John Nagle’s Techdirt Profile

animats

About John Nagle

In Silicon Valley since 1974.
Stanford grad (MSCS)

I got to watch Silicon Valley happen, and did some of it.



John Nagle’s Comments comment rss

  • Nov 16th, 2013 @ 6:51pm

    Suprised, at first, to see VCs behind this.

    I was surprised to see VCs supporting this bad bill. But then, it makes a weird kind of sense. If you're financing startups that develop new, difficult technologies, you need patents to keep from being ripped off. That's what VCs did from about 1970 up to the dot-com boom in 2001. Then they switched to fast-time-to-market, agile, heavily promoted, but unoriginal ideas. Facebook and Twitter, not CMOS and GPUs. Go to VC presentations today - most of the ideas involve some new social thing or some "app". I've been to a presentation on a social network for cats. This isn't technology; just marketing.

    The "war on patent trolls" has turned into a war on inventors. Universities just realized that they're now considered patent trolls - they don't manufacture or run businesses, they just create intellectual property. So the Association of American Universities has come out against HR 3309. Other opposition is from big companies including 3M and Caterpillar.

    Where's the push from this bill coming from? Advertising. The American Association of Advertising Agencies, the Direct Marketing Association (the junk mail lobby), and the trade groups for travel agencies and hotel booking services. They're running into some business method patents related to ways to get people to buy online. There are four specific patents that bother the advertising agencies. This isn't a huge problem. That's also why the PR for HR 3309 is so good - it's being pushed by the PR industry. HR 3309 was being railroaded through Congress with a heavy PR and lobbying push. Full committee hearings were held within two weeks after the bill was introduced. Usually that takes months.

    The opposition is getting organized, but is playing catch-up. (Visit their slow-loading Save the Inventor web site. I've been bugging them about this.)

    The US has had patents for over 200 years, and there have been "patent trolls" in the past. But there more of them since 2006. Why? Three court decisions and one law made it much harder for inventors:

    (2006) "eBay v. MercExchange " The patent holder can't get an injunction against infringement any more, except in extreme cases. This destroyed the concept of a patent as property that only the patent holder could use.

    (2007) "In re Seagate" The patent holder can't get triple damages unless there is "reckless infringement", which means the worst that can happen to an infringer is that they have to pay a royalty, the same royalty they might have negotiated. So infringement by a big company is risk-free.

    (2007) MedImmune, Inc. v. Genentech, Inc. If a patent holder writes to an infringer asking them to pay royalties, they can be sued for a judgement that the patent is invalid, in a court of the infringer's choosing. So, as a patent holder, you have to file suit before you can negotiate. This is why "patent trolling" became necessary.

    (2011) The "America Invents Act" The "America Invents Act" added "post-grant opposition" proceedings, so now infringers can harass patent owners and stall infringement claims in multiple forums. Note that one of the "features" of HR 3309 is to limit estoppel so that similar issues can be raised once in a post-grant opposition and then re-raised in an infringement case. This makes it clear it's all about raising the cost of enforcing a patent by wearing down the patent holder.)

    That's why we have companies which enforce patents in bulk - it's now too expensive and too risky for the inventor to do it.

    HR 3309 makes it worse. With "fee shifting", you can get stuck paying the bills of the other side, and there is no limit on how much they can run up their bills. In patent infringement suits, the plaintiff only wins about 40% of the time. There are lots of little mistakes a plaintiff can make. Most losses are not on the merits of the claim.

    We do need some changes to patent law, but they're minor:

    - A patent small claims court. The USPTO was pushing this until last summer, but since Kappos, the USPTO director, and Knight, the USPTO general counsel, left, the ball has been dropped. This would provide a cheap way to settle little patent claims like the ones the ad agency lobby is complaining about.

    - Congress needs to override Medimmune, so you can talk before suing. We're seeing more lawsuits because you can't talk to someone about patent infringement without risking a counter-suit. You have to sue first. That sucks.

    - There's an argument for raising the "obviousness" bar. This is tough to define. There's much criticism of some software patents being "obvious". But often, it's because they're obvious in retrospect. They weren't obvious until someone invented them. The Amazon one-click patent is a classic example. Once you know about it, it's obvious. But it wasn't obvious until someone thought of it. That's invention.

    Most of the trouble with obvious patents came from weak patent examination back in the 1990s. The USPTO has toughened up since then, and the acceptance rate is way down. That problem got solved.

    (There's a side problem with obviousness. Big Pharma would like to lower the obviousness bar to allow more "me too" drugs and minor variations on existing drugs to be patented. You can see their wish list in the IP provisions of the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement.)

    Some problems are already being solved:

    - Business method patents are on the way out already. The America Invents Act two years ago put a damper on new ones. The ones still causing trouble are old, and will time out. Broadening the definition of "business method" may be desirable, but the definition is tough.

    - There's trouble where patents, standards, and antitrust meet. MPEG-LA, which controls video compression patents, is the big offender there. But the last of their key patents runs out in Q1 2014. The ones that remain are mostly for features you don't really need in an MP4 decoder, like interlacing (died with analog TV.) We should see patent-free MP4 decoders soon.

    So that's an overview of the situation. It's more complex than "patent trolls are bad", but not all that complex.

    John Nagle
    Animats

  • Nov 6th, 2013 @ 12:46am

    Yes, patents are property.

