Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Judging Patents by their Rejection Use

The quest for an objective measure of patent quality continues. Scholars have attempted many, many ways to calculate such value, including citations, maintenance fee payments, number of claims, length of claims, and so forth. As each new data source has become available, more creative ways of measuring value have been developed (and old ways of measuring value have been validated/questioned).

Today, I'd like to briefly introduce a new one: the use of patents rejecting other patents. Chris Cotropia (Richmond) and David Schwartz (Northwestern) have posted a short essay on SSRN introducing their methodology.* The abstract for the cleverly named Patents Used in Patent Office Rejections as Indicators of Value is here:
The economic literature emphasizes the importance of patent citations, particularly forward citations, as an indicator of a cited patent’s value. Studies have refined which forward citations are better indicators of value, focusing on examiner citations for example. We test a metric that arguably is closer tied to private value—the substantive use of a patent by an examiner in a patent office rejection of another pending patent application. This paper assesses how patents used in 102 and 103 rejections relate to common measures of private value—specifically patent renewal, the assertion of a patent in litigation, and the number of patent claims. We examine rejection data from U.S. patent applications pending from 2008 to 2017 and then link value data to rejection citations to patents issued from 1999 to 2007. Our findings show that rejection patents are independently, positively correlated with many of the value measurements above and beyond forward citations and examiner citations.

The essay is a short, easy read, and I recommend it. They examine nearly 700,000 patents used in anticipation and obviousness rejections and find that not all patent citations are equal, and that those citations that were used in a rejection have additional ability to explain value, even when other predictors, such as forward citations and examiner citations are included in the model. The only value measure that had no statistically significant relationship to rejection patents was use in litigation (even though forward citations did). This may say something about the types of patents that are litigated or about the role of rejection patents in litigation.

That's about all I'll say about this essay. The paper is a brief introduction to the way this new data set might be used, and this blog post is a brief introduction to the paper.

*At least, I think it's theirs. If you know of an earlier article that measures this on any kind of scale, please let me know!

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Role of IP in Industry Structure

I've long been a fan of Peter Lee's (UC Davis) work at the intersection of IP and organizational theory. His latest article is another in a long line of interesting takes on how IP affects and is affected by the structure and culture of its creators. The latest draft, forthcoming in Vanderbilt Law Review, is titled Retheorizing the Impact of Intellectual Property Rights on Industry Structure. The draft is on SSRN, and the abstract is here:
Technological and creative industries are critical to economic and social welfare, and the forces that shape such industries are important subjects of legal and policy examination. These industries depend on patents and copyrights, and scholars have long debated whether exclusive rights promote industry consolidation (through shoring up barriers to entry) or fragmentation (by promoting entry of new firms). Much hangs in the balance, for the structure of these IP-intensive industries can determine the amount, variety, and quality of drugs, food, software, movies, music, and books available to society. This Article retheorizes the role of patents and copyrights in shaping industry structure by examining empirical profiles of six IP-intensive industries: biopharmaceuticals; agricultural biotechnology, seeds, and agrochemicals; software; film production and distribution; music recording; and book publishing. It makes two novel arguments that illuminate the impacts of patents and copyrights on industry structure. First, it distinguishes along time, arguing that patents and copyrights promote the initial entry of new firms and early-stage viability, but that over time industry incumbents wielding substantial IP portfolios often absorb such entrants, thus reconsolidating those industries. It also distinguishes along the value chain, arguing that exclusive rights most prominently promote entry in “upstream” creative functions—from creating biologic compounds to coordinating movie production—while tending to promote concentration in downstream functions related to commercialization, such as marketing and distribution of drugs and movies. This Article provides legal and policy decision makers with a more robust understanding of how patents and copyrights promote both fragmentation and concentration, depending on context. Drawing on these insights, it proposes calibrating the acquisition of exclusive rights based on the size and market position of a rights holder.
Professor Lee surveys six industries, looking for commonalities in how they are structured, and how IP fits in with entry and consolidation. This is not an empirical paper in the sense of, say Cockburn & MacGarvie, who found that patents reduced entry into the software industry unless the entrant had patent applications. Instead, it looks at the history of entry and consolidation in the different industries as a whole, using studies like Cockburn & MacGarvie (which is discussed in some detail) as the foundational base for the theoretical view that puts all the empirical findings together.

The result is a sort of two dimensional axis (though Prof. Lee provides no chart, which wouldn't have added much). He finds that, in general, IP leads to entry early in time, but as the industry (or product area) matures, then IP leads instead to consolidation, as companies find it easier to acquire IP than create it on its own in crowded areas. He also finds, however (and I think this is a key insight in the paper), that IP leads to more entry upstream (early creation stage) and more consolidation downstream (commercialization and marketing).

This second axis is the more interesting one (there are lots of articles about development of thickets over time), but it is also the harder one to prove, and it depends a lot on your definition. For example, Professor Lee discusses video streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu but doesn't discuss whether he views them as horizontally consolidated because there are so few of them. I've always thought of IP as fragmenting video streaming, because rights holders want to monetize their IP by holding on to it. Hence, we have to pay separately to get Star Trek: Discovery on CBS streaming, Hulu has many TV shows that Netflix doesn't, and soon Disney will pull out of its exclusive deal with Netflix to create its own service. That's 5 or more services I have to sign up with if I want to get all the shows (contrast this with the story he tells about music streaming, in which the music distributors all distribute all the music, and the distributor record labels consolidate to enhance market power against the distributor streamers). Indeed, this issue is so important that the services have (as Prof. Lee points out) vertically integrated by consolidating production with distribution (Netflix and Amazon making its own shows, Comcast and NBC/Universal, and AT&T buying Warner). Professor Lee discusses this as a penchant for consolidation, but it is not clear why IP drives it. I think it is consolidation caused by upstream entry (as he would predict) by the likes of Netflix and Amazon in the creation space, because they also happen to be distributors. But then why don't the record labels become streamers? Why does this fragmentation work for video and not music? I'd be interested in hearing how Professor Lee breaks this down.

As you can probably tell, this is a thoughtful and thought-provoking paper, and I recommend it, especially to those unfamiliar with the literature on the role of IP in industry organization and entry.

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.