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.

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