Patent Enforcement Protected by First Amendment?
After receiving a draft complaint and a stipulated order from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) banning its allegedly deceptive letters to infringers of its scanning technology, MPHJ Technology Investments LLC (MPHJ) filed suit against the FTC in the Western District of Texas, alleging violations of the First Amendment. The complaint alleged that the FTC’s investigation prevented MPHJ from its government-granted right to enforce its patent, a form of free speech under the Bill of Rights. On March 28, 2014, the FTC filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, and MPHJ filed its response on April 18, 2014.
The FTC argued in its motion to dismiss that the controversy was not ripe for suit because there had been no final agency action, that MPHJ was not immune from suit because patent enforcement activity is not protected by the First Amendment and that the FTC is not looking to prevent MPHJ from sending letters, only looking to prevent the deceptive statements within those letters.
MPHJ contended in its response that the FTC’s draft complaint was a sufficient “credible threat” of suit to make the case ripe for adjudication. MPHJ’s patent enforcement conduct included a threat to sue the alleged infringers, and it was this conduct, in part, that was subject to the FTC investigation and also protected by the First Amendment. MPHJ argued that in order to sue it under Section 5 of the FTC Act, the FTC must overcome the First Amendment protection for plaintiffs in a lawsuit from allegations of misconduct related to bringing that suit, which applies unless the suit brought was “objectively baseless.” MPHJ argued that the FTC has not overcome the burden of showing objective baselessness, because in its investigation of MPHJ’s conduct, it concluded only that the letters threatening to sue infringers were “deceptive.” According to MPHJ, allowing the type of enforcement activity pursued by the FTC would prevent patent holders like MPHJ from threatening to sue infringers. MPHJ further argued that the District of Nebraska entered a preliminary injunction against the attorney general when faced with identical facts.
The case is MPHJ Tech. Inv., LLC v. FTC, case number 6:14-cv-00011, pending before the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.