Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Measuring Alice's Effect on Patent Prosecution

It's a bit weird to write a blog post about something posted at another blog in order to bring attention to it, when that blog has many more readers than this blog. Nonetheless, I thought that the short essay Decoding Patentable Subject Matter by Colleen Chien (Santa Clara) and her student Jiun Ying Wu, in the Patently-O Law Journal was worth a mention. The article is also on SSRN, and the abstract is here:
The Supreme Court’s patentable subject matter jurisprudence from 2011 to 2014 has raised significant policy concerns within the patent community. Prominent groups within the IP community and academia, and commentators to the 2017 USPTO Patentable Subject Matter report have called for an overhaul of the Supreme Court’s “two-step test.” Based on an analysis of 4.4 million office actions mailed from 2008 through mid-July 2017 covering 2.2 million unique patent applications, this article uses a novel technology identification strategy and a differences-in-differences approach to document a spike in 101 rejections among select medical diagnostics and software/business method applications following the Alice and Mayo decisions. Within impacted classes of TC3600 (“36BM”), the 101 rejection rate grew from 25% to 81% in the month after the Alice decision, and has remained above 75% almost every month through the last month of available data (2/2017); among abandoned applications, the prevalence of 101 rejection subject matter rejections in the last office action was around 85%. Among medical diagnostic (“MedDx”) applications, the 101 rejection rate grew from 7% to 32% in the month after the Mayo decision and continued to climb to a high of 64% and to 78% among final office actions just prior to abandonment. In the month of the last available data (from early 2017), the prevalence of subject matter 101 rejections among all office actions in applications in this field was 52% and among office actions before abandonment, was 62%. However outside of impacted areas, the footprint of 101 remained small, appearing in under 15% of all office actions. A subsequent piece will consider additional data and implications for policy.
This article is the first in a series of pieces appearing in Patently-O based on insights gleaned from the release of the treasure trove of open patent data starting the USPTO from 2012.
The essay is a short, easy read, and the graphs really tell you all you need to know from a differences-in-differences point of view - there was a huge spike in medical diagnostics rejections following Mayo and software & business patent rejections following Alice. We already knew this from the Bilski Blog, but this is comprehensive. Interesting to me from a legal history/political economy standpoint is the fact that software rejections were actually trending downward after Mayo but before Alice. I've always thought that was odd. The Mayo test, much as I dislike it, easily fits with abstract ideas in the same way it fits with natural phenomena. Why courts and the PTO simply did not make that leap until Alice has always been a great mystery to me.

Another important finding is that 101 apparently hasn't destroyed any other tech areas the way it has software and diagnostics. Even so, 10% to 15% rejections in other areas is a whole lot more than there used to be. Using WIPO technical classifications shows that most areas have been touched somehow.

Another takeaway is that the data used came from Google BigQuery, which is really great to see. I blogged about this some time ago and I'm glad to see it in use.

So, this was a good essay, and the authors note it is the first in a series. In that spirit, I have some comments for future expansion:

1. The authors mention the "two-step" test many times, but provide no data about the two steps. If the data is in the office action database, I'd love to see which step is the important one. My gut says we don't see a lot of step two determinations.

2. The authors address gaming the claims to avoid certain tech classes, but discount this by showing growth in the business methods class. However, the data they use is office action rejections, which is lagged--sometimes by years. I think an interesting analysis would be office action rejections by date of patent filing, both earliest priority and by the date the particular claim was added. This would show growth or decline in those classes, as well as whether the "101 problem" is limited to older patents.

3. All of the graphs start in the post-Bilski (Fed. Cir.) world. The office actions date back to 2008. I'd like to see what happened between 2008 and 2010.

4. I have no sense of scale. The essay discusses 2000 rejections per month, and it discusses in terms of rates, but I'd like to know, for example, a) what percentage of applications are in the troubled classes? b) how many applications are in the troubled classes (and others)? c) etc.? In other words, is this devastation of a few or of many?

5. Are there any subclasses in the troubled centers that have a better survival rate? The appendix shows the high rejection classes, what about the low rejection classes (if any)?

I look forward to future work on this!


Sunday, November 11, 2018

Recent Critiques of Post-Sale Confusion: Is Materiality the Answer?

Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman are well known as the authors of the book, The Knock-Off Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation (2012). In their new article, Rethinking Post-Sale Confusion, Raustiala and Sprigman level a critique at "post-sale confusion" theory that supports many of their book's conclusions about the virtues of so-called knock-offs. In post-sale confusion cases, courts find infringement even when it is abundantly clear that consumers of obvious knock-offs are not confused at the time of purchase.

