Wednesday 22 February 2017

Public Universities Bringing More Patent Suits and May Be Immune to IPRs

A recent Technology Transfer Tactics article by Jesse Schwartz published on February 22, 2017 states that universities are bringing more intellectual property suits, particularly patent infringement actions, against large companies.  Notably, the article points to the University of Minnesota infringement suit against Gilead Life Sciences and states:

Litigation like the UM lawsuit indicates that universities are warming up to the idea that fighting for their patent rights is worth the effort and expense, says Joshua H. Haffner, JD, an attorney with Haffner Law in Los Angeles. The UM case continues a trend of schools stepping up and demanding payment for use of their patents, he notes. Carnegie Mellon University settled a patent infringement case with Marvell Technology Group for $750 million in 2016, and later that year a jury ordered Apple to pay the University of Wisconsin more than $234 million for using its microchip technology in iPhones and iPads without permission. In 2015, a jury awarded Boston University more than $13 million from three companies that infringed on its patent for blue light emitting diodes (LEDs).

“This trend is continuing because they’re making money off the cases,” Haffner says. “Patent infringement cases can be very profitable, and with every win by a university others are looking at that and saying maybe they could reap the same rewards. There are other principles at play, like protecting the inventors and the principle of ownership, but really if the invention is not making money those principles tend to fall by the wayside.”

Interestingly, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) recently decided the Covidien v. University of Florida Research Foundation (UFRF) matter.  In that matter, the PTAB analogized inter partes review proceedings (IPRs) to litigation and decided that public (state) universities have 11th Amendment immunity against IPRs.  Basically, this means that parties cannot bring IPRs against public universities to challenge their patents.  Notably, this immunity may be waived by the public university.  Interestingly, UFRF brought an action in state court for breach of a license agreement.  Covidien counterclaimed for a declaratory judgment of noninfringement and then filed IPRs at the United States Patent and Trademark Office challenging UFRF’s patents.  Covidien then removed the action to federal court; however, the federal district court sent the action back to state court because of UFRF’s 11th Amendment immunity.  That decision is pending resolution at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (Federal Circuit). 

Interestingly, the PTAB states:

Petitioner additionally argues that “immunizing patents owned by alleged state entities from IPR proceedings would have harmful and far-reaching consequences.” Opp. 15–17. Here, Petitioner’s arguments are three-fold. One, invalid patents would stand simply because they are assigned to a state entity. Two, a patent owned by a monetization foundation affiliated with a state university would be insulated from the inter partes review process. Three, determining whether an entity is entitled to sovereign immunity is a fact-intensive inquiry that the Patent Office is not designed to adjudicate.

With respect to the first two arguments, we are cognizant of the fact that applying an Eleventh Amendment immunity to inter partes review, absent waiver by the state entity4, precludes the institution of inter partes review against a state entity entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity. This, indeed, is precisely the point of the Eleventh Amendment, which is the preservation of the dignity afforded to sovereign states. “The preeminent purpose of state sovereign immunity is to accord States the dignity that is consistent with their status as sovereign entities.” FMC, 535 U.S. at 760 (citing In re Ayers, 123 U.S. 443, 505 (1887)). When sovereign immunity conflicts with legislation, Congress may abrogate sovereign immunity if it has unequivocally expressed its intent to abrogate the immunity and has acted pursuant to a valid exercise of power. Seminole Tribe, 517 U.S. at 55. Petitioner does not point to, and we do not find there is, an unequivocal, express intent by Congress in the AIA to abrogate immunity for the purposes of inter partes review.  

[Footnote 4 states: Because there is no related federal district court patent infringement (or declaratory judgment of validity) case brought by Patent Owner, we do not decide here whether the existence of such a case would effect a waiver of sovereign immunity.]

Further, we are not persuaded that an application of sovereign immunity to inter partes review will do violence to the patent system. The Supreme Court in Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Education Expense Board v. College Savings Bank, 527 U.S. 627 (1999) held that Congress does not have authority to abrogate Eleventh Amendment immunity with respect to patent infringement by the States, for “Congress identified no pattern of patent infringement by the States, let alone a pattern of constitutional violations.” Id. at 640. Based on the record before us, there is no evidence that the harm to the patent system, described by the Petitioner, will come to pass, let alone exists as a basis to divest States of sovereign immunity.

Finally, we are not persuaded that our tribunal cannot perform the fact-finding duties that Petitioner alleges would be required to determine whether an entity is entitled to sovereign immunity. Our rules and procedures provide for discovery and motion practice which, at a minimum, would provide the parties an opportunity to present arguments and supporting evidence pertaining to sovereign immunity.  

The Federal Circuit decision on this issue will be interesting, particularly if public universities continue to bring more litigation matters involving patents.  However, if there is a pending federal patent infringement claim brought by the university, I believe the PTAB (and Federal Circuit) will find a waiver of sovereign immunity.  The monetization firm argument is interesting.  [Hat tip to the Goodwin Keeping Tabs on the PTAB Alert for the lead to the case.]

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