When is Foreign Patent Licensing Subject to U.S. Antitrust Law?

confused-lawyerPatent law and antitrust law have long had an uneasy relationship. A patent is a legal monopoly, but antitrust law favors market competition and abhors monopolies. Consequently, U.S. courts have struggled for over a century to define reasonable boundaries between the two disciplines.

In the U.S., the Sherman Antitrust Act is at the core of most antitrust litigation. In the early years of the Act, patents were seen as almost immune from its reach, with the Supreme Court stating a general rule of, “absolute freedom in the use or sale of rights under the patent laws. . . The very object of these laws is monopoly.” E. Bennett & Sons v. National Harrow Co., 186 U.S. 70 (1902). But laws evolve and today courts usually apply a “rule of reason” approach when evaluating whether conduct unreasonably restrains competition, with the Supreme Court declaring “patent and antitrust policies are both relevant.” FTC v. Actavis, 570 U.S. 756 (2013).

Globalization further complicates matters. While a patent basically confers rights only within the country in which it is granted and the doctrine of comity disfavors interfering in the affairs of other nations, global manufacturing and sourcing of components, “is increasingly common in our modern global economy, and antitrust law has long recognized that anticompetitive injuries can be transmitted through multi-layered supply chains.” Lotes Co., Ltd. v. Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., Ltd., No. 13-2280 (2d Cir. 2014).

However, the test for application of the Sherman Act to foreign parties and foreign conduct has become increasingly clear, in particular with several U.S. cases decided earlier this year, one of which involved allegations of egregious patent licensing conduct in China. Continue reading

Jury finds Firm Negligent to Prosecute Patents for Competitors

LettersPatent7899 On Thursday, a Texas jury found the Baker Botts law firm negligent for filing patents for competing companies and set the damages at $40.5 million… but Baker Botts dodged the bullet, as the jury also found the plaintiff waited too long to file its claim.

Axcess International hired Baker Botts in 1998 to provide general IP advice and assist with drafting and filing of patent applications for RFID technology. However, shortly after filing several patents on Axcess’ behalf, the firm also agreed to represent Savi Technologies, a competitor of Axcess, and began filing patent applications for Savi.

Axcess filed the lawsuit in 2010, alleging negligence, breach of fiduciary duty and material disclosure and claiming it only learned of the violations the year before. The jury disagreed. While if found Baker Botts breached its obligations, it found Axcess had knowledge in 2007 and the statutes of limitations had expired. Continue reading

Best Practices for Licensing Patents to Companies in China

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Patent licensing generally is fraught with risks, but licensors who do business in China face special challenges. Common practices and contract provisions that may work elsewhere often prove ineffective in China. Consequently, before entering into such an arrangement, the prudent lawyer will review some of the key issues faced by licensors in China.

Notably, foreign companies are increasingly being forced to defend their licensing terms before China’s antitrust regulator, the National Development and Reform Commission (“NDRC”). US patent-assertion entity InterDigital recently settled a dispute with the NDRC, by agreeing to lower its royalty rates in China and make other changes to its terms. The NDRC raided Qualcomm’s Beijing and Shanghai offices and launched an investigation into the US chip-maker’s licensing terms. And, when Microsoft announced plans to acquire Nokia’s business (but not its patents), several competitors demanded China’s government impose restrictions on the deal, prohibiting Microsoft and Nokia from raising their licensing rates in China.

But anti-trust compliance is just one challenge faced by licensors in China; other challenges relate to restrictions on technology imports, under-reporting of royalties, difficulties with audits, dispute resolution and more. This article will summarize a few relevant laws and challenges licensors should be aware of and best practices for dealing with them. Continue reading

40-year US Patent Review Period?

slowjustice“Father of the microcontroller,” Gilbert Hyatt, who has been granted over 70 patents, generating more than $350 million in royalties, and won a $388 million award against California’s Franchise Tax Board for wrongful harassment, has been waiting more than 40 years for the USPTO to respond to his pending patent applications.

Sounds crazy, but it may be true. Read his amazing story here: HERE

Nokia settles with HTC, adds to Patent War Chest

After two years of litigation in seven countries involving more than fifty of Nokia’s non-essential patents, Nokia announced a global settlement with HTC that should conclude all patent litigation between the two companies, but add to fears that Nokia is transforming itself into a formidable patent troll.

