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IP & Regulatory Law Blog

Reflections of a former regulator on FTC and IP issues

WHAT IS YOUR “DATA SOUL” WORTH?

Posted in Privacy

Last week, it was reported that a Dutch student (Shawn Buckles) held an online auction to sell a bundle of his personal information because he felt that most of his “personal” information was no longer owned by him due to his past online activities. He pointed to many online user agreements that he felt transferred his rights to various companies that collected and stored his data.

Although there were more than 40 bidders, the student reportedly sold his “data soul” for about € 350 (about $485 (US)) to The Next Web, a technology news company that plans to use it at an upcoming conference on privacy.  So what did The Next Web acquire?  According to Mr. Buckles’ website, he sold his “personal profile; location track records; train track records; personal calendar; e-mails; online conversations; consumer preferences; thoughts; and browsing history.”

This stunt does not appear to be the efforts of a starving student grasping for spending money. Rather, he appears to have an agenda as he also posted what he describes as a “Privacy Pamphlet” on his auction site in which he proclaims, among other things, that “[o]ur privacy is at stake.”

While it is certainly not earthshattering that online companies routinely collect our data for various reasons, Mr. Buckles has touched on a sensitive issue.   More and more generations are accessing the Internet and as such, people need to be properly informed about the amount of information that is being collected about their online activities.  Privacy remains an important priority for the FTC, but the Internet is the wild west and the agency has limited resources to monitor it. While I can appreciate Mr. Buckles’ point, I don’t necessarily agree with the method in which he conveyed his message.  For example, I wonder if he redacted the recipients’ contact information from his e-mails or online conversations.  If not, then didn’t he commit the same sin that he complains of in his online missive- he used someone’s online information for his personal use? Hopefully, he took steps to address this concern and obtained their consent and/or redacted their identifying information.

Cheeseheads Enter the Fray: Wisconsin Latest to Pass Anti-Troll Legislation

Posted in Patent Litigation

Wisconsin is the latest state to entertain legislation aimed at curbing patent troll activity within its state.  Last week, the State Assembly passed Senate Bill 498, as amended, which requires certain disclosures to be made in an initial demand letter alleging patent infringement. In addition to the information routinely supplied, patent owners will now have to identify not one claim, but all claims that they assert are being infringed. More telling, patent owners will have to detail how each claim is met by the accused technology.  As an added bonus, they will also have to include all court proceedings (past and present) involving the patent. This could provide useful information as to how other similarly situated parties defended against similar infringement claims.

Wisconsin is essentially mandating a patent claim chart showing infringement for any accused technology. Many trolls, who are serious about enforcement, already provide such information to accused infringers. So, while it may cut down on the issuance of shotgun cease and desist letters, it should not have a real impact on the more sophisticated trolls.

Both the state attorney general’s office and aggrieved parties may bring claims for violations of the law.  The state can seek penalties of up to $50,000 per violation. Private claimants can seek reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs and an award of punitive damages not to exceed $50,000 for each violation or three times the aggregate amount of actual damages and costs and attorneys’ fees awarded by a Court, whichever is greater

Violations are based on “false, misleading or deceptive information” in the demand letter or if the required disclosures are not made within 30 days after the recipient notifies the enforcing party that the disclosures were incomplete.  Importantly, no enforcement actions or private remedies may be sought solely based on an initially incomplete demand letter.

Certain types of demand letters are exempt from the law- those sent by an institution of higher education and those involving patents subject to approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Determining what is “false, misleading or deceptive information” in this context seems to be a formidable task for state courts to entertain, especially since many of them do not routinely handle patent matters. Such cases are usually litigated in federal court.  The stiff $50,000 per violation price tag and/or the threat of having a state investigation, however, may deter those from sending completely baseless demand letters.

You Be The Judge: Late Night King Trudeau Sentenced to 10 Years

Posted in FTC, Uncategorized

As a former FTC staffer, I am asked about what’s the worst that can happen if a company doesn’t have substantiation for its weight loss or other health-related claims. Well, that depends. Taken to its extreme, there can be serious consequences.

