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PTAB fairness data is misleading, say more patent holders

Not all patent owners agree the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) is a fairer forum for vetting patent quality today.

While some believe that the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) board is no longer the “death squad” that it was described as by the former Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, most patents subject to multiple inter partes reviews are, with an uncanny frequency, either invalidated or severely weakened. Few, emerge as clear winners.

The USPTO established the PTAB, an administrative law body, as part of the America Invents Act in 2012 to eliminate issued patents that should not have been granted because prior art way overlooked. IPRs are said to be a patent office “second look,” but while patent office re-examinations (an earlier review process superseded by IPRs) eliminated many patents that should not have seen the light of day, they also strengthened some, making them easier to license. To date, IPRs effectively have been a one-way street, eliminating many patents that should not have been issued but ineffective at identifying good ones.

An article that appeared last week, “How IPR Gang Tackling Distorts PTAB Statistics,” takes the recently reported data to task for misleading about the ultimate effect of multiple IPR filings on a single patent.

“If you use the PTAB published statistics, they’ll tell you that the institution rate was 50% – because only 1 of 2 petitions was granted. That’s true, as far as it goes. But from the patent owner’s perspective, they used to have 10 claims, and now they have 0.  That’s a 100% kill rate!”

“Assume 10 petitions and one institution,” wrote Peter Harter in IP Watchdog. “A 10% institution rate seems terribly biased towards [in favor of] the patent owner. But if all 10 claims get killed, that’s still a 100% kill rate – pretty good for challengers. When both sides think the deck is egregiously stacked against them, it’s easy to see why there’s no middle ground for compromise and improvement. And the way the PTAB is reporting statistics is to blame.”

An article that appeared recently in Law 360, “Inter Partes Reviews Becoming Friendlier to Patent Owners,” argues that holders whose patents are subjected to IPRs today have a better chance of survival than in the past.

“The PTAB also now institutes inter partes reviews less frequently,” writes Law 360. “Looking at all institution decisions made by the PTAB, the board decided to institute trials more than 85 percent of the time in the first year after inter partes reviews became available (2013) according to data from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, but only 68 percent of the time in its 2016 fiscal year.”

Statistically Valid

The decline in the institution rate may be statistically valid, but some patent holders argue that it does not tell the whole story. The statistics do not explain that some of the worst, most easily invalidated patents came before the PTAB in the first year of its existence, so the institution rate was destined to go down as it became clearer the weakest patents had been terminated.

Results from a November-December 2016 Bloomberg Law and AIPLA research study asserts that “progress has been made in patent owner attitudes towards IPRs.” However, it really depends on which patent owners you ask: those that have large portfolios that they rarely enforce or those with a small number of quality patents that they wish to license.

Brad D. Pendersen, former chair of AIPLA’s IPR Committee and co-author Bloomberg Law-AIPLA’s Patents After the AIA: Evolving Law and Practice (2016) believes that there is an opportunity for patent holders subject to IPRs to strengthen their patents, despite evidence to the contrary.

“Given the potential gold-plated downstream advantages (in litigation and/or settlement) of surviving an IPR (either at the Decision or Institute stage, at the Final Written Decision stage), and given that one-third of patents survive at the Decision to Institute Stage, it is surprising – but not completely unexpected – that some portion of patent owners are starting to look more favorably on the IPR process.”

It is not clear that most patent owners who license would agree with the “gold-plated” reasoning. If it were true, there would be even fewer patent suits and more owners seeking IPRs of good patents. In fact, it is a bit of a mystery what happens to patents that pass PTAB muster. A significant number appears to move on to district court litigation, and there is little data analyzing if they have greater value or fare any better licensing than patents that are less successful running the IPR gauntlet.

Leading IPR Target

Finjan is an example of an IP holder that engages in licensing whose patents are frequently subject to IPRs. The company has fared surprising well in defending itself at the PTAB, but that success does not seem to have translated into significant shareholder success for the cybersecurity company which also frequently out-licenses its patents.

