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Threat to the American Patent System and Inventors’ Rights

Inventors warn patent rights endangered by legislation and courts.

In September 2011, Congress passed and then-President Obama signed the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (AIA) that changed the U.S. patent system to the party "first to file" instead of the "first to invent” to bring the U.S. in line with other countries who adopted first to file patent systems years ago, supposedly to simplify the patent process for companies that file applications in multiple countries. Its central provisions went into effect on September 16, 2012 and on March 16, 2013.

At the time, supporters said it would improve patent quality by creating a new process for reviewing patents after they have been issued and allow third parties to provide information on other parties' applications

Opponents argued that there was no reason to change the U.S. system, and inventors and small businesses complained that switching to a "first to file" system would give large companies an advantage and hurt individual inventors. 

To find out what has happened to the American patent system and inventors’ rights since 2011, I contacted Randy Landreneau, founder of Independent Inventors of America, Paul Morinville, founder of US Inventor, and Adrian Pelkus, president of San Diego Inventors Forum.

Randy Landreneau: “America has been the most innovative country on earth from the start. A key reason for this is the revolutionary patent system created by our Founders that provided intellectual property rights to any man or woman, rich or poor. The rest of the world had systems that were for the aristocracy and those favored by the powerful…America maintained a superior system in protecting the intellectual property rights of inventors until …the passage of The America Invents Act in 2011…While it is hard to quantify the effect of changing to first-to-file, this change does place a disadvantage on the independent inventor relative to the large corporation. But another change has had very measurable negative effects.

The America Invents Act created new and easier ways to invalidate an existing patent. Prior to this, to invalidate a patent required going to a judicial court with its various protections offered to the holder of a property right. The America Invents Act created procedures for an administrative court, the PTAB (Patent Trial and Appeals Board), that does not have the same protections. Approximately 70% of the patents that companies try to invalidate using the PTAB get invalidated.

There are efforts underway to get the PTAB procedures ruled unconstitutional or at least reigned in and similar to the procedures of a judicial court. Certainly, the PTAB procedures are doing great harm to American innovation.”

A more recent bill was even worse – The Innovation Act (H.R. 9), which passed the House in December of 2013. But, the Senate version (PATENT Act, S.1137) was fought effectively and did not pass the Senate. However, these bills were reintroduced in subsequent sessions of Congress until the summer of 2016, when it became clear these bills were not moving forward.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent pushing a false narrative that nefarious entities called “patent trolls” are using frivolous litigation to make companies pay them unfairly. More often, in actuality, an inventor has a patent that is being infringed by a large corporation that he cannot afford to fight in court. So, he sells his patent to a company that does have the wherewithal to fight in court (a non-practicing entity or NPE), and the infringer loses because he is guilty.

One element of the Innovation Act was ‘Loser Pays.’ If an inventor sues a corporation for patent infringement and does not win, he could be liable for the infringer's legal costs. This could be more than $5,000,000. This liability would also be a personal liability to an investor with an interest in the patent (piercing the corporate veil and placing personal assets at risk).

There are still efforts underway by multinational corporations to get a similar bill passed in the future. Currently, there is the threat that something similar to the Innovation Act will come back.

But, the more current threat is how the courts have been moving toward not considering a patent as the property right that it has been for 200 years. A three-judge panel actually ruled that a patent is a public right. If the courts start to widely regard patents as not being property rights, as some feel they are already doing, this will greatly harm American innovation. If a court does not respect the rights of an inventor, court procedures end up being applied in ways that work against him. Recently, there have been numerous cases where judges ruled that a patent was too abstract, and the inventor was not given the normal due process of providing witnesses, testimony, or otherwise fighting to retain his intellectual property.

There is an effort underway to get the U. S. Supreme Court to take up this issue and rule in the favor of patents being property rights. If this effort succeeds, we will have, at least temporarily, stopped the erosion of inventor rights that are so important to this great nation. I and others are involved in fighting to maintain the rights of inventors, and to expand them where they have been reduced in recent years.”

Paul Morinville wrote his opinion in a paper titled, “We’ve Been Googled,” when H.R. 9 looked like it would pass in which he stated that "H.R.9 creates a Patent System without Inventors. Over the last decade, Google and others have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to lobby Congress and produce an ingenious 'patent troll' narrative, which distorts the reality of invention in America. In this decade long war on inventors, H.R.9 is the Google lobby’s latest accomplishment. Not surprisingly, H.R.9 is not directed to fixing the fictional problem of 'patent trolls.' Instead, H.R.9 mounts its considerable damage on the patent system in general, specifically harming inventors and small patent-based businesses."

Morinville explained, "If this bill becomes law, inventors will not be able to enforce their patent rights against moneyed corporations like Google. However, moneyed corporations like Google will still be able to enforce their patents against small businesses with even more devastating consequences to those small businesses. Patent litigation is about risk and cost versus reward. If risk or cost is too high in relation to reward, a patent cannot be enforced."