Raustiala and Sprigman's critique of post-sale confusion theory adds to similarly critical scholarship by others such as Jeremy Sheff and Mark McKenna, whose articles Veblen Brands and A Consumer Decision-Making Theory of Trademark Law, respectively, provide the backbone for much of the discussion in this post. Professor Sheff also has a forthcoming book chapter in the Cambridge Handbook on Comparative and International Trademark Law, where he places American post-sale confusion doctrine in perspective by comparing it to the European approach.

This post attempts to synthesize this scholarship, though cannot hope to serve as a replacement for the much more comprehensive and eloquent original work by these experts. The post also draws attention to a growing refrain by trademark scholars such as Rebecca Tushnet, Mark McKenna, and Mark Lemley: that a possible response to trademark courts' embrace of alternative theories of confusion is to institute a materiality requirement, like courts use for false advertising claims.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Samantha Zyontz on CRISPR Adoption

Pierre Azoulay's recent Twitter thread on students from the MIT Sloan TIES PhD program who are currently on the market alerted me to Sam Zyontz's interesting work on the CRISPR genome editing tool. CRISPR has captivated the patent world due to the fight between the University of California and MIT's Broad Institute over key patent rights—Jake Sherkow summarized the dispute in May and reflected on the Federal Circuit's decision in September. But CRISPR is of course also interesting to innovation scholars due to the revolutionary nature of the technology itself (this is why the patent rights were worth fighting for), which has the potential to applied to a tremendous variety of applications. Using data on researchers who attempt to experiment with CRISPR and the smaller number who succeed in publishing new findings using the technology, Zyontz has produced some fascinating findings on hurdles to technological diffusion.

Zyontz's work was made possible because of the nonprofit global plasmid repository Addgene, which received the basic biological tools for CRISPR from researchers at the University of California and the Broad Institute in 2012 and 2013. Since then, researchers have had easy access to CRISPR tools for the low cost of $65 per plasmid.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Uneasy Case for Ariosa Diagnostics v. Illumina

The Supreme Court's request for views from the Solicitor General in Ariosa Diagnostics v. Illumina has renewed interest in this nerdy issue of patent prior art. I appear to be in a very small minority that believes that Federal Circuit's rule on this may be right (or at least is not obviously wrong), so I thought I would discuss the issue.

Let's start with the (pre-AIA) statute. 35 U.S.C. 102(e) says that one type of prior art may be where:
the invention was described in ... a patent granted on an application for patent by another filed in the United States before the invention by the applicant for patent...
This is a pretty old rule, dating back to the Alexander Milburn case. The gist of the rule is that delays in the patent office should not deprive references of being prior art. Thus, even though the patent application is "secret" until published, we backdate the reference to the date of filing once the patent is granted (or the application published, which is covered in a subsection I do not reproduce above).

The issue in Ariosa v. Illumina is what to do with provisional patent applications. For the reference at issue, the prior art patent first relied on a provisional patent application, which is never published but becomes publicly available if a patent that relies on it is granted. Later, a regular patent application was filed and eventually issued. There is a dispute about whether the invention was even described in the provisional, but we'll assume that it was. However, the PTAB ruled (and the Fed. Cir. affirmed) that because the issued patent claims were not supported by the provisional patent disclosure, then the reference could not be backdated to the filing of the provisional patent, even if the invention was described in the final patent.

This is where the objections come in. If the patent relies on the filing date of the provisional patent (and incorporates it by reference), then surely it is described as of the provisional patent date and should be prior art. We are, after all, living in a first to invent world and it is unfair that the first inventor (in the provisional patent) should not count as prior art.

Let's start with Alexander Milburn. I love that case. I have assigned it to my students. I think it explains this statute well. But it is not controlling. It was an interpretation of the statute at that time. We have a later adopted statute that defines what is and is not prior art, and Alexander Milburn does not speak to the facts of the Ariosa dispute because there were no provisional patents at that time. This is not like, say, on sale (Section 102(b)) in Helsinn in which that statute remained unchanged and the meaning of the words remained unchanged. There were no provisional patents when Alexander Milburn was granted, and thus it has little to say; the statute was intended to deal with that (and even that has a difficult time).

As a corollary to this analysis, I want to put the rest that there is a problem with the Federal Circuit's rule because it rewards the second inventor. I would bet dollars to donuts that many people arguing this scoffed at complaints that the AIA's first to file rule was unconstitutional because it rewarded second inventors. Both arguments fail for the same reason - the patent system has a long history of allowing the second invention to issue as a patent under certain circumstances. Indeed, even the current version of 102(e) disallows many early foreign patent filings, even though such filings are clearly the first invention. Once again, we have to look at the statute.