On March 15, 16 and 17, as reported in The Patent Investor, Finjan won three more IPR rulings, involving Palo Alto Networks. Shares of Finjan (FNJN) currently sell at just $1.54. The company has a micro market capitalization of $35M, $18M on 2016 revenues. Its shares are up significantly over 12 months vs. for the S&P 500 Index, but the company, which lost $12.6M in 2015, showed its first profit in 2016, $350K or .02 per share. Finjan has executed a difficult IP strategy. If successful IPRs have gold-plated its patents, the value has yet to shine through.

Finjan was the fourth most IPR’d patent holder in 2016 and the third most in 2015. It is the most successful company in successfully defending against IPR petitions. Of 47 total IPRs against Finjan patents to date, 32 have been denied institution.

With that track record at the PTAB, one would think Finjan would have a field day licensing its patents, but the IPRs continue to come, and it still must win hard-fought victories in district court litigation. In September, a California jury found that cybersecurity firm Sophos infringed all eight patents asserted in a lawsuit brought by Finjan over software that identifies new computer viruses, awarding the company $15 million in damages.

“We have a portfolio of patents that has been proven durable in light of the increasing number of administrative pathways to challenge validity largely due to two factors,” says Finjan CEO, Phil Hartstein.  “First, our patents were developed jointly and alongside product development of technology that was disruptive to a market.  Second, we do not deviate from the intrinsic record of the assets themselves and vigorously defend our patent rights on the merits.”

Coordinated Challenges

Editor and patent attorney Gene Quinn of IP Watchdog believes that Finjan and other businesses that attempt to out-license their patents are frequently subject to repeated, coordinated attacks.

“At least several patent owners, including Finjan, are routinely subject to serial, harassing IPR challenges,” writes Quinn. “The Patent Office doing something about harassing IPR challenges is long overdue. If the Director is not going to exercise the discretion vested in that Office by the America Invents Act (AIA) hopefully more panels of the Board will take it upon themselves to do just that.

“Patent owner harassment needs to stop. Patent owners shouldn’t have to be subjected to many dozens of IPR challenges before someone recognizes there is coordinated harassment – perhaps even collusion – against certain patent owners who have the audacity to want to be paid for blatant, ongoing, willful infringement.”

23 IPRs Filed on a Single Patent

Zond makes plasma generators, the kind used in manufacturing semiconductors. Pulsed DC plasma generators for magnetron discharge were first introduced in the late 1990s to reduce arcing during for the purpose of improving the quality of thin-film materials. A big breakthrough came in September 2002, when Zond applied for what it describes as a “revolutionary” pulsed technology approach.

Zond is a Massachusetts-based company that wholly owns Zpulser LLC, which commercializes its patent technology by making and selling high-power plasma generators. The patent at issue relates to methods for generating magnetically enhanced plasma.

Over the last three years, Zond’s patents have challenged an average of 12.5 times in IPRs and as many as 23 times.  The patent research firm, Patexia, writes that it is difficult for holders of good patents to survive multiple IPR challenges. In the case of Zond, it has made licensing pretty much impossible.

A study last year, reported in Law 360, showed that Zond’s patents have been challenged in AIA reviews more than those of any other patent owner, including largest patent licensing company, Intellectual Ventures, which owns more than 70,000 patents and took second place on the list.

Zond’s large number of infringement suits, reports Law 360, spurred many companies to band together to challenge the patents in AIA reviews. In addition to Fujitsu and Gillette, petitioners have included Toshiba Corp., Advanced Micro Devices Inc. and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd.

Were potential licensees and defendants in patent suits lining up against Zond’s patents because they were bad and its case without merit, or did they want to destroy some potentially good patents that would have cost them to license?

For IPRs the devil certainly is in the details, as Patexia’s Pedram Sameni points out in a case study, “Can Patents Survive Multiple IPR Challenges?”

“Some have been suggesting that solely relying on the denial rates reported by the patent office is not enough to conclude that patents are surviving the IPR challenge,” writes Sameni. “Many have called PTAB, the patent death squad. Our study shows that in some cases, patents are challenged many times.

