In a move reminiscent of the action taken earlier this year by NY Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, the Federal Trade Commission last week announced that MPHJ Technology Investments, LLC, agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that they used deceptive sales claims and phony legal threats in letters that accused thousands of small businesses around the United States of patent infringement. As is typical for FTC settlements, the proposed consent order was published in the Federal Register and public comments have been solicited. The proposed consent order will be subject to public comment for 30 days, continuing through December 8, 2014, after which the Commission will decide whether to make the proposed consent order final. Interested parties can submit written comments electronically or in paper form. Although the FTC will accept these comments, in my experience, when an enforcement settlement has gotten to this stage, we can expect the proposed settlement to become final.
The settlement with MPHJ is the first time the FTC has taken action using its consumer protection authority against a patent assertion entity (PAE). Perhaps most significantly, in the announcement of the settlement, the FTC acknowledged that patents promote innovation, which is a simple enough truth. Still given recent FTC inquiry into the industry, this statement from the Obama Administration could signal that the FTC will take actions only against outliers and not the bulk of the industry, which operates legitimately to enforce valid patents.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit recently issued a unanimous panel decision in Halo Electronics, Inc. v. Pulse Electronics, Inc. This decision may have more far-reaching implications for patent reform than any other decision reached by any court in recent memory. The issue of particular interest in this case was willful infringement, and in a concurring opinion, Judges O’Malley and Hughes wrote that the majority was constrained by the Federal Circuit’s precedent in In re Seagate and Bard Peripheral Vascular v. W.L. Gore, but that recent Supreme Court decisions call into question the continued viability of that precedent. As such, Judges O’Malley and Hughes urged the Federal Circuit to reconsider en banc the standard for awarding enhanced damages under 35 U.S.C. 284.
The case came to the Federal Circuit on an appeal by Halo Electronics, Inc. (“Halo”), who appealed from multiple decisions of the United States District Court for the District of Nevada. First, Halo appealed the granting of summary judgment that Pulse Electronics, Inc. and Pulse Electronics Corp. (collectively “Pulse”) did not sell or offer to sell within the United States the accused products they manufactured for delivery to buyers outside the United States. Second, Halo also appealed the granting of summary judgment that Pulse did not directly infringe Halo’s U.S. Patents 5,656,985 (the “’985 patent”), 6,297,720(the “’720 patent”), and 6,344,785 (the “’785 patent”) (collectively “the Halo patents”). Finally, Halo appealed the holding that Pulse’s infringement of the Halo patents with respect to certain accused products that Pulse sold and delivered in the United States was not willful.
Recently, the Federal Circuit issued a decision in CardSoft v. Verifone, in which the Court overturned the district court’s claim construction. Overturning a district court’s claim construction is hardly unusual, and perhaps more typical than it really should be. What was unique about this particular case was that the Federal Circuit also went on to rule that CardSoft had waived any argument that the defendants had infringed under the correct claim construction, as a matter of law.
CardSoft filed this patent infringement suit in March 2008 against VeriFone, Inc., VeriFone Systems Inc., and Hypercom Corp. (collectively, “Defendants”), asserting infringement of U.S. Patent Nos. 6,934,945 (“the ’945 patent”) and 7,302,683 (“the ’683 patent”). The district court held a Markman hearing in July 2011 and conducted a jury trial in June 2012. The jury determined that certain of the Defendants’ devices infringed claim 11 of the ’945 patent and claim 1 of the ’683 patent and that these claims were not invalid. The Defendants moved for a new trial and for judgment as a matter of law, but the district court denied both motions.
Each year, PLI holds its annual Patent Litigation seminar. I will be speaking at the New York Patent Litigation 2014 program, which will take place from November 10-11, 2014. There will be an earlier presentation of the program in Chicago, IL, from October 6-7, 2014. In addition to discussing the relatively new ethics rules applicable to patent attorneys, I will discuss a variety of ethics decisions from the Office of Enrollment and Discipline at the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
In one particular enforcement decision that I will discuss during my presentation — In the Matter of James Hicks — the Office of Enrollment and Discipline instituted an enforcement proceeding against James Hicks, who is an attorney admitted to practice in the State of California. Although Hicks is not a patent attorney duly admitted to practice before the United States Patent and Trademark Office, he had been permitted to practice before the Office in trademark and other non-patent matters, as can any attorney admitted to practice.
Hicks, a litigator, was alleged to have engaged in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice. In Rates Technology, Inc. v. Mediatrix Telecom, Inc., No. 05-CV-2755, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York entered an order sanctioning him and his client for failing to comply with the court’s discovery orders. Indeed, the abuses were such that the district court ultimately dismissed the case and imposed monetary sanctions against Mr. Hicks and Rate Technology in the amount of $86,965.81, to be split evenly between them.
The term “patent troll” conjures up all kinds of images and ideas, but what is a patent troll? Unfortunately, there is really no universally accepted definition of what a patent troll is, although if you are getting sued for patent infringement by a non-practicing entity, you probably think you are being sued by a patent troll.
My view has long been that companies that complain about patent trolls don’t really want them to go away. Patent trolls are extremely valuable to these big tech companies because they are an identifiable and unsympathetic villain, even if they cannot really be defined in any satisfying way. The image of a patent troll can be paraded about Capitol Hill whenever patent reform is being pushed, or even in front of the Supreme Court, which increasingly seems to be interested in taking them into consideration when reaching decisions, despite them not being involved in the case.
I personally hate the term patent troll, which may come as a shock to many because I use it all the time. I use it to attempt to crystalize the issue, because the term “patent troll” has over time become synonymous with “non-practicing entity,” and not all non-practicing entities are bad. In fact, many are good actors that diligently work against long odds to research and develop new technologies, treatments, drugs and therapies we all want.