So, let's look at the statute: "The invention is described in" - critics focus on this, saying it makes no sense to look at a patent's claims. We only care about whether the invention was described. Fair enough - I agree.

But what about the next part: "a patent granted on an application for patent by another filed in the United States before the invention." Looking at this in pieces, we see a few requirements. First, the description must be in the patent, not the provisional application. Thus, looking at what the provisional patent says should be irrelevant...for this piece.

Second, that description must be in a patent "granted on an application for patent...filed...before." This is where the action is. What does it mean for a patent to be granted on an application for patent filed? For a provisional application, means that the patent must satisfy Section 119(e). It must be filed within one year, and the final patent claim must be supported by the written description of the provisional patent. It is as simple as that - the plain words of the statute dictate the Federal Circuit's rule.

There is a policy benefit to this reading. I think that patentee's can take advantage of the jump from provisional to final patent disclosures, adding new matter while always claiming priority back to the provisional. The provisional patent is not easily obtained, and it takes work to parse out which claims are actually entitled to the earlier filing date. Enforcing the rules on prior art better incentivizes complete provisional patent disclosures.

Then why do I say this is an uneasy case? Well, did I mention that I like Alexander Milburn? The policy it states, that delay in the patent office shouldn't affect prior art can easily be applied here. So long as the description is in the provisional patent, and so long as that provisional patent is eventually publicly accessible, then the goal, even if not the strict language, of the statute is met.

Also, my reading leads to a potentially unhappy result. A party could file a provisional that supports invention A, and then a year later file a patent that claims invention A but describes invention B. The patent could then be asserted against B while relying on the earlier filing date of A, even though B was never described in the provisional as of the earlier date. Similarly, a provisional patent could describe B, and B could then be removed from the final patent application, and the patent would not be prior art because B was not described in the patent, even though B had been described in the earlier, now publicly accessible provisional application.

I don't know where I land on this - as readers of this blog know, I tend to be a textualist. Sometimes the Court has agreed with that, but sometimes (see patentable subject matter and patent venue) it does not.

Friday, November 2, 2018

How will the USPTO study gaps in patenting by women, minorities, and veterans under the new SUCCESS Act?

On Wednesday, President Trump signed H.R. 6758, the Study of Underrepresented Classes Chasing Engineering and Science Success Act of 2018 (SUCCESS Act). It states that the "sense of Congress" is that the United States should "close the gap in the number of patents applied for and obtained by women and minorities to harness the maximum innovative potential and continue to promote United States leadership in the global economy."

The USPTO has been charged with conducting a study that "(1) identifies publicly available data on the number of patents annually applied for and obtained by, and the benefits of increasing the number of patents applied for and obtained by women, minorities, and veterans and small businesses owned by women, minorities, and veterans; and (2) provides legislative recommendations for how to— (A) promote the participation of women, minorities, and veterans in entrepreneurship activities; and (B) increase the number of women, minorities, and veterans who apply for and obtain patents." Congress wants to receive a report on the study results within a year.

There is already great empirical work on gender and racial gaps in patenting, including the "lost Einsteins" work by Alex Bell, Raj Chetty, Xavier Jaravel, Neviana Petkova, and John Van Reenen and Colleen Chien's Inequality, Innovation, and Patents. The USPTO could expand on this work, including by adding to its excellent collection of research datasets. Accurately quantifying the net benefits of increasing patenting by certain groups will be more difficult—especially if the agency follows Jonathan Masur's suggestions for improving its economic analysis—though the second half of the study doesn't depend on getting this number right.

The second half of the study—recommending how to promote entrepreneurship and patenting by women, minorities, and veterans—will require the USPTO to master a different strand of the empirical literature. I've spent some time digging into this work for my upcoming discussion group on Innovation and Inequality, and suffice it to say that there is robust debate about why certain groups are underrepresented in science, engineering, entrepreneurship, and patenting. (Though I haven't seen anything focused on veterans.) There's also increasing academic interest in these issues. For example, at the new Cardozo-Google Project for Patent Diversity, the goal is "to increase the number of U.S. patents issued to women and minorities," mostly by matching resource-constrained inventors with pro bono patent attorneys.

The USPTO is well positioned to bring new evidence to this debate, and I hope it will take this study as an opportunity to test some proposals in rigorous ways through actual field experiments. The agency has shown a wonderful willingness to experiment with pilot programs, but it could learn far more by, for example, randomly selecting only a subset of those opting in to the pilot and comparing their outcomes to those who opted in but weren't selected. (For a review of the literature on learning through policy randomization and some potential applications in patent law, see Part II of my Patent Experimentalism.) Such experimentation could be useful even for small questions, such as whether acceleration certificates (like those used as Patents for Humanity prizes) are useful at increasing pro bono volunteer work among the patent bar.

