Appeals Court Rejects Sketchy Plan To Pretend To Sell Patents To Native American Nation To Avoid Scrutiny
from the sovereign-assholery dept
Some ethically sketchy patent lawyers thought they had come up with a brilliant scam to avoid having awful patents scrutinized by the special review board created by Congress within the Patent Office — a process known as “inter partes review” or IPR. This Patent and Trademark Appeals Board (PTAB) has been a useful tool in going back and reversing the mistakes made by patent examiners in letting through bad patents. However, back in September, we wrote about a fairly devious plan by the lawyers from the law firm of Shore Chan DePumpo to help their clients avoid a PTAB review. The situation began with a PTAB ruling back in early 2017 in a review of a patent held by the University of Florida. The University claimed sovereign immunity exempted it from the whole PTAB process under the 11th Amendment (universities claiming sovereign immunity in patent cases goes way back) and the PTAB agreed it had no jurisdiction.
Sensing an opportunity, the lawyers at Shore Chan DePumpo worked out a neat little scheme in which a pharmaceutical company would “sell” its patents to a Native American nation (in this case, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe). The “sale” was in name only. The pharmaceutical companies retained not just an exclusive license to the patents, but basically all other rights as well. The only thing St. Regis got was a nice little income stream in exchange for having its sovereign status used to shield the pharma companies’ patents from scrutiny before the PTAB.
I’m sure it seemed like a good idea to someone at the time, but it has been an utter failure. In October, the district court made it clear that this was a scam it didn’t intend to allow to go forward. Then, in February, the PTAB itself denied the tribe’s motion, pointing out that the PTAB wasn’t stupid and totally understood the scam being played:
Upon consideration of the record, and for the reasons discussed below, we determine the Tribe has not established that the doctrine of tribal sovereign immunity should be applied to these proceedings. Furthermore, we determine that these proceedings can continue even without the Tribe’s participation in view of Allergan’s retained ownership interests in the challenged patents. The Tribe’s Motion is therefore denied.
And now, just to add one more nail to the coffin of this terrible idea, the Federal Circuit, which traditionally is happy to rubber stamp any scam to keep patent owners happy, has rejected this plan as well. The CAFC ruling doesn’t call out this procedure as a scam, but rather focuses in on the procedural questions of whether or not the IPR process is akin to an agency enforcement action (which would not be blocked by sovereign immunity) v. a civil lawsuit (which would be). It goes through a number of factors and decides that it’s more of an agency action, and thus the tribe (acting as a front for the pharma companies) can’t claim sovereign immunity and avoid having the Patent Office review its patents.
I guess the lawyers at Shore Chan DePumpo will just have to go back to sending frivolous takedown notices to bloggers who criticize the firm…