It’s been reported that late night TV infomercial pitchman, Kevin Trudeau, was sentenced yesterday to 10 years in prison for criminal contempt of a federal court order.  Trudeau’s latest problems can be traced back to a 2004 FTC Stipulated Final Order barring him from misrepresenting the contents of his books in advertising.  As you may recall, Trudeau had also agreed to be banned from advertising products in infomercials.

In 2010, Trudeau was ordered to pay consumers nearly $38 million based on the books that he sold.  His books focused on all-natural cures for serious illnesses, such as cancer, arthritis, etc. that he felt were being suppressed by the FDA,  FTC and pharmaceutical industry.  Trudeau tried to escape paying the nearly $38 million, but was found guilty of contempt last year.  Trudeau was finally sentenced and received 10 years for his acts.

So, what’s the worst that can happen? Taken to the extreme, you may go to jail. One thing is for certain. If you make unsupported claims about curing serious illnesses- claims that discourage consumers from following traditional medical treatments for such ailments-  you are sure to go to the top of the federal government’s list in terms of its enforcement efforts as public health remains a top priority.

When You May Stand Out In A Crowd: The Perils of Crowdfunding Inter Partes Reexaminations

Posted in Patent Litigation

Crowdfunding is becoming commonplace these days.  Inventors are using it to bring their products to market and artists are using it as a means to fund movies and even new music platforms.

Now, parties are using crowdfunding to combat patent trolls and Adam Carolla is leading the charge.  Although it sounds like an interesting concept, there can be consequences for participating.  Indeed, Personal Audio, the troll that sued Carolla, recently pressed this issue and, for the moment, lost. Last Fall, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (“EFF”) used crowdfunding to initiate an inter partes reexamination request with the USPTO of the patent that Personal Audio claims Carolla and others are infringing over podcasts. Personal Audio subpoenaed the EFF to learn the identities of the 1,000+ donors, arguing that it needed to verify whether any of the defendants, including Carolla, had contributed to the campaign as parties are estopped from making the same prior art arguments in court once pursued in an inter partes reexamination.  Arguing that the Personal Audio’s request was overbroad and that its donors had a first amendment right of privacy, the EFF opposed the subpoena.  It was reported that the assigned magistrate judge deferred on the first amendment issue, but felt that it was premature to seek this information at this point as the “estoppel” issue only arises once a final determination is made during a reexamination proceeding.  For now, the donors’ identities may remain anonymous unless Personal Audio asks the U.S. District Court judge to override the magistrate’s decision and consider the issue.

While crowdfunding can be an effective way of pooling resources, there can be consequences.  Interestingly, had the EFF filed an “ex parte” reexamination request, there would have been a different result as “ex parte” reexaminations do not create the same “estoppel” effects as their “inter partes” cousins.

 

Vermont AG Tightening Up Its Troll Case

Posted in Patent Litigation

Last week, the Vermont AG’s Office filed a “conditional” Motion to amend its Complaint against MPHJ Technology Investments, LLC (“MPHJ”) relating to alleged violations of the State’s state consumer protection laws.  This move does not mean that the Vermont AG has given up on its case.  To the contrary, it is probably trying to tighten up its consumer protection case by removing overly broad requested relief.

The motion asks to possibly amend its Complaint to remove relief that would enjoin MPHJ from “threatening Vermont businesses with patent-infringement lawsuits.”  Importantly, it retains the right to ask the Court to enjoin MPHJ “from engaging in any business activity in, into or from Vermont that violates Vermont Law.”  The AG’s Office also continues to seek considerable civil penalties for violation of the State’s Consumer Protection Act.

While others might see this request as a weakness in the AG’s case, I disagree. The AG seems to be cutting the dead wood in order to bolster its argument that it is not trying to enjoin lawful activity.

