by Eric Maloney, UMN Law Student, MJLST Lead Managing Editor
It’s a bad time to be a patent troll in the United States. Both the Supreme Court and Congress are taking aim at these widely disparaged “trolls” who buy up a portfolio of patents and proceed to file lawsuits against anyone who may be using or selling inventions covered by those patents, often with a disregard for the merits of such suits.
Critics see these patent trolls as contributing nothing but a waste of time and resources to an already-burdened court system. President Obama has echoed this sentiment, accusing these trolls of “hijack[ing] somebody else’s idea and see[ing] if they can extort some money out of them.” On the other hand, legitimate patent holders are concerned that their ability to sue infringers may be limited in this mad rush to curb the patent troll problem.
The Patent Act does already have a mechanism in place to deal with frivolous patent lawsuits–35 U.S.C. § 285. This statute allows courts to award patent suit winners with “reasonable attorney fees.” There’s a catch, though–this fee-shifting isn’t available for just any winner. It can only be awarded in “exceptional cases.”
The Federal Circuit hears all patent appeals and sets patent precedent that is followed by district courts throughout the country. So far, their interpretation of “exceptional case” has required losing parties to misbehave quite flagrantly; the patent holder’s suit must have been “objectively baseless,” and the loser must have known it was baseless. Failing that, fees can only be shifted if the loser committed misconduct in the course of the suit or in obtaining the patent. MarcTec, LLC v. Johnson & Johnson, 664 F.3d 907, 916 (Fed. Cir. 2012). This high standard makes it tough for those sued by patent trolls to recover fees spent defending against a frivolous suit.
Two branches of government are taking aim at potentially easing this standard and making fee-shifting more commonplace, or even mandatory. The Supreme Court has decided to hear two appeals for fee-shifting cases, and may be looking to change how courts evaluate what is an “exceptional case” to make it easier for courts to punish frivolous plaintiffs. Rep. Goodlatte (R-VA) introduced the Innovation Act last week, which would change § 285 to mandate that patent suit losers pay fees to the winner, with some exceptions.
This would bring patent suits more in line with how English courts treat losing parties. The American legal system typically does not add insult to injury by forcing losing parties to reimburse the winners. While all the concern about patent trolls may not be misplaced, it may be worthwhile for policymakers (be they Congressional or judicial) to step back and consider the effect this may have on legitimate patent holders, such as inventors wishing to protect their patented products. Is mandatory fee-shifting the answer? All those involved should tread carefully before making groundbreaking changes to the patent litigation system.