The SUCCESS Act seems like an exciting chance for the USPTO, and potentially for academics the agency collaborates with, so I look forward to seeing how they use this opportunity.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Measuring the Role of Attorney Quality in Patenting

It stands to reason that better attorneys are better at turning patent applications into patents. Theoretically, better arguments about overcoming prior art, for example, will be more likely to lead to granted claims. But what about the quality of inventions? Maybe better patent attorneys just get better patent applications, so of course they have better success rates.

Measuring this is hard, but Gaétan de Rassenfosse (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) and four co-authors from University of Melbourne and Swinburne University of Technology think they have found the answer. Examining 1.2 million granted and refused patent applications in the US, Europe (EPO), China, Japan, and South Korea, they think they have the answer. They have posted a draft on SSRN, and the abstract is here:
Failure to obtain a patent weakens the market position and production chain of enterprises in patent-intensive technology domains. For such enterprises, finding ways to maximise the chance to obtain patent protection is a business imperative. Using information from patent applications filed in at least two of the five largest patent offices in the world between 2000 and 2006, we find that the ability to obtain patent protection depends not only on the quality of the invention but also on the quality of the patent attorney. In some cases, the latter is surprisingly more important than the former. We also find that having a high-quality patent attorney increases the chance of getting a patent in less codified technology areas such as software and ICT.
They use a clever approach with their multi-country methodology to separate attorney quality from invention quality. By estimating grant rates across countries for the same inventions as well as for the same attorneys, they are able to estimate the marginal value added by the invention versus the attorney. For example, if different attorneys have differing results in two countries with the same invention, then attorney quality is likely at play. However, if the same attorney has differing results in two countries with the same invention, then invention quality is more likely at issue. Of course, this doesn't work with a couple of patents, but with more than one million patent applications, the estimates likely trend toward a reasonable measure of each type of quality unaffected by the other.

Using this index of quality, they then estimate the effects of attorney and invention quality. They find that, as expected, invention quality matters. But they also find that attorney quality matters--sometimes a lot. More interesting, they find that attorney quality matters more where there is more wiggle room (my term, not theirs), such as in software (as opposed to chemistry). In other words, they find empirical evidence to support the intuition that attorneys who can mold claims to avoid rejections are more likely to wind up with issued patents.

Now, the benefit isn't unbounded. Because grant rates are really high (like 85%), the marginal benefit is unlikely to be huge. One marginal estimate they make is that moving from the 10th percentile to the 90th percentile in quality increases the grant probability by 13 percentage points (e.g, from 79% to 92%). What this means is that invention quality is very important, because even the least successful attorneys are successful most of the time. Of course, this is a potential criticism, because if everything is granted, then how can we measure quality based on grant rates? The paper addresses this, arguing that there is a lot of variability, even within the same patent family. They also test on other measures of patent quality and find similar results.

The authors also make other interesting findings: external counsel increase grant rates, attorney quality doesn't seem to have an effect on foreign v. local probabilities, and attorney quality is of less importance in PCT applications. There is a lot more to the paper - including effects in different offices, on different technologies and other great information. I found this to be a really interesting and useful read.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Patents and the Administrative State

When Justice Gorsuch was confirmed to the Supreme Court, many commentators, well, commented that he was wary of administrative overreach. But it turns out he was really active in patent cases, writing opinions in all the patent cases he saw last term. Who knew he was so interested in patents? He does have some IP chops; his opinion in Meshworks remains one of my favorite copyright cases, not the least of which because it validates a legal argument I made about virtual reality copyright some 25 years ago. I was able to cite that case in a recent book chapter on the same subject.

But it turns out that his interest in patents may be one and the same as his concern about the administrative state. We suspected as much with Oil States, but what about the others? To answer this, Daniel Kim and Jonathan Stroud (both of Unified Patents) have an article forthcoming in the Chicago-Kent Journal of Intellectual Property called Administrative Oversight: Justice Gorsuch’s Patent Opinions, the PTAB, and Antagonism Toward the Administrative State. A draft is posted on SSRN, and the abstract is here:
In his first term, Justice Neil Gorsuch has made a surprisingly forceful impact on, of all things, patent law—and even more unlikely, the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s adjudicatory arm, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board. Was there any way to predict, from his 10th Circuit opinions below, that he would author opinions in all three patent cases in his first term? Was this attention the result of deeply submerged but long-felt opinions on patent law, or rather a result of his sharp distrust of administrative overreach? We analyze 10th Circuit and Supreme Court opinions authored by Justice Gorsuch, and conclude his unforeseen interest springs from his desire to limit agency power rather than from any particular concern with patents. Still, his opinions—intentionally or by happenstance—will reverberate through our patent law for years.
This article is straightforward and illuminating. It begins with the justice's background and some comments on his writing style. It then examines his Tenth Circuit opinions in IP and tribal immunity (there are really not that many, which the authors attribute to the backwater location of the 10th Circuit devoid of any innovation, which I'm sure the folks in Denver will be happy to hear).

