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America Invents Act (AIA) Reform: An Interview with a Former Patent Judge of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

With its recent overhaul to the patent system, the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (“AIA”), enacted by Congress on September 16, 2011, makes significant changes to the way patent infringement claims are brought and adjudicated. However, whether these changes actually revolutionize the system or fall short and lack luster is a contentious topic best left to the experts, such as James T. Carmichael. Mr. Carmichael has previously served as Administrative Patent Judge on the Patent Trial and Appeals Board (“PTAB”), formerly known as the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences, and prior to that as Associate Solicitor of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”), and currently represents inventors and patent challengers before the USPTO in private practice with Miles & Stockbridge. He has definite opinions on the overall strength and benefits of the Act. These include the potential reduction of litigation expenses by 90% and the ability for a patent to be cancelled more quickly and easily.

Patent Infringement Nuisance Lawsuits

The most significant way that the AIA revamps the patent system is by way of reducing the nuisance value of a lawsuit. Lawsuits brought by non-practicing entities (“NPE”) consist of a business or individual who is not producing or marketing the patent but nonetheless enforces the patent against alleged infringers. The average legal cost for defending patent infringement remains about $3 million. As such, defendants tend to settle rather than pay the high attorneys’ fees, even if the lawsuit is frivolous or weak. Mr. Carmichael opined that the AIA helps decrease this practice because it can cut the legal costs to $300,000. This in turn will help drive the settlement value down, providing NPEs with less incentive to pursue nuisance settlement amounts in the hundreds of thousands or more.

Critics of the AIA point out that even though plaintiff NPEs recover significantly less under the new provision, they make up for the difference in settlement amounts by simply suing a higher number of alleged infringers. As such, NPEs are developing a new business model in response to the AIA that has the “effect of spreading the pain.” Moreover, small businesses are still adversely affected by even the smaller settlement amount and may opt to settle rather than pursue litigation, thus continuing the practice of nuisance value suits before the AIA.

Mr. Carmichael concedes that the new legislation reduces the cost of litigation but not necessarily the number of suits filed. However, he insists that the AIA is a “big step in the right direction” and succeeds generally in bringing the nuisance value down. According to him, industry largely supports the AIA because it reacts and provides a solution to the high cost of striking down an invalid patent before the AIA revisions. In addition, not every patent claim is from a NPE with a nonmeritorious case and many patent claims are legitimate and should be asserted, given the value of patent rights.

Patent Post-Grant Process Under PTAB

The AIA reduces the cost of striking an invalid patent by providing for post-grant opposition which provides an alternative to litigation. Under the newly-implemented inter partes review (IPR), an entity or business may challenge the validity of the patent at the PTAB. IPR will be decided by a PTAB three-judge panel, whereas under the previous system of reexamination, patent examiners from the Central Reexamination Unit (CRU) determined the patent claim rights. According to Mr. Carmichael, the benefit of adjudication under PTAB is that it is easier for PTAB to cancel a patent then for a jury to invalidate a patent. Under the AIA, there is no presumption of validity applied in the patent review process so deference is not given to the patent examiner. Further, a patent challenger can go directly to the administrative judges to challenge the patent with more technical and nuanced arguments that cannot adequately be made to a jury. The new procedures “grant effective ways to determine if a challenge is valid,” according to Mr. Carmichael. Ultimately, striking an invalid patent is “faster and easier than before, mainly because these proceedings are conducted by PTAB, not [CRU patent] examiners or courts.”

In addition, under the AIA, patent review is provided the maximum time limit of one year, whereas under reexamination, no such time limit existed and the correction of patents was a time-consuming process. Parties could potentially add new arguments under reexamination but the new patent post-grant opposition process will be more efficient. Prior legislation did not have this time limit, which is one reason why Mr. Carmichael deemed it as ineffectual as compared to the AIA.  Courts are now likely to stay patent infringement proceedings in view of the speedier PTAB processes.

A Successful Verdict for the AIA’s Patent Reform Provisions

Ultimately, Mr. Carmichael views the AIA legislation as the “first in history” to successfully accomplish diminishing the nuisance value of a patent infringement suit and provide effective avenues of opposition to patent challengers with meritorious claims. Mr. Carmichael dismisses complaints from critics of the legislation, stating “I think it did enough for what it was trying to accomplish.” According to Mr. Carmichael, the AIA will serve as the “most powerful tool in history to challenge [patent] validity.” The final enactment of the legislation occurred recently on March 16, 2013, and only time will tell whether the rest of the legal community agrees with him or not.

Interview by S. Merchant.

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