Monday, June 22, 2015

Supreme Court Affirms Brulotte, but Opens the Door to Creative Licensing

Just a short note that the court has affirmed Brulotte v. Thys in Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment. The question was a simple one: can a patent owner charge a royalty for sales after the patent expires? Brulotte said no. But the economic rationale for that has been whittled away, just as much has been in antitrust. But the court today Stare decisis governs, and the reasons for overturning are just not great enough.

An interesting aspect of this dispute is that many folks with whom I often disagree on patent policy were in favor of lifting the post-expiration ban, while I never thought it was that big a deal because you can always creatively license around it.

The good news is that the Court has affirmed my latter assumption. The most important quote in the whole case (at least on my very quick reading) may be (citations omitted):

And parties have still more options when a licensing agreement covers either multiple patents or additional non-patent rights. Under Brulotte, royalties may run until the latest-running patent covered in the parties’ agreement expires. Too, post-expiration royalties are allowable so long as tied to a non-patent right—even when closely related to a patent. That means, for example, that a license involving both a patent and a trade secret can set a 5% royalty during the patent period (as compensation for the two combined) and a 4% royalty afterward (as payment for the trade secret alone). Finally and most broadly, Brulotte poses no bar to business arrangements other than royalties—all kinds of joint ventures, for example—that enable parties to share the risks and rewards of commercializing an invention.
The trade secret example is especially important. As I note in my article Patent Challenges and Royalty Inflation, there is uncertainty about how much one must drop the license fee for trade secrets. For example, I cite one case where a fifty percent drop when the patent expires was still anticompetitive under Brulotte.

But not all patents come with trade secrets. The question is whether an optional know-how license will be sufficient. If I wanted to try for post-expiration royalties, I'd give it a shot but not count on it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Past and Future of Functional Claiming...

As Lisa predicted a couple weeks ago, the Federal Circuit issued a new en banc (11-1) opinion today in Williamson v. Citrix without argument or further briefing. Patently-O has full coverage, so I'll get right to the core issue: the Federal Circuit reversed its prior precedent on functional claiming, but not all the way.

By way of background, if you claim a "means plus function" element (e.g., means for adding two numbers) then you need to disclose the structure for your means in the specification, which includes both the hardware and the algorithm (a general purpose computer programmed to take two numbers as an input, add them together, and report the sum as an output). If you don't put that structure in the specification, your claim is invalid as indefinite. Seem absurd for easy or common functions? More on that later.

The question is what you do when the word means is replaced with something else, like "module" or "unit" or "logic." The presumption has long been that this would not be means plus function, and it would be treated like structure unless the opposing party could convince the court that it really was a means plus function in disguise.  Starting in about 2004, the Federal Circuit doubled down on this rule, making this a strong presumption against means plus function that was very difficult to overcome. As a result, the courts affirmed a bunch of patents that claimed functions but didn't actually teach how to do them. More on that later.

In this case, the court backtracked to pre-2004 rules. Rather than looking at the words, we look to see whether the limitation is really just claiming a means for doing a function, or whether the limitation has sufficient structure built right in. For example, you might have a limitation "adding module programmed to take two numbers as an input, add them together, and report the sum as an output." This is clearly functional, but the structure is right there in the limitation. Judge Reyna (along with some of my colleagues in the academy) would go further and argue that any functional claiming has to be in the specification, but I've never been convinced by that argument, in part because you can always put algorithms and structure right into claims. Judge Newman would have stuck with the formalistic requirement of requiring "means" to mean "means plus function," but it is clear that this view is currently disfavored.

My thoughts on what this all means after the jump.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Case watch: Is the Federal Circuit revising functional claiming rules in Williamson v. Citrix?

Last November, the Federal Circuit panel opinion in Williamson v. Citrix held that the district court erroneously construed the limitation "distributed learning control module" as a means-plus-function expression. The majority emphasized that failure to use the word "means" in a claim limitation creates a strong rebuttable presumption that it is not a means-plus-function limitation. In dissent, Judge Reyna argued that the limitation simply substituted the "nonce" word "module" for "means." On December 5 (exactly six months ago), Citrix et al. filed for rehearing en banc, supported by amicus briefs by the EFF and a group of IP professors (including me). The IP professor brief, written by Mark Lemley, argues that patentees have exploited the Federal Circuit's inconsistency in this area to engage in functional claiming without satisfying means-plus-function claim rules.

