The underlying assumption is that a licensee should maintain a majority - say 75% - of the profits of a patented product because the licensee has undertaken substantial development, operational and commercialisation risks. The other 25% should go to the patent holder as a licence fee. The 25% rule can be used for calculating a reasonable, running royalty rate by first of all estimating the licensee's profits for the product incorporating the patent and then dividing the total profit by the total cost of sales. This gives a profit rate - of which 25% is the running royalty rate. This rate is then applied going forward for licensing deals - or backwards for calculating damages in litigation
The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) - the Appeals court in US patent cases - looked into the validity of the rule in a case Uniloc v Microsoft Corp. and concluded that the rule was - for the purposes of the calculation of damages in litigation - fundamentally flawed. The CAFC noted that the court (and lower courts) had accepted the rule in the past because it had never been effectively challenged. The CAFC noted that there had been a number of criticisms of the rule over the years:
- The rule failed to take into account the unique relationship between a patent and an accused (allegedly infringing) product
- The rule failed to take into account the unique relationship between the parties in the litigation
- The rule was essentially arbitrary
The CAFC pointed out that patent proprietor has to prove the level of damages and that any arguments regarding the level of damages must be tied to the facts of the case. Citing a whole raft of case law, the CAFC concluded that the 25% rule of thumb was an abstract and theoretical concept. The 25% rule failed to provide any basis for the hypothetical negotiation between the two parties regarding the level of the royalty or offer any evidence regarding usual royalty rates for a particular technology, industry or party. In other words - the CAFC was not prepared to accept a royalty rate which it considered purely arbitrary and wanted to see comparative figures produced.
The implications for litigation are tremendous. Calculation of damages will rely on the ability to produce comparable figures from other sources - such as stock exchange filings or the annual LES royalty surveys. Licensing executives may not need to be so worried. The concept of the reasonable royalty based on a negotiation between parties is generally one that is practiced in reality. The 25% rule is often used as a starting point for the negotiation and is just one data point. Other data points include similar licensing agreements made with other companies and also publicly available data from sources such as SEC filings. It is unlikely that a court would attempt to change royalty rates in an agreement made entered into freely by two parties, merely because the royalty rate calculation was based on the (unapproved) 25% rule. Only in the unlikely event that one of the parties was put under duress to accept the royalty rate based on the 25% rule would a court be likely to overrule the calculation.
Copy of Goldscheider's article is available here.
Description of Route 25 here