Virginia Hops On The Anti-Troll Train

Posted in Patent Litigation

On Wednesday, it was reported that the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation from the House and Senate designed to crack down on misleading patent troll demand letters.  Virginia’s efforts come on the heels of  a letter from over 40 state and territorial attorneys general to the U.S. Senate’s Commerce and Judiciary Committees urging federal patent litigation reform.

Virginia, like other states (e.g., Kentucky and Oregon), has expressed concern over its small businesses being targeted with baseless letters threatening patent infringement.  In an effort to provide some protection from frivolous claims, Virginia established criteria for when a claim has been made in “bad faith” (e.g., failing to specify how the target is infringing, etc.).  More importantly, the legislation grants the Virginia Attorney General’s Office enforcement power to curb unwanted troll behavior.

While I have been critical of recent federal patent reform efforts to date for having any meaningful impact, it does appear that granting enforcement power to state attorneys general could have an effect on baseless patent infringement claims.  Not only will it curb mass letters from being sent, it should also cause patent owners concern about asserting thinly-based claims of infringement. Companies might think twice before sending knee-jerk infringement letters to their competitors if they could face being investigated by the state.

 

Will Frivolous Patent Troll Activity Ever Be Meaningfully Curbed?

Posted in Patents

For the last 1 ½ years, we have heard about proposed U.S. legislation that is aimed at discouraging baseless patent troll lawsuits.  Yet, nothing has been signed into law.  We’ve also seen various state Attorney Generals’ offices take action, panels of federal judges urging steps to heighten the pleading requirements for such suits and even FTC commissioners weighing in on the issue.

Yesterday, the Obama Administration announced various initiatives designed to improve patent quality and “combat patent trolls.”  They have been touted as a renewal of President Obama’s call for patent reform from his State of the Union address.  The White House highlighted five current initiatives ranging from “promoting transparency” (e.g., updating ownership information during USPTO proceedings) to “making patents clear” (e.g., helping USPTO examiners more effectively examine so-called “functional claims” to ensure that patent claims are clear).  The White House further announced three new initiatives that are allegedly designed to “strengthen the quality and accessibility of the patent system.”

While providing more resources to USPTO examiners is always welcomed, it is doubtful that any of these initiatives will have any impact on curbing troll activity. The real power in troll cases comes from the fact that cases can be brought on very thin allegations of infringement and it is not commonplace for defendants to recoup their attorneys’ fees for defending against such actions. There is not a uniform set of rules that apply to all patent infringement cases in federal court and as such, plaintiffs can try to game the system by bringing cases in jurisdictions that are either unfamiliar with complex patent litigation or have no rules governing such cases or both.  The end result is that defendants can be faced with having to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in needless discovery (primarily related to electronic information, such as e-mail, and archived data, etc.) right out of the starting gate in those jurisdictions that do not have a phased approach to patent litigation.  Even if the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure are amended to required more detailed patent litigation claims, patent troll activity may not necessarily decrease as crafty counsel will figure out language to meet the bare minimum that is required. What would have an impact is legislation that awards attorneys’ fees to the prevailing party (much like in the copyright context- 17 U.S.C. § 505).  This would provide the ultimate disincentive to bring frivolous cases.  It will be interesting to see if any meaningful measures are actually implemented in the near future as many people seem to think that there is a problem with the current system.

ARBITRATION DOES NOT BAR INTER PARTES REVIEW

Posted in Patent Litigation, USPTO

We continue to get guidance as to when a party can file a request for an inter partes review of a patent.  As I mentioned last Fall, under 35 U.S.C. § 315(b),  a petitioner has 1 year from the date that it is “served with a complaint alleging infringement” to file a request for inter partes review.  Last week, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“Board”) clarified that the filing of an arbitration claim does not start this 1 year clock.

