Quantum Mechanics and the U.S Patent System: Two Uncertainties

From Ancient thinkers to Isaac Newton to today, our classical understanding of the world around us includes various laws that objects in our Universe obey, such as Newton’s Law of Gravity. These physical laws were updated a century ago by Albert Einstein to include situations not adequately described by Newtonian Mechanics, e.g., travelling near the speed of light, resulting in the modern view of Space-Time.

Around the time of Einstein’s discoveries, however, experiments in subatomic physics presented considerable challenges to these classical views. The disparity of these observations with the “real” world ultimately resulted in an agreement among physicists on the interpretation of reality itself, the Copenhagen Interpretation, which was necessary to establish a common platform for physics and mathematics. Quantum Mechanics developed as a statistical model in this alternate reality, where laws were replaced by rather uncertain estimations.

Our patent system was also been built upon classical rules and understandings, e.g., earlier patent systems, and the thoughts of Rousseau, Locke and others who influenced our Founders in the creation of our patent system. For over 200 years our patent system has been operating within the paradigm or mindset that innovation should be encouraged by providing a personal incentive to benefit the innovator (in the short term) and Society as a whole (over the long term).

This reality, however, is now under question, i.e., the George Washington Interpretation that a patent system is good for the nation. As with Quantum Mechanics in physics, a new reality has been thrust upon us that the patent system is actually questionable, uncertain or even bad. This new view is the Troll Interpretation. Instead of American inventors creating a better mouse trap, bettering Society, they are now trolls, every one of them it seems. This new interpretation is a long way from the veneration accorded inventors, including great American innovators, such as Morse, Bell, Edison and others. Indeed, the press goes into overdrive denigrating famous inventors, such as the Wright Brothers, as trolls.

The U.S. Supreme Court, which for two centuries acknowledged the importance of patent rights, has also brought the George Washington Interpretation into doubt by undermining the entirety of the patent system in the recent Oil States case, where patents of innovations are now deemed mere tools of the government, and not the innovator’s private personal property. But this is just the latest in numerous decisions over the past decade or so where the Supreme Court has curtailed and belittled patent rights. All of their many negatively-postured opinions have denigrated the value of patents and investment in innovations relying upon patent rights. Indeed, the Supreme Court has directly created considerable uncertainty in a once fairly certain world of patent valuation.

In physics, there is an interesting experiment involving light passing through two narrow slits. Under classical physics, light, as a particle, should pass through and hit a detector on the other side in two places corresponding to the placement of the slits. But this is not the case. Instead, there is a continuum of values detected corresponding to light wave interference, i.e., the light, as a wave, actually goes through both slits and interacts with itself on the other side. One cannot predict with certainty where any given light ray will hit the detector. All one can do in this uncertain environment is to employ statistical techniques to guess.

Right now, the Supreme Court jurisprudence on many important patent issues is just as uncertain, creating further havoc with the George Washington Interpretation. Indeed, it is hard to decipher meaning from the diverse opinions of the Court as to how to proceed. Each new decision further disrupts the patent paradigm in unknown and uncertain ways, but overwhelmingly negative. The Court does not seem to understand the criticality of the issue and the crises so generated.

Modern innovation relies on funding, and one must demonstrate that one can deliver on a promise, e.g., investment requires some certainty to the investor or banker. In the past, the key assets were physical in nature, e.g., a factory lease and the latest printing press for a startup printing business – known values. Now, the assets are far less tangible, e.g., an app or a therapeutic kit, but far more valuable, and very much in need of patent protection. Yet, apart from Justices Gorsuch and Roberts, the Supreme Court appears unable to accord patents the proper status in this equation, creating further uncertainty in the marketplace, preventing many businesses from forming and thwarting innovation itself.

Also, if a valuable invention covered by a patent can be invalidated with ease, e.g., in one of the new and slanted-against-the-inventor USPTO proceedings, why invest in R&D that cannot be protected? This scenario affects critical technologies, such as new techniques and therapeutics to detect diseases. For example, the Cleveland Clinic has recently curtailed critical research in view of the lack of ways to protect these techniques with patents. Indeed, abuse of Section 101 of the Patent Act has reached a precarious level. The investment calculus is simple: if too uncertain a patent can be obtained, and if obtained, too uncertain regarding enforcement, then no funding. This fundamental principle of economics is apparently lost on the Justices.

