties in patent litigation to pay their opponent's legal fees—a situation critics argued would discourage the filing of meritorious patent suits by small businesses.  After votes on the Senate counterpart bill stalled repeatedly, Senator Leahy withdrew the bill from the Senate Judiciary Committee's agenda last May.

 

In the wake of the 2014 midterm elections, Republicans have vowed to take up the legislation again early in 2015.  House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., recently stated that a new version of the Innovation Act, and two companion bills addressing trade secret protections, should be reintroduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in January and pass with bipartisan majorities.  The trade secrets legislation looks to create private civil trade secret misappropriation lawsuits under the federal Economic Espionage Act, which currently only allows prosecutors to bring criminal cases.  On the Senate side, Senator Charles Grassley, R-Ia., is expected to replace Leahy as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee as the Republicans take over the Senate majority in January.  Senator Grassley has signaled his intention to make patent reform a priority in the new Congress and believes patent reform can be accomplished early next year.  In addition, the White House has signaled its support for legislation curbing abusive patent litigation, signaling that this may be an issue for which meaningful legislative action could be seen during the 2015 term.

 

 

En banc Federal Circuit to address potential patent misuse issues in license practices

The Federal Circuit has agreed to hear en banc an interesting issue with regard to the potential for patent misuse in licensing.  The case is Princo Corp. v. ITC.  At issue is the patent pool related to the technology used for CD-R and CD-RW discs.  The alleged infringer, Princo, admitted infringement before the ITC, but asserted the patents unenforceable due to patent misuse.  The ITC originally rejected this defense, but a divided panel of the Federal Circuit held additional factual determinations were necessary to assess the defense.  

Currently-available CD-R and CD-RW discs use analog technology to assist the recording device in determining where on the disc the recording laser is located at any given time.  Another potential alternative (that has not been implemented in the marketplace) is using digital technology to make this determination.  According to the defendant, the digital alternative was never commercialized because of an agreement between Sony and Philips (two of the owners of patents in the relevant patent pool) not to license a Sony patent covering this digital alternative for this purpose.  According to the defendant, this amounted to a type of horizontal price fixing, and was therefore patent misuse.  The ITC disagreed, and held no misuse occurred.

A divided panel of the Federal Circuit disagreed, and remanded the case to the ITC for further factual development.  The court stated the precompetitive benefits sometimes seen in the context of patent pools are completely absent in the context of an agreement not to license patents covering a potentially competing technology.  The panel majority held this was at least potentially an antitrust violation under the rule of reason.

The en banc Federal Circuit has now agreed to address this issue, with the briefing cycle to be completed shortly after the new year.  Oral argument is not yet set (update, see below), but the case has the potential to provide some clarity on when an arguably anticompetitive licensing practice crosses over into patent misuse.

Click here for the order granting rehearing en banc.

Update (10/29):  The Federal Circuit has set oral argument in the case for March 3 at 2:00 PM.

Click below for a full summary of the panel decision in Princo Corp. v. Int'l Trade Comm'n.

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Seventh Circuit: Noncompete provision in license agreement reasonable, not patent misuse

In what the court described as "one of those non-patent patent cases," the Seventh Circuit yesterday affirmed a grant of summary judgment to a patentee who, in its license agreement, included a noncompete provision.  The licensee had terminated the license, and argued the noncompete constituted patent misuse, and was therefore void.

The court rejected this argument.  Applying rule of reason analysis, the court found that the noncompete provision was reasonable, as there was no evidence that the patentee had market power or that there were anticompetitive effects.  The noncompete was only for 18 months, was limited to the geographic scope of the original license (a portion of Wisconsin), and permitted the sale of two competing products.  Accordingly, the court held there were no anticompetitive effects, and therefore there was no patent misuse.  Similar claims that the provision violated state law were also rejected.  As a result, the court affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment.

More detail of County Materials Corp. v. Allan Block Corp. after the jump.

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