Based on a 2009 arbitration, Tessera, Inc. moved to terminate an inter partes review initiated by Amkor Technology, Inc. for being outside the 1 year window.  Thus, the question became whether “served with a complaint alleging infringement” included being served with an arbitration counterclaim of infringement.  The Board noted that arbitration is not “litigation,” but rather  an alternative dispute resolution procedure.  Simply stated, “served with a complaint alleging infringement” only refers to disputes in District Court versus any forum for adjudicating infringement as Tessera had argued.  We now know that complaints and counterclaims alleging infringement (even if dismissed with prejudice) are the two clear-cut ways to start the clock running with regard to the filing of requests for inter partes reviews.

COUNTERCLAIMS START THE CLOCK FOR INTER PARTES REQUESTS

Posted in Patent Litigation, Patents

Most people are now aware of the changes by the American Invents Act to the inter partes process for reviewing patents.  There are no longer inter partes reexaminations. Instead, parties can petition for inter parties reviews.  Generally speaking, a petitioner has 1 year from the date that it is served with “a complaint alleging infringement” to file a request for inter partes review.  35 U.S.C. § 315(b).  Until the recent decision in St. Jude Medical, Cardiology Division, Inc. v. Volcano Corporation, it was unclear as to whether “a complaint” also included a counterclaim of infringement by the patent owner. Earlier this month, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (“Board”) confirmed that it does.

St. Jude Medical sued Volcano for infringement of its own patents. Volcano, in turn, counterclaimed with a charge of infringement of U.S. Patent No. 7,134,994 (“the ‘994 Patent”) in September of 2010.  Two years later, the parties dismissed all claims relating to the ‘994 Patent with prejudice. Nonetheless, in April of 2013, St. Jude Medical petitioned for an inter partes review of the ‘994 Patent.  The Board denied the petition for falling outside the 1 year time limit imposed by 35 U.S.C. § 315(b).

The Board recognized Congress’ intent behind inter partes reviews, which is to “‘provid[e] quick and cost effective alternatives to litigation.’”  It found that a counterclaim was tantamount to a complaint.  More importantly, it held that that Section 315(b) applies even when a complaint is later dismissed with prejudice.

Now, it is clear. If you want to petition for inter partes review, you need to stay on top of the 1 year deadline. It doesn’t matter if the counterclaim is ultimately dismissed with prejudice. The clock continues.  Companies should make sure to docket such deadlines.

OUT OF THE FIRE, BUT STILL IN THE FRYING PAN FOR FARNEY DANIELS: JUDGE GRANTS PRELIMINARY INJUNCTION AGAINST NEBRASKA AG’S OFFICE

Posted in Patent Litigation, Patents

Here is the latest in Activision’s quest to use Farney Daniels as its patent litigation counsel.  (For those unfamiliar with the issue, see my prior postings, which discuss various states’ reactions to this firm’s efforts to enforce patent rights for a particular patent troll across the country.)  This past Monday, the Nebraska U.S. District Court Judge granted Activision’s request for a preliminary injunction against the Nebraska AG’s Office.  Specifically, the Court prohibited the AG from:

[T]aking any steps to enforce the cease and desist order issued to Farney Daniels on July 18, 2013, in any manner that would prevent or impede the Farney Daniels firm from representing Activision in connection with licensing and litigation of U.S. patents owned by Activision with respect to companies based in, or having operations in, Nebraska.

However, this injunctive relief has no bearing on the AG’s ability to continue to investigate Farney Daniels for violations of the State’s Consumer Protection Act and the Court reserved the AG’s right to revisit the injunction should its investigation uncover a claim of bad faith by Farney Daniels.

Some may tout this as a great victory for Farney Daniels, but it wasn’t a great surprise. The Nebraska AG’s Office conceded that it wouldn’t oppose Farney Daniels attorneys’ requests to appear in the Activision matter because that matter pre-dated its cease and desist order, which only applied to future actions.  Although Farney Daniels can now file new actions on behalf of Activision against Nebraska-based entities, it’s unclear that there is any desire to do so. Further, the Nebraska AG is still free to investigate any new claim asserted by Farney Daniels.  As such, this firm will continue to operate under the watchful eye of the State and is not out of the woods yet.