    Yes, patents create property rights. That's settled law. "A patent for an invention is as much property as a patent for land. The right rests on the same foundation, and is surrounded and protected by the same sanctions." - Consolidated Fruit-Jar Co v. Wright, United States Supreme Court, 94 U.S. 92 (1876)

    But that's just rhetoric. The judge has some important points about the America Invents Act. The America Invents Act (2011) restricted "Covered Business Method" patents, which were defined as relating to financial business methods. Goodlatte's "Innovation Act" seeks to broaden that, but ambiguously. Which means years of litigation over what a "business method" is. That's not good for anybody.

    HR 3309 is really an "Anti-Innovation Act", designed to make it more expensive for inventors to enforce their patents by making litigation more expensive and complex. HR 3309, like the previous "SHIELD Act", is supposed to stop "patent trolls". But it's much broader. It makes "loser pays winner's legal costs" the standard. For a small entity to sue a big company with expensive lawyers becomes financial suicide. The SHIELD act had something similar, but it exempted the original patent holder, someone manufacturing the invention, and universities. HR 3309 doesn't do any of that. It allows big infringers to crush small companies and inventors beneath their boots.

    Who's behind this? The American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Direct Marketing Association (the junk-mail lobby). There are four patents related to targeted advertising which cause advertising agencies problems. To get rid of those patents, the advertising industry has convinced other ad-supported companies to support a huge change in patent law.

    The A4s (what the American Association of Advertising Agencies calls itself) has a list on their web site of patents they are concerned about:

    6,628,314 and 6,771,290 (relates to targeted advertising),
    5,251,294 ("Accessing, assembling, and using bodies of information" - rather vague),
    5,930,474 (store locators)

    That's the source of the push behind this bill. Other companies have signed on, but the ones behind it are all involved heavily in online and mobile advertising.

    This bill isn't about "bad patents". There's nothing in this bill about increasing patent quality by raising the "obviousness" bar. That's because of opposition from the pharmaceutical industry, where many drugs are "me-too" drugs, very similar to existing drugs. (Ref: http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=20020416&slug=clarinex16) As the A4s wrote in their letter to the FTC (http://www.ftc.gov/os/comments/pae/pae-0035.pdf)

    "What seems like a bizarre and wasteful tactic in the high-tech industry can be a basic good practice in the pharmaceutical industry."

    That's part of why we have a "bad patent" problem. Nobody wants to take on Big Pharma.

    As for the "patent troll" industry, it's a recent phenomenon. But why? Patents have been around for centuries, after all. Patent trolls exist because, in the last decade, it's become much tougher for inventors to enforce patent rights. Four changes in law did this:

    (2006) "eBay v. MercExchange " The patent holder can't get an injunction against infringement any more, except in extreme cases. This destroyed the concept of a patent as property that only the patent holder could use.

    (2007) "In re Seagate" The patent holder can't get triple damages unless there is "reckless infringement", which means the worst that can happen to an infringer is that they have to pay a royalty, the same royalty they might have negotiated. So infringement by a big company is risk-free.

    (2007) MedImmune, Inc. v. Genentech, Inc. If a patent holder writes to an infringer asking them to pay royalties, they can be sued for a judgement that the patent is invalid, in a court of the infringer's choosing. So, as a patent holder, you have to file suit before you can negotiate. This is why "patent trolling" became necessary.

    (2011) The "America Invents Act" The AIA added "post-grant opposition" proceedings, so now infringers can harass patent owners and stall infringement claims in multiple forums. Note that one of the "features" of HR 3309 is to limit estoppel so that similar issues can be raised once in a post-grant opposition and then re-raised in an infringement case. This makes it clear it's all about raising the cost of enforcing a patent by wearing down the patent holder.

    Because of those changes, enforcing a single patent is no longer financially feasible in most cases. A big patent portfolio is needed. You either have to be a big patent holder like IBM or Google, or you have to deal with a company that aggregates patents to monetize them.

    So that's why we have "patent trolls". The harder it becomes for inventors to enforce their own patents, the more we'll see companies that do nothing but litigate.

    HR 3309 is a bad bill. Many people and organizations saw the words "patent troll" and signed on to support it. The A4s pushed hard for that - advertising agencies are good at getting people to buy things without checking them out. Now that there's been a chance to take a close look at the bill, it's not looking so good. David Kappos, the head of the USPTO until a few months ago, testified that it's a drastic change to the patent system that needs to be examined more closely. Cong. John Conyers, the senior Democrat on the House committee looking at this bill, urges caution. (Goodlatte (R-VA) introduced this bill without telling the Democrats on the committee.)

    Patents should be hard to get, but easy to enforce. This bill doesn't do that. What we really need is cheaper patent litigation for small patent cases. The USPTO has proposed a "small claims" patent court which would help. More on that later.

  • Oct 23rd, 2013 @ 10:20pm

    This is an anti-inventor bill

    This is a bill that makes it very risky to be an independent inventor. It imposes a "loser pays" system on patent lawsuits, something no other kind of US lawsuit has. Now you can end up paying the big company's attorney fees if you lose, which happens about half the time even if you have a good case. That's bankruptcy for most inventors. Invent something, lose your house.

    The last proposed bill in this area, the "SHIELD act", exempted original inventors, inventors who practiced the invention, and universities from "loser pays". This one doesn't.

    Look at who's behind this. Bob Goodlatte, the right-wing Congressman from Roanoke, VA. The American Association of Advertising Agencies, because some tricks in online advertising are patented. It's not coming out of Silicon Valley.