What's interesting about the article is that its analysis of the cases is not about IP outcomes, but about methods and the administrative state. Returning to Meshwerks, for example, the authors focus primarily on how it traces the history and purpose of IP rather than the important holding that realistic renditions of physical objects lack creativity.

This analysis bears fruit, though, because they show how these same methods and concerns about the administrative state drive Gorsuch's patent opinions, including those where he is dissenting or breaking from other conservative justices.

I found this article an interesting and insightful read, and I thought it was especially well done given the authors' own admission that they do not agree with Justice Gorsuch's judicial perspective. In other words, this wasn't a fan piece, but instead really useful commentary about how judicial philosophy and concerns about the administrative state may be brought to bear on the IP system in unexpected ways.

Friday, October 19, 2018

What impact do government grants have on small tech firms?

Most academic writing on direct government spending as an innovation policy tool focuses on how this mechanism compares with other policies rather than on the policy choices within the "direct spending" box. For example, in Beyond the Patents–Prizes Debate, Daniel Hemel and I considered a single category of "government grants—a category that includes direct spending on government research laboratories and grants to nongovernment researchers"—with a focus on the similarities among these direct spending mechanisms, and what makes them all different from the other tools in our four-box framework (R&D tax incentives, patents, and inducement prizes).

But we noted that there is variation within each policy box, and that in practice the boxes form a spectrum rather than discrete choices. And it is certainly worth diving within each of the four boxes of our framework from Beyond to dissect these policy tools. There is of course an extensive literature already on optimizing within the "patent" mechanism, but legal innovation scholars pay far less attention to the other boxes, including grants.

Even if one focuses on the most typical grants to academic scientists, there is some interesting research on the effect of different ways of awarding this funding, such as this paper by Azoulay et al. on NIH vs. HHMI grants. But the federal government also provides many other types of direct finding: in 2013, almost one-quarter of federal R&D expenditures went to for-profit firms. How does the theory behind this substantial expenditure of taxpayer funding differ from that for academic research, and what impact does it have in practice?

A recent study from Aleksandar Giga, Andrea Belz, Richard Terrile, and Fernando Zapatero at USC and NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab at Caltech provides some data on the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program as administered by NASA. They find that compared with firms that do not receive these grants, "microfirms" (1-5 employees) with SBIR grants are twice as likely to produce patents and generate twice as many patents. They argue that this is unlikely to be due to a selection effect. They also find that the program does not show the same effect for larger firms, and they suggest that the size limitations for the program should be reconsidered.

Giga et al.'s work focuses on just one corner of the extensive field of direct government science funding, but I hope legal scholars will incorporate empirical work like this to provide a richer understanding of this type of innovation policy.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Equitable Servitudes and Post-Sale Restrictions

I have continued to find the issue of post-sale restrictions vexing. On the one hand, I think that there are sound economic reasons for them. On the other hand, I really don't like them, especially when they limit what should otherwise be reasonable and free activities.

The Supreme Court's recent cases in this area have made it more difficult to enforce such restrictions, but they have done so in a way that leaves open the possibility that some restrictions might apply while also not giving much guidance about when.

A recent article takes this on. Tim Scott (King & Spalding) has published The Availability of Post-Sale Contractual Restrictions in the Wake of Impression Products, Inc. v. Lexmark, 581 U.S. 1523 (2017) in Les Nouvelle. It is available on SSRN as well, and the abstract is below. I write about this article in part because the abstract is uninspiring when compared to the high quality analysis in the article. Don't be fooled.
In Impression Products, Inc. v. Lexmark International Inc., 581 U.S. ___, 137 S. Ct. 1523 (2017), the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed the patent exhaustion rule; i.e., patent rights are exhausted upon the first sale of the patented item such that the patentee has no rights to impose any post-sale conditions or limitations on the use of the product, at least under the patent laws. Id. at 1529. In doing so, the Court left open the question of whether such conditions or limitations could be imposed as a matter of contract law. Thus, the “restrictions in Lexmark’s contracts with its customers may have been clear and enforceable under contract law, but they do not entitle Lexmark to retain patent rights in an item that it has elected to sell.” Id. at 1531 (emphasis added). In summarizing its decision in Quanta Computer, Inc. v. LG Electronics, Inc., 533 U.S. 617 (2008) ruling that the sale of computer components exhausted the plaintiffs patent rights in those components, the Court noted that it reached that conclusion “without so much as mentioning the lawfulness of the contract.” Lexmark, 137 S. Ct. at 1533. And it later summarized its holding by stating that “whatever rights Lexmark retained are a matter of the contracts with its purchasers, not the patent law.” Id. (emphasis added).
This is my kind of article: it's short, it gets right to business, and it is thorough despite its brevity. The article introduces the cases, discusses contract v. property rights, discusses equitable servitudes, surveys the literature on equitable servitudes on personal property (including pros and cons), proposes alternatives to equitable servitudes (and points to critiques), and then discusses how the alternatives might have applied to Lexmark's activities in Impression Products.