He continued, "H.R.9 forces presumptive Loser Pay. That means that every case will litigate Loser Pay whether or not there was any frivolous litigation in the first place. This results in increasing the cost of every patent lawsuit even those without frivolous litigation by either party.

It’s simple math, damages must exceed the cost of the case plus the cost of risk. If you increase the cost of the suit, damages must necessarily be higher to justify the suit. Unfortunately, the effect of raising cost or risk is to render thousands of patents unenforceable, thus severely damaging inventors and small companies."

Adrian Pelkus: “I'm an inventor named on 14 issued patents and have made my life as a serial entrepreneur doing new product development for over 30 years. Along the way I have created many startups and raised millions of dollars on the back of IP. I have coached inventors and startups every Thursday since 1985 and have run one of the larger inventor clubs in the U. S. since 2005, the San Diego Inventors Forum.”

He said, “What is most absurd about the America Invents Act to American inventors is the fact that with PTABs we can lose our issued patents… A company challenging a patent wins 90% of the time. The cost to defend is so expensive that inventors give up and are unable to afford achieving their dreams.”

Now, issued patents guaranteed as a property right in the constitution are being challenged as being such. A business that infringes would just pay a royalty to the inventor if found guilty hence "efficient infringement. The biggest incentives to create new ideas and businesses weakened because the guarantee an issued patent will protect your IP interests and investments is gone. Patents can now become liabilities. The proposed bills to penalize an inventor with loser pays and threaten to make their investors pay was beyond absurd; it would be economic and intellectual suicide. The end of our rights and hopes as inventors is in plain sight.”

Pelkus became connected to Randy Landreneau and Paul Morinville when they reached out to other inventor groups, and he was invited to join the fly-in to Washington, D.C. to fight H.R.9 in April 2015. After that fly-in to Washington, D.C. he became focused on fighting against bills that would destroy our patent system and joined the board of US Inventor in August 2016. He was already on the board of the United Inventors Association and had been working to unite the inventor clubs and groups nationwide.

In January, 2017, the Policy Panel of US Inventors authored a USI Policy Section 101 paper and in February, it was determined that they had to "get as many inventors as possible calling Congress and writing about the threat of a new bill.”

Pelkus said, “I sent out my first call to action to all the clubs and sent a second one the next week and every week since. I discussed the plan to unite the groups and clubs with Stephen Key of Invent Right and Louis Foreman of Edison Nation, who asked how they could help. In the unique position as a board member of both US Inventor and the United Inventors Association, I know that both associations have expert support and advisors extraordinaire who have agreed to assist.

“I established a bimonthly phone conference with the heads of the biggest organizations in the inventor community, inventors, and clubs in an effort to create a coalition that would support a petition that reflects our concerns about and suggestions to change the America Invents Act. This coalition is a historic cooperation that will unite the inventor community and bring a voice to Washington, D.C. they need to hear!

“We now have a petition that we believe will help make America great again by making it a great place for American Inventors again. This petition represents concerned citizens, inventors, entrepreneurs, and businesses from coast to coast. I'm proud to contribute my efforts to help America by restoring its patent system.  Please join me and our coalition to Save American Inventors by signing this petition at http://www.usinventor.org/petition”

I agree with Landreneau, Morinville, and Pelkus that the America Invents Act is gradually destroying the American patent system. If a bill similar to H. R. 9 passes Congress, it would be the final nail in its coffin. I wrote an article in May, 2015, "Has the America Invents Act Been Beneficial or Harmful?"  that cited the following main reasons why inventor organizations opposed H.R. 9:

Loser Pays – would significantly increase the risk and cost of defending a patent and “could be fatal to a large percentage of inventions.”

“Joinder” clause – allows investors to be personally liable for legal fees if inventor loses lawsuit, so this would severely limit investment in new technologies.

The Loser-Pays clause would make it virtually impossible for independent inventors and small businesses to protect a patent and get investors. Only large corporations would be able to absorb the costs of patent infringement litigation. This type of bill would squash the American innovation that is so essential to our national prosperity and rebuilding American manufacturing.

Why is this important? Because most new technologies, especially break-through or disruptive technologies, come from individual inventors who either start a company or license their technology to companies that are more able to take them to the market.

As a mentor for San Diego’s CONNECT Springboard accelerator program and a director on the board of the San Diego Inventors Forum, I work with inventors designing new products or break-through technologies. Local inventors have the opportunity to compete in the San Diego Inventors Forum annual invention contest for best new consumer product or best new technology. All contestants must have applied for at least a provisional patent before they can participate. The future success of their product or technology is contingent upon their having a patent they can protect from infringement. Their ability to raise the financial investment they need to bring their product to the marketplace depends upon their being able to protect their patent. No investor will take the risk of investing in a product or technology that cannot be protected. 

Please join the American inventors coalition formed by Adrian Pelkus, Randy Landreneau, Paul Morinville, and others to save American inventors by signing the petition at http://www.usinventor.org/petition.

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