“The reality is that it only takes one successful IPR to completely kill all the claims of one patent. Therefore, the case-level status is not the best indication of PTAB performance and patent survival rate. While as IPR’s Final Written Decision usually means that some of the claims were invalidated, it does not necessarily mean that all claims were canceled.”

Not the Full Story

If claims still exist, they could be threats. And potential licensees/defendants will go to lengths to “kill” a patent to avoid paying a license or being dragged into court, including teaming on multiple petitions. Repeat IPRs are an efficient way to make a potential infringement suit or royalty payment disappear for multiple parties.

“The statistics that show that the PTAB is becoming fairer for patent holders do not tell the full story,” a prominent NPE told IP CloseUp. “IPRs are frequently unfair fights between several, well-funded petitioners and a single patent owner who has to run the gauntlet, repeatedly.  Surviving an IPR doesn’t mean anything if subsequent challenges can be filed at any time, especially in coordinated fashion.”

Once a patent is challenged multiple times with different prior arts, it is highly unlikely that any of its claims will survive – no matter how good it is.

“The PTAB may not be a death squad, but challenged patents are put in a kind of headlock that can render them useless. Where are the patents that emerge from IPRs generally intact or whose petitions against them for review are not instituted? They should be eminently licensable, but they are nowhere to be found. The ‘normalization’ statistics that are being cited to show that the PTAB is becoming a fairer forum for patent holders are highly misleading.”

Lack of Uniformity

Another patent licensing business, one whose petitioned patents have survived multiple IPRs, still believes that the lack of uniformity among the many PTAB panels and administrative law judges is a major factor in the continued unfairness that has effectively destroyed patent licensing for many companies and independent inventors.

“It’s difficult to predict how the PTAB will rule,” says the executive, a lawyer. “The first year or two that patents were subjected to IPRs there was a lot of low-hanging – really, rotting –  fruit. Those petitions were almost universally instituted, and many bad patents were appropriately eliminated.”

“But anyone can file and IPR and they can keep filing them. Reliable patents don’t seem to emerge from the process, only ‘bad’ ones, which are eventually neutralized. Few patent holders have the time or money to repeatedly defend themselves in IPRs. This has made otherwise licensable patents pretty much worthless and daily infringement, at least to some, an acceptable way of doing business.”

Image source: patentlyO.com; patentacademyonline.com; 

Patent transactions are flat; U.S. asking prices firm at $250K per

The number of patent sales in the 4Q 2016 remained about the same, but the median asking price of sellers of U.S. patents was higher than in recent quarters.

According to data compiled by Richardson Oliver Law Group, a Silicon Valley firm that tracks patent transactions, five of the ten most active sellers were Asian companies, and the most active buyers were led by a variety of operating companies, defensive aggregators, and NPEs. In general, corporate buyers were more active than NPEs.

The median asking price of U.S. patents in the 4Q was $250K; all patents, $150K (see graph below).

As a trend, operating companies represent a higher percentage of overall patent purchases when looking at a five-year sample. The sale of software assets lagged hardware, but not by much, 180 to 234, for some an encouraging trend.  

“Buyers are becoming more comfortable with software risk and understanding what may and may not be ineligible under Alice,” said Kent Richardson, Managing Partner of ROL. 

Sales are flat, which Richardson believes can be interpreted as a sign of relative health, given how badly the case law has gone against patent owners. “Arguably, there should be fewer deals on the market and fewer sales. We won’t know for sure for another 12 months, but it looks like sales rates are climbing back to where they were a couple of years ago.”

Cloud-related inventions are more likely to be technically challenging in terms of patentability, compared with, say, user interface patents. Infrastructure inventions are much more likely to pass an Alice test.

“As a test, we are defaulting to ‘Would it be patentable to the Europeans?’,” concludes Richardson. “It’s not a perfect measure, but it works.”

Available Assets Down, Packages Up

The number of patent assets available in the market dropped 13.2 percent to 2,478 new assets in the fourth quarter from the previous quarter.

