Supreme Court Sides With Patent Trolls

Well, this is unfortunate. Last fall, we wrote about yet another patent case being heard by the Supreme Court. This one (Commil v. Cisco) involved the question of whether or not a company could be found liable for “inducing infringement” when it believed that the patent in question was clearly invalid. The appeals court (CAFC) had overturned a lower court, saying that it was wrong for a judge to instruct a jury that Cisco could be found guilty of inducing patent infringement if it “knew or should have known that its actions would induce actual infringement.” The big question was about the “should have known” part. Cisco argued — and the CAFC agreed — that the “should have known” statement created a negligence standard, which is not appropriate in such cases. Further, CAFC rightly pointed out that “one cannot infringe an invalid patent.”

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has now mostly sided with the patent holder Commil, and said that believing a patent is invalid is no defense to an inducement claim in a patent infringement case. The reasoning — in an opinion by Justice Kennedy — is basically “infringement and validity are two separate issues.” True… but… sorta misses the point. The Court, thankfully, didn’t go quite as far as it could have gone in saying that you could induce infringement even without knowledge that something is infringing, but it rejected the idea that a belief the patent was invalid is a “defense” to an inducement claim. All because it insists that validity and infringement are two entirely separate issues.

When infringement is the issue, the validity of the patent is not the question to be confronted.

But this presumption of validity is problematic in any real world scenario, and the ruling doesn’t seem to care, focusing on the procedural issues of when certain arguments are made and who has the burden at what point:

To say that an invalid patent cannot be infringed, or that someone cannot be induced to infringe an invalid patent, is in one sense a simple truth, both as a matter of logic and semantics. See M. Swift & Sons, Inc. v. W. H. Coe Mfg. Co., 102 F. 2d 391, 396 (CA1 1939). But the questions courts must address when interpreting and implementing the statutory framework require a determination of the procedures and sequences that the parties must follow to prove the act of wrongful inducement and any related issues of patent validity. “Validity and infringement are distinct issues, bearing different burdens,different presumptions, and different evidence.” 720 F. 3d, at 1374 (opinion of Newman, J.). To be sure, if at the end of the day, an act that would have been an infringement or an inducement to infringe pertains to a patent that is shown to be invalid, there is no patent to be infringed. But the allocation of the burden to persuade on these questions, and the timing for the presentations of the relevant arguments, are concerns of central relevance to the orderly administration of the patent system.

Right. But that means that anyone who is aware of what they know to be an invalid patent would first need to have the patent itself rejected before they can go on with their business, and that creates a huge hurdle to innovation.

But what’s interesting is that the Supreme Court then delves into a discussion on the fact that this ruling has a big impact on patent trolling situations. First, from the opinion by Kennedy:

The Court is well aware that an “industry has developed in which firms use patents not as a basis for producing and selling goods but, instead, primarily for obtaining licensing fees.”… Some companies may use patents as a sword to go after defendants for money, even when their claims are frivolous. This tactic is often pursued through demand letters, which“may be sent very broadly and without prior investigation,may assert vague claims of infringement, and may be designed to obtain payments that are based more on the costs of defending litigation than on the merit of the patent claims.” … This behavior can impose a “harmful tax on innovation.”….

No issue of frivolity has been raised by the parties in this case, nor does it arise on the facts presented to this Court. Nonetheless, it is still necessary and proper to stress that district courts have the authority and responsibility to ensure frivolous cases are dissuaded. If frivolous cases are filed in federal court, it is within the power of the court to sanction attorneys for bringing such suits. Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 11. It is also within the district court’s discretion to award attorney’s fees to prevailing parties in “exceptional cases.”…

But, in the dissent, Justice Scalia rips into the practice, and (for the first time) calls out patent trolling as patent trolling, and notes that the majority ruling gives more power to patent trolls:

I may add, however, that if the desirability of the rule we adopt were a proper consideration, it is by no means clear that the Court’sholding, which increases the in terrorem power of patent trolls, is preferable.

Scalia also rips apart the arguments in the majority opinion:

Because only valid patents can be infringed, anyone with a good-faith belief in a patent’s invalidity necessarily believes the patent cannot be infringed. And it is impossible for anyone who believes that a patent cannot be infringed to induce actions that he knows will infringe it. A good-faith belief that a patent is invalid is therefore a defense to induced infringement of that patent.

As for the fact that validity and infringement are different issues, Scalia simply notes:

That is true. It is also irrelevant. Saying that infringement cannot exist without a valid patent does not “conflate the issues of infringement and validity,” … any more than saying that water cannot exist without oxygen “conflates” water and oxygen. Recognizing that infringement requires validity is entirely consistent with the “long-accepted truth . . . that infringement and invalidity are separate matters under patent law.”

Scalia also trashes the idea that without this ruling it would undermine the presumption of validity. Not so, says Scalia, as it only would matter in cases where, in fact, the patent is not valid.

This presumption is not weakened by treating a good-faith belief in invalidity as a defense to induced infringement. An alleged inducer who succeeds in this defense does not thereby call a patent’s validity into question. He merely avoids liability for a third party’s infringement of a valid patent, in no way undermining that patent’s presumed validity.

Either way, I think Scalia got this one right, and unfortunately the majority of the court went the other way. The Supreme Court had been making a bunch of good rulings on patent law lately, so I guess it was bound to issue a stinker eventually. The overall impact won’t be as big as some of the other cases, and I guess it’s nice to see that the Supreme Court absolutely recognizes that patent trolling problem, as that will be handy in future cases.

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