Based on the timelines in the Federal Circuit's internal operating procedures, it seems improbable that the court could still be deciding whether to act on the rehearing petition. So perhaps the court granted rehearing en banc without argument? Issuing an en banc decision can take a while—Akamai v. Limelight took over 9 months from argument to opinion—but that was unusual, so maybe we will hear something soon. (Here is the Williamson v. Citrix docket on Bloomberg Law, subscription required.)

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Do Venture Capitalists Value Patents?

This is a simple, but important question. Do venture capitalists value patents? You would think the answer is an easy yes based on survey data, as well as my own findings from the Kauffman Firm Survey that firms with patents are about ten times as likely to have venture capital funding.

But I get pushback on this. See this TechDirt post, for example, called: No, You Don't Need Patents to Raise Money:
While some of them are filing for their own patents, a key point was that their investors definitely didn't require it or push them in that direction.
None said their investors had pushed them to file for patents.
When I speak with people who espouse this view, and tell them of my 10x finding, the response is almost always: "Well, that's just people getting patents after they have money, or IP firms telling them to do it."

So, here we have an apparent conflict between stated preferences and revealed preferences. On my to do list for two or three years now has been a study of all startups, with an examination of who got patents and when. But now I don't have to, because Celia Lerman (a Fulbright Scholar at Stanford, among other things) has done the study, called Patent Strategies of Technology Startups: An Empirical Study:
How does a patent strategy affect a tech startup company’s growth? This is a fundamental question for technology entrepreneurs, investors, lawyers and the innovation system as a whole. In this study, I shed light on this issue by conducting an empirical analysis of the patenting strategies of technology startups, examining the relationship between a company’s patent applications and different events over the company’s life: rounds of investment received, company acquisition and closure. I provide the first comprehensive cross-industry analysis of this question, by analyzing the patent portfolios of United States startups listed in CrunchBase, a crowd-sourced registry of tech companies used by the startup industry. By looking into these companies’ public patent applications from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) database between 2008 and 2012, I examine the patenting patterns of startups as they progress through funding rounds.
Through a quantitative analysis, I find that companies based in California tend to patent more than in other states, and that companies that are venture-backed patent more than those who are not. I also unveil that most start-ups that patent file their first application before even receiving any reported funding. Moreover, I find that there is a significant positive relationship between patent protection, and receiving investment and being acquired. I further find that the number of patents (and not merely the fact that a company has patents or not) contributes to higher total funding. I finally observe that patenting early is also associated to higher funding, and that early may be more important for start-ups than what some views in venture capital may predict. I also conclude that while more patents are associated with higher funding, patents account for a relevant but small portion of a company’s success.
The study provides novel insights on startup patenting strategies. It lays empirical groundwork on key circumstances under which patents can contribute to a startup’s growth, to provide important guidance to the legal and entrepreneurial communities.
The study finds that startups patent before their first funding round, from a low of 50% in software, to 64% in IT/Hardware and 67% in medical. It also finds that firms with patents are funded more often and for more money. More discussion on this after the jump.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Why are many IP contracts contingent?

At the recent American Law and Economics Association (ALEA) meeting at Columbia, I provided some comments on Intellectual Property Contracts: Theory and Evidence from Screenplay Sales by Milton Harris, Abraham Ravid, Ronald Sverdlove, and Suman Basuroy. The paper works with a fascinating dataset: 1269 contracts for screenplay sales between 1997 and 2003, which are either for a fixed price (averaging $958,000) or contingent on production—but not success—of the script (with average initial payments of $458,000 and average total compensation of $914,000).

Why are many of these contracts contingent when the buyers are typically better at bearing risk? And why are contingent contracts more likely for less experienced sellers? One typical explanation is moral hazard, but apparently that is not an issue in screenplay sales: studios use other writers to edit scripts prior to production, so no further effort from the seller is required once the script is sold. Instead, this paper develops a model in which the seller's competence is not directly observable by either party, and the seller is more optimistic about her competence than the buyer. And as sellers become more experienced, more information is available, which narrows the difference of opinion between the buyer and seller.

I had two general sets of questions about the paper:

Monday, June 1, 2015

Jotwell Post: The PTO Is Not the Only Patent Agency

Jotwell—the Journal of Things We Like (Lots)—is a terrific way to keep up with interesting recent scholarship. When I created Written Description in 2011, I noted that Jotwell had only two patent-specific posts in the prior year, but the Jotwell IP section is now flourishing. The co-editors of the section, Chris Sprigman and Pam Samuelson, invited me to join as a contributor, so I'll be writing a review for them each year. For my first post, I wrote about two recent papers focusing on administrative agencies beyond the PTO: Patent Conflicts by Tejas Narechania and Administrating Patent Litigation by Jake Sherkow. You can read the full post here.