In Congress, under intense lobbying, they passed the America Invents Act (AIA) in 2011 to increase the “certainty” in the patent system. Despite the warnings beforehand that this was not so, this lobbyist- and troll-inspired law has morphed into a miasma of confusions and uncertainties. Now, Congress is having hearings to establish what they did wrong, and asking fundamental questions. Why has our patent system, once number one in numerous rankings, fallen to 12th place? Why are foreign patent systems more conducive to critical innovations in software, AI, diagnostics and therapeutics, and our Patent Office and the courts deny these innovations the right to be patented? Why is trade secret protection, in lieu of patenting, become so huge? Why are we indulging in this national self-destruction?

The new USPTO Director Andrei Iancu is trying to fix this horrible situation, where we have skewed so far from the George Washington Interpretation into extreme uncertainty that threatens the nation. He wants to change the dialogue and stress the positives of patenting, the positive portrayal of our famous inventors, and turn back many of the bad measures of the AIA. With the Supreme Court Justices rejecting the Founders’ view of patents, Congress will have to now step up and bolster our patent system. Senator Coons and others in Congress recognize America’s innovation slide, the proper role of patents, the bad press regarding patents, and the need to create certainty in business dealings. As our economy heats up further, patents will be even more critical to secure the fruits of American ingenuity in a complicated and intense world market.

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and many others, including Abraham Lincoln, recognized the extraordinary value of the U.S. patent system, and talked and wrote about its virtues. A few bad actors should not have derailed this critical engine of our economy, but they did, and now all patentees are labelled trolls. Thus, a new portrayal of patents is needed. It will take time to educate the press, reintroduce the positive advantages of the patent system, and stop the slide. We must, however, watch out for the truly bad actors here, some of the big tech lobbyists who still want to curtail patents (to curtail competition), which keeps the patent system under threat.

The uncertainties in physics should not be mirrored in our patent system. The reality of the Founders is not alien to us: hard work, and reward creativity and innovativeness. Modern inventors of new advances should not be harmed due to the perverted view of the patent system being foisted upon us. We need to reaffirm the George Washington Interpretation. Director Iancu has his work cut out for him: Make American Invention and Inventors Great Again!

Oil States: a Very Slippery Slope

In a narrow but still huge decision today, Oil States Energy Services v. Greene’s Energy Group, the U.S. Supreme Court today relegated patents and challenges to them as more a public, as opposed to a private, right.  Justice Thomas wrote the opinion of the Court that under the “public-rights doctrine” great latitude is accorded  in allowing the adjudication of “public rights” by non-Article III adjudicators, e.g., political appointees.  The Court held that Article III federal judges (life appointment, more independent) are not needed in Inter Partes Review patent challenge proceedings at the USPTO, where a private challenger can seek the invalidation of a patent under the auspices of a USPTO Board, where the “judges” are subject to the Director and other political appointees that “adjudicate” the patent right.  This particular point was made manifest when a former Director allegedly sought to overturn Patent Board decisions not to her liking by appointing more judges to skew the judgment (panel stacking).

Also,  the majority, looking to history, viewed patents, particularly some patent challenges, as not being entitled, under the common law of the 18th century and beyond, to trials  by jury.   Indeed, the Court held that the Patent Clause in the Constitution, at the founding of the patent system, inherently included a contemplation for potential cancellation proceedings.  Even though Justice Gorsuch in his dissent seriously questioned this interpretation, the Court said that the “historical practice” of the courts over the last two centuries does not matter because under the “public-rights doctrine” the USPTO is perfectly ok today.  Thus, with this finding, patentees are also not entitled to jury trials under the Seventh Amendment since there is no private property taking involved.

In the decision, Justice Thomas sought to narrow the conclusion of the Court today to just the constitutionality of these IPR proceedings, and not extend this viewpoint to other contexts of patents, leaving the “private property” notion for some patent rights hanging.  In his dissent, Justice Gorsuch lucidly contested the majority’s viewpoints and the holding, considering it as dispensing “with constitutionally prescribed procedures” for expediency and a “retreat” from constitutional guarantees for citizens.  Indeed, the majority seemed to interpret the jurisprudence and the historical context quite differently than Justice Gorsuch, viewing the case as an administrative correction, as opposed to a patent case.   The injustice of this decision will have enormous ramifications.