Not bad for eight journal pages. This is recommended reading for anyone who wants a quick background on the state of post-sale restrictions.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Mike Andrews on Historical Patent Data

Mike Andrews is a postdoc at NBER, and I recently came across his PhD dissertation, Fuel of Interest and Fire of Genius: Essays on the Economic History of Innovation. He presents some interesting new results from historical patent records:

I already described the work in chapter 1 in my post on the NBER Summer Institute; in short, he compares U.S. counties that received new colleges in the period 1839-1954 with finalist sites that were not chosen for plausibly exogenous reasons. He finds that counties that received a college had 33% more patents per year, mostly due to increases in population rather than the colleges' graduates and faculty.

Chapter 2 looks at the effect of statewide alcohol bans on counties that previously set their own alcohol policies. Statewide prohibition reduced patents by 15% per year in previously wet counties relative to previously dry counties, and there is a larger decline for men than for women. Andrews suggests this decline is due to a disruption of information social interactions in saloons.

Chapter 3 matches 1870–1940 patents with census data and finds that patentees are consistently more likely to be older, white, male, and living in a state other than the one in which they were born. Establishment of a historically black college increased representation of black inventors, but the effect largely disappears after controlling for a county's black population, suggesting it is driven by concentration rather than the college itself. Extension of the franchise to women did not seem to increase the representation of women among inventors.

Finally, chapter 4 compares patent historical datasets. For those considering historical work with patent data, this is probably a good place to start. One should always be cautious about generalizing from the innovation institutions of a century ago to the ones that exist today—e.g., the effect of universities on the patent system has changed significantly in the past few decades—but it is still interesting to understand how patents worked in a particular historical context.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Do Patent Laws Affect the Location of R&D?

One of the common complaints about weakening patent protection is that it causes reduced R&D in the country with weakened protection. I've always been skeptical of this claim in the modern era, because one can develop anywhere and import into a location with better protection. As a result, one would expect that patent protection is unrelated to R&D offshoring.

In a draft article called Offshoring Patent Law, Gregory Day (Georgia Business) and Steven Udick (Skiermont Derby LLP) consider this question. Their article is forthcoming in the Washington Law Review and a draft is on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Legislators and industry leaders claim that patent strength in the United States has declined, causing firms to innovate in foreign countries. However, scholarship has largely dismissed the theory that foreign patents have any effect on where firms invent, considering that patent law is bound by strict territorial limitations (as a result, one cannot strengthen their patent protection by innovating abroad). In essence, then, industry leaders are deeply divided from scholarship about whether innovative firms seek out jurisdictions offering stronger patent rights, affecting the rate of innovation.
To resolve this puzzle, we offer a novel theory of patent rights — which we empirically test — to dispel the positions taken by both scholarship and industry leaders. Since technology is generally developed in one country, the innovation process exposes the typical inventor to infringement claims only in that jurisdiction. In turn, we demonstrate that inventors have powerful, counterintuitive incentives to develop technology where patent rights are weaker and enforcement is cheaper. Given that it typically costs more to defend a patent infringement claim in the United States than to lose one in another country (the cost to litigate a patent in the United States averages around $3.5 million and royalty awards have surpassed $2.5 billion), our empirical research contributes to the theoretical understanding of patent rights by shedding new light on the important, yet largely dismissed, dimension of where innovation takes place.
We received invaluable support from international research organizations and patent attorneys working for top-tier law firms. Notably, the Global IP Project, which is a multinational research group spearheaded by the leading global intellectual property (“IP”) law firm, Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, LLP, as well as Darts-ip, an international organization dedicated to the study of global IP litigation, provided proprietary data, enabling us to explore whether firms optimize value by placing research and innovation in countries with “better” patent laws. To verify our models, we interviewed notable patent attorneys practicing in the United States, Europe, and Asia.
The primary takeaway from their approach is that not only might the strength of the laws matter, but also the costs of defense. To tell this story, they use Marvell as an example, but that was actually a rare case where the R&D and sales process itself constituted infringement to trigger worldwide sales. I would expect that companies can usually design in the U.S., send designs overseas (see Microsoft v. AT&T), and ship from there. Thus, the more important complaint is that patent enforcement causes manufacturing to move offshore, not R&D.