The number of patent packages listed rose 3.5 percent to 147 from the third quarter. (This could mean that fewer, better quality patents are being offered for sale.) However, 2,855 assets listed in the third quarter were offered in a smaller number of patent packages.

The median asking price per new asset (U.S. and global) listed by patent brokers was $150,000 in the fourth quarter. That reflected increases of 38 percent from the previous quarter and 80 percent from the fourth quarter of 2015.

Brokers matched buyers and sellers for 28 deals on packages of related patents during the quarter, according to ROL data. Those deals totaled 637 assets, comprising 395 granted or pending U.S. patents, while the remaining amount represented granted or pending foreign patents.

By comparison, 565 assets were sold in 35 brokered patent deals during the third quarter of 2016. In the fourth quarter of 2015, 554 assets sold in 33 patent packages.

For information about Richardson Oliver Law Group, go here.

Image source: RichardsonOliverLaw; Bloomberg/BNA

“All Prior Art” algorithm won’t stop bad patents or actors

Stopping new inventions dead in their tracks by making them “automatically” unpatentable might sound like a good idea to some.

However, programming a computer to disclose an endless combination of dubious inventions is more effective at stopping bad patents in theory, not practice.

At least that is what three experienced patent attorneys told me recently. Publishing millions of pieces of supposed prior art will not stop bad patents (really, unpatentable inventions)  from being issued or make legitimate invention-ownership less difficult to discern.

More Style than Substance

All Prior Art is a project that attempts to “algorithmically create and publicly publish millions of pieces of possible new prior art, thereby making the disclosed concepts unpatentable.”  All Prior Art is trying to take highly obvious ideas out-of-play. Unfortunately, preventing patents from being granted, even those that do not deserve to be, is not a simple fix.

In order to be admissible, prior art must be enabling; i.e. the disclosure must describe how the invention can be produced — not something that All Prior Art addresses.

Cf2sxeUWEAE864bThe brainchild of Alexander Reben is a self-described engineer and artist with a background in robotics and applied math.  Mr. Reben’s random configurations have been described to me as “a mishmash of questionably inventive ideas.” Even if there are millions of combinations, it is highly unlikely that they will serve to invalidate a perspective patent, let alone one that an NPE may be enforcing.

All Prior Art may be more style than substance. Sure, inventions that do not meet the appropriate tests of novelty should be prevented from issuing or invalidated if they are enforced (or, maybe, even if they are not). Even if this scheme were to work, it would weaken the prospects of many inventors, universities and SMEs, and dissuade investment in innovation.

Missing Description

The theory behind Mr. Reben’s invention is that if a computer can spew out enough combinations of prior art — i.e. publish millions of pieces of data that describe inventions — the subject matter disclosures will preempt patent issuance. It’s just not that simple.

The problem is that for any prior art reference to serve as an invalidating disclosure, it has to be enabling. And the fact that no human being has come up with the combination is a pretty good argument against enablement.

The means it must be described so that a “person of ordinary skill in the field of the invention can practice the subject matter based on the reference, without undue experimentation.” (Sanofi-Synthelabo v. Apotex, Inc., 550 F.3d 1075, 1082 (Fed. Cir. 2008).

When it comes to All Prior Art’s prior art, the “description” is missing, according to Bloomberg BNA’s Tony Dutra.

“The virtually infinite number of combinations will generate over 99 percent dreck,” chides Mr. Dutra. “But, like the ‘infinite monkey theorem’ that predicts a monkey hitting typewriter keys at random for an indefinite time will almost surely, eventually type a given text, Reben believes his project will generate at least some combinations that someone, someday might try to patent. It’s that someone [Reben] aims to stop.”

Patent the Universe

NPLThe tech media, notably the DailyDot, encouraged by with the idea of that patents can be neutered, has taken an ill-conceived idea and made it worse with a misleading, inaccurate headline: “One man is trying to single-handedly create every patent imaginable.”

A sister website All The Claims is attempting to achieve a similar objective, but with the use of claims and a more verbose alternative.