However, as a practical matter, the Justices as a whole were perhaps loathe to invalidate IPR and the thousands of Board decisions made so far, and thus instead stretched the Administrative State to now include IPR patent rights, forfeiting the parties’ private patent rights.  As noted in the oral argument, this decision takes patent rights back to the days of supreme rulers, such as Elizabeth I, where the patent “monopoly” is entirely subject to the ruler’s whim, granting and taking, instead of a patent system for creating a protected and secured private property right.  Here, the government giveth and government can taketh away.  Patents are just franchises, like taxi medallions, under the view of the majority.  Our Founders shudder.

With only two Justices viewing patents as private instruments, Gorsuch and Roberts, this does not bode well for the future.  Congress needs to act to fix this.  However, with the insidious influence of the tech lobbyists to squelch private innovation and future technology challenges by any means, it is doubtful that Congress will step up.   Thus, in due course, when the next Court challenge accrues encroaching on patent rights, we will again be faced with a majority of the Justices deeming patents as another administrative right to be curtailed, instead of the special instruments they are for the private citizen to contribute to Society as a whole, as our Founders intended, by getting a short-term incentive to innovate.  Liberal IPR proceedings over the last few years, invalidating many valuable patents, have significantly undermined the importance and value of patents, the consequences for which are being felt by entrepreneurs, inventors and investors for future technologies.  Today’s decision perpetuates this injustice, much to the delight of our world competitors.

With the value of patents being diminished, and today’s decision is a further diminishment, innovation in America is suffering, the next cures for diseases are compromised, the next valuable app is being thwarted, and the American spirit of invention further quelled.  All because a majority of our Justices deem the patent system as something not deserving of constitutional protections, which is in direct conflict with the Court’s own history and jurisprudence.  The only good news of late is the appointment of Andrei Iancu as Director of the USPTO, who is changing the dialogue.  Hopefully, the Justices will consider patentees not as trolls, but as important keystones to our success as a nation.

Krista Holt to speak at LES DC

For those who read my blog the other day on the Alice decision, Alice Doesn’t Patent Here Anymore,  https://rayvandyke.com/posts/, I thank you.  At the September 17, 2015 Licensing Executives Society (www.les.org) meeting in Reston, Virginia, the Licensing Executives Society (www.les.org) prominent IP attorney and my friend Dale Lazar talked about the impact of Alice and what practitioners can do in the face of this tragedy.  It was quite informative – and to be revisited in a DC meeting this Fall.

The Virginia and recent Baltimore meetings constitute my further efforts as the Greater Washington, DC Chapter Chair to promote the organization and otherwise help the IP profession and practitioners with practical programs.  For those in DC, Virginia and Maryland, please feel free to contact me if you have a speaker in mind or a topic that needs addressing. With the eclectic wants of the Greater DC membership, we have seen it all, and welcome more!

For DC, the next meeting is September 30, when Krista Holt will talk about the ever-changing damages models. http://www.lesusacanada.org/chapters/usa/washington-dc-chapter/september-30-2015-washington-dc-chapter-meeting

In Virginia on October 1, Dale’s colleagues, James Heintz and Gianni Minutoli at DLA Piper, will talk about the ongoing controversies involving Inter Partes Review within the USPTO, and how practitioners can better represent their clients – hopefully avoiding the “Death Squads.” http://www.lesusacanada.org/chapters/usa/washington-dc-chapter/october-1-2015-washington-dc-chapter-meeting

Finally, in DC on October 21, former Deputy head at WIPO and prominent attorney James Pooley will talk of issues in trade secret law.  http://www.lesusacanada.org/chapters/usa/washington-dc-chapter/october-21-2015-washington-dc-chapter-meeting

For those outside of the DC Metro area, thanks for reading about us!  If you have any suggestions or want to speak when you visit the area in future, please email me.  Conversely, I am open to invitations to speak elsewhere.

Ray Van Dyke, 202.379.3903, vandyke@acm.org

Greater Washington, DC Chapter Chair for LES