That said, the article performs a regression on R&D and several variables that might affect R&D like tax rates and human capital density, and finds that costs of defense and damages awards are negatively correlated with R&D, while strength of enforcement is positively correlated. This is all reasonable enough, but I'm concerned that the empirical model is incomplete. Though the word "cost" appears dozens of times in the article, not once is it mentioned with respect to the cost of R&D. Might the reason R&D gets offshored be that it's cheaper? And could cheaper R&D also correlate with lower enforcement of IP? My guess is yes, based on the studies I've read over the years. I would have liked to have seen some analysis and discussion of this point.

While I think this is an interesting paper, I think that the model is underdeveloped in two ways. The first is the focus on costs in only half of the equation. The second is the neglect of trade secret enforcement. Unlike patent law, trade secret laws can affect R&D in the country in which the R&D takes place because the developer can lose value without ever selling into that country. Studies by Lippoldt and Schultz and also by Png demonstrate this pretty well.

For those interested in this topic, I recommend this article, and I recommend a contrast with Bilir, Patent Laws, Product Life-Cycle Lengths, and Multinational Activity, in the American Economic Review. Bilir develops a similar model, but bases it on location of companies (which covers some of the manufacturing issues), and considers the life-cycle of R&D (long term v. short term protection) as well as trade secrets. Bilir does not directly consider costs of defense, so it would be interesting to see how that notion from this new article would overlay onto Bilir.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Language Barriers and Machine Translation

One of the more expensive parts of acquiring global patent protection is having a patent application translated into the relevant language for local patent offices. This is typically viewed simply as an administrative cost of the patent system, though my survey of how scientists use patents suggested that these translation costs may improve access to information about foreign inventions. As I wrote then, "[t]he idea that patents might be improving access to existing knowledge through mandatory translations and free accessibility is a very different disclosure benefit from the one generally touted for the patent system and seems worthy of further study." E.g., if researchers at a U.S. firm publish their results only in English but seek patent protection in the United States and Japan, then Japanese researchers who don't speak English would be able to read about the work in the Japanese patent.

I've also been interested in the proliferation of machine translation tools for patents—which can make patents even more accessible, but which also might limit this comparative advantage of patents over scientific publications if machine translation of journal articles becomes commonplace.

I don't know of much data on the actual economic impact of any of these translation tools, so I was intrigued to spot a new empirical study about the benefits of machine translation for international trade: Does Machine Translation Affect International Trade? Evidence from a Large Digital Platform. Three researchers from MIT and Washington University, Erik Brynjolfsson, Xiang Hui, and Meng Liu, found that the introduction of eBay Machine Translation increased international trade on the platform by 17.5%. They conclude: "Our results provide causal evidence that language barriers significantly hinder trade and that AI has already begun to improve economic efficiency in at least one domain."

Of course, this trade benefit of machine translation is different from the effect on patent disclosure, but the study made me wonder if a similar methodology could be applied by the hosts of patent translation tools (e.g., WIPO, EPO, SIPO) to study the increase in access to patent documents from different countries. Such a study could be a nice complement to survey-based work about how researchers in different countries access information about foreign work, and how machine translation fits into this picture. I'm not currently planning any of this work myself, but if the topic interests you, feel free to email—it seems like a fruitful area for a number of studies, and I'd love to share more thoughts and advice.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Valuing Wikimedia Commons Images

Several years ago, both Lisa and I wrote about Heald, et al.'s study that attempted to value public domain photographs as used on Wikipedia. While I liked the study a lot, two of my chief critiques were small sample size and unclear value of hits on Wikipedia pages.