“Hard to Take Seriously”

“Bruce, this approach is hard to take this seriously, especially with an admission that most of the inventions generated will be nonsensical,” one patent attorney wrote to me. “Pertinent excerpts from the Patent Office Examiner guidelines illustrate that:

‘In determining that quantum of prior art disclosure which is necessary to declare an applicant’s invention ‘not novel’ or ‘anticipated’ within section 102, the stated test is whether a reference contains an ‘enabling disclosure’… .’”

“To be invalidating prior art as to make a meaningful contribution,” a former USPTO examiner, inventor and Fortune 100 Chief Patent Counsel told me. “If utility is missing, it will not be seen at invalidating. Prior to be taken seriously by an examiner or in litigation needs novelty and utility, or specific application.”

“There are billions of combinations, but so what? There needs to be novelty and utility to qualify as prior art. This scheme might be well intended bu ti hurts the little guy more than the big tech player. I doubt that courts will take it seriously or that automated generation of inventions will have a meaningful impact.”

Trivial Variations

“Is Mr. Reben really attempting to automate the generation of trivial, random variations of existing stuff?” asked another patent attorney. “It is already difficult to patent trivial variations, as they are ‘obvious’.  The term ‘automated generation of patentable’ is kind of an oxymoron. This approach  should be titled ‘automated generation of trivial variations of existing inventions’.”

Non-Patents

So for now, at least, bad patents (really, non-patents) will continue to be issued by the USPTO and other major patent offices in large numbers because they lack the resources to prevent them.

Inter Partes Reviews and other mechanisms will continue to try to eliminate or to help fix erroneously issued patents, and litigation will remain the only reliable, albeit, costly way to determine if a patent is valid and infringed.

If it were easy to solve patent problems algorithmically with a PC, mathematicians would be higher paid than patent attorneys. That’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

Image source: ttconsultants.com

Harvard study: financial patents lag in quality, especially NPEs’

A recently published Harvard Business School working paper found that financial services patents lack quality because they lag their peers in academic citations.

“Financial Patent Quality: Finance Patents After State Street”  findings indicate that financial services patents are questionable with regard to their references to academic prior art. The study’s findings also show that patents awarded to individuals and associated with non-practicing entities (NPEs) cite less academic prior art, and that financial services patents with fewer of these citations are more likely to be asserted in litigation.

The research also shows that financial services patents cite less non-patent pristacked_1200px_130327or art, and especially less academic prior art.

Patents assigned to individuals and NPEs were particularly problematic with respect to academic citations.
Having fewer academic prior art citations, the HBS study indicates, directly correlates to the likelihood of a financial services patent being the subject of litigation.

Not all patent professionals agree that the number or type of citations play a significant role in determining patent quality or the likelihood that a patent will be enforced.

The study team was led by Josh Lerner, a professor at Harvard Business School and co-author of Innovation and Its Discontents: How Our Broken Patent System is Endangering Innovation and Progress, and What to do About It.

“Financial Patent Quality” concludes that:

  • Financial services patents cite fewer non-patent prior art publications than the comparison groups. This is especially the case with respect to academic prior art publications.
  • Patents awarded to corporations generally cite more prior art, particularly academic research than do those awarded to individuals or associated with NPEs.
  • Citations of academic prior art are strongly related to whether a finance patent is litigated. In particular, financial services patents with more academic citations, one indicator of higher quality, were subject to less litigation.

The HBS working paper was sponsored by Askeladden L.L.C.  as part of its Patent Quality Initiative, an 294628LOGOeducation, information and advocacy effort with the goal of improving the understanding, use and reliability of patents in financial services and elsewhere. Askeladden is a subsidiary or The Clearing House, the oldest banking association in the United States.

According to Bloomberg BNA the study selected finance patents from specific subclasses of the PTO’s classification code 705, titled, “Data Processing: Financial, Business Practice, Management, or Cost/Price Determination.” Most of the claims of the finance patents involve data processing on generic computing equipment and are, thus, likely to be claimed as software algorithms.

To see the HBS working paper, “Financial Patent Quality,” go here.

Image source: hbs.edu 


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