A new paper extends their study, and provides even more evidence of the extensive use of Wikimedia Commons photos. In What is the Commons Worth? Estimating the Value of Wikimedia Imagery by Observing Downstream Use, Kris Erickson (University of Leeds), Felix Rodriguez Perez (Independent), and Jesus Rodriguez Perez (University of Glasgow), have attempted to generalize the findings from the prior study. The paper is published in an ACM conference proceeding, but is available without a paywall on SSRN. The abstract is here:
The Wikimedia Commons (WC) is a peer-produced repository of freely licensed images, videos, sounds and interactive media, containing more than 45 million files. This paper attempts to quantify the societal value of the WC by tracking the downstream use of images found on the platform. We take a random sample of 10,000 images from WC and apply an automated reverse-image search to each, recording when and where they are used ‘in the wild’. We detect 54,758 downstream uses of the initial sample and we characterize these at the level of generic and country-code top-level domains (TLDs). We analyze the impact of specific variables on the odds that an image is used. The random sampling technique enables us to estimate overall value of all images contained on the platform. Drawing on the method employed by Heald et al (2015), we find a potential contribution of USD $28.9 billion from downstream use of Wikimedia Commons images over the lifetime of the project.
In one fell swoop, the authors have answered my two concerns. The random sample is much larger, and their search went far beyond Wikipedia, to commercial and non-commercial uses. It turns out that the images were used a whopping 5.4 times each on average, which is a lot of usage when extrapolated to the millions of images in the Commons.

As with the prior study, estimating the value is a bit back of the envelope. Assuming that every commercial (and non-commercial) user would have paid the Getty Images fee is a big assumption, as many might have substituted to homegrown photos or maybe no photo at all. The authors note that this is a big assumption. Another issue is that not every item in the commons is within copyright, and my have been findable by other means.

That said, I do not think the assumption detracts from the value of the Wikimedia Commons for two reasons. First, they report Getty having revenues of nearly $1 billion per year, so finding $28 billion value over the lifetime of the WC is perhaps not far-fetched. Second, even if people would not pay the full amount, they might have been willing to pay less than the Getty fee (which also includes some public domain items). In the absence of WC, the differences between what they would have paid and what they get (either nothing or homegrown or search costs) is deadweight loss.

I frankly had no idea that Wikimedia Commons was used so much, but I'm glad that there's competition in the stock photo market. I'll finally note that the discussion about which images get used is an interesting one. It turns out-just like Netflix, Facebook, and Twitter-the stuff that gets curated for you is the stuff you wind up seeing and using.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Aman Gebru: Compelling Disclosure of Traditional Knowledge in Patents

Aman Gebru, visiting assistant professor at Cardozo Law, has a new article forthcoming in Denver Law Review about patenting traditional knowledge. Aman is on the teaching market this year in the patents and intellectual property field, but his research and teaching deal with other areas as well like contracts and international law. His proposal, if adopted, could be good for the public and some communities, but might make big pharma a bit angry.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Questioning Design Patent Bar Restrictions

Every once in a while an article comes along that makes you realize all the things that you just don't realize. Of course, someone else realizes these things, which makes you realize all the things you should be realizing but didn't. But this is what scholarship is about, I think - spreading knowledge. The latest such article for me is The Design Patent Bar: An Occupational Licensing Failure, by Chris Buccafusco and Jeanne Curtis (both of Cardozo Law). A draft is posted on SSRN, and the abstract is here:
Although any attorney can represent clients with complex property, tax, or administrative issues, only a certain class of attorneys can assist with obtaining and challenging patents before the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (PTO). Only those who are members of the PTO’s patent bar can prosecute patents, and eligibility for the patent bar is only available to people with substantial scientific or engineering credentials. However much sense the eligibility rules make for utility patents—those based on novel scientific or technical inventions—they are completely irrational when applied to design patents—those based on ornamental or aesthetic industrial designs. Yet the PTO applies its eligibility rules to both kinds of patents. While chemical engineers can prosecute both utility patents and design patents (and in any field), industrial designers cannot even prosecute design patents. This Article applies contemporary research in the law and economics of occupational licensing to demonstrate how the PTO’s application of eligibility rules to design patents harms the patent system by increasing the costs of obtaining and challenging design patents. Moreover, we argue that the PTO’s rules produce a substantial disparate impact on women’s access to a lucrative part of the legal profession. By limiting design patent prosecution jobs to those with science and engineering credentials, the majority of whom are men, the PTO’s rules disadvantage women attorneys. We conclude by offering two proposals for addressing the harms caused by the current system.
It never occurred to me to think about the qualifications required for prosecuting design patents. The observation that a different set of skills goes into such work is a good one; it makes no sense that a chemistry grad can prosecute design patents but an industrial design grad cannot. There are plenty of outstanding trademark lawyers who could probably do this work, despite not having a science or engineering degree.

I like that this paper takes the issue beyond this simple observation (which could really be a blog post or op-ed), and applies some occupational licensing concepts to the issue. Furthermore, I like that the paper makes some testable assertions that can drive future scholarship, such as whether these rules have a disparate impact on women. I am skeptical about the negative impact on design patents, but I think that's testable as well.

The paper concludes with some relatively mild suggestions on how to open up the field a little bit. I think they should be considered, but I'm happy to hear from folks who disagree.