The announcement came this past Friday, just days after Nokia scored its fourth victory over HTC in a German court (three in the past two months) and days before the U.S. International Trade Commission was scheduled to review a preliminary ruling finding HTC infringed two of Nokia’s U.S. patents.

Although Nokia and HTC have a “long standing” agreement concerning licensing of Nokia’s patents that are deemed essential for practicing industry standards, Nokia has been battling with HTC over non-essential patents since Nokia fired the first shot in 2012, followed by victories in England, Wales, Munich, Mannheim and the U.S. Continue reading

Trade Secrets and Employee Mobility in the U.S. and Asia

In 2010, Hewlett-Packard sued its former CEO for threatened misappropriation of trade secrets, after he took a position as President of Oracle. In 2012, Taiwan’s Acer, Inc. sued its former CEO for breach of a non-competition agreement after he quit and took a top position at Lenovo. And last month, criminal charges were filed against five employees of Taiwan’s HTC Corp., for allegedly conspiring to form a competing company using secrets stolen from HTC.

Employers often spend considerable resources recruiting, hiring and training key talent, only to face potential disaster when those trusted employees quit to join a competitor, often taking sensitive files on their way out the door. Even if they don’t act in bad faith, departing employees carry critical, confidential information inside their heads, which can’t be deleted. Fortunately, various remedies may be available for the former employer, from confidentiality and non-competition agreements, to lawsuits for actual or threatened misappropriation of trade secrets and the doctrine of inevitable disclosure.

But there’s a conflict. Employers have a legitimate interest in preventing misappropriation of trade secrets, while employees have a legitimate interest in utilizing knowledge and skills gained through work experience and working for employers of their choosing. Courts and lawmakers have long struggled to establish a balance between those competing interests. Below is a general overview of relevant laws and practices in the U.S. and Asia. Continue reading

Battling Trade Secret Theft in Taiwan

Here we go again. Last week, police detained three employees of Taiwanese smartphone-maker HTC, raided their homes and offices and seized their computers and cellphones to search for evidence, as HTC is accusing them of stealing sensitive technology to use in competition with HTC in China.

The three men – a vice president of product design, director of R&D, and senior designer – are accused of stealing secrets relating to HTC’s Sense 6.0 smartphones, which are scheduled for launch later this year. While the investigation is just beginning, reports have accused the three of collaborating with officials in Chengdu, China to form a competing smartphone company in China using the secrets stolen from HTC. They are also accused of defrauding HTC out of more than US$650,000, by use of forged documents, apparently to raise capital for their new venture.

Taiwan has seen similar cases before. In 2012, the nation’s second largest LCD panel-maker, AU Optronics (AUO), sued two of its former high-level executives for stealing trade secrets, which they took to their new employer, a major competitor in China. In 2011, Taiwan IC-design company, MediaTek, sued a former employee for stealing secrets and sharing them with his new employer. And, most famously, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) battled with its Chinese rival, Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. (SMIC), for almost a decade over allegations that SMIC poached numerous employees, who stole critical information that SMIC used to illegally manufacture competing products. Continue reading

Software May be Patented in Asia, but the Details Remain Unclear

In the United States, attorneys, judges and others have struggled for decades to determine when, if ever, computer programs or software should be eligible for patent protection. In the 1960’s the U.S. Patent Office declared that software could not be patented. Since then, a series of court decisions have rejected that view and established that one may definitely patent software in the U.S., although the exact requirements remain unclear and critics increasingly demand that it should not be patentable.

As a starting point, 35 U.S.C. §101 provides that any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or new and useful improvement thereof, is eligible for patent protection, subject to other requirements of the Patent Act (that is, §101 is just the threshold test for patentability). Congress has never stated any limitations to the patentable categories of §101 and case law has only recognized three categories of exceptions – subject matter that may not be patented: laws of nature, physical phenomena and abstract ideas. Computer software is often found to be ineligible on the ground that it comprises abstract ideas, but courts have struggled to provide a precise formula or definition for abstract ideas. Continue reading

Think Patent Arbitration Can’t Work? Think Again.

When amicable efforts fail to resolve a dispute concerning patent rights and the aggrieved party wishes to pursue the matter further, it usually initiates litigation or perhaps a U.S. International Trade Commission (“ITC”) investigation, despite the huge costs of such options, because it may assume no other plausible alternatives exist to achieve the desired objectives.

Articles, such as this one, tout arbitration as an alternative: faster, cheaper and more confidential than litigation, with other benefits as well. Apparently the U.S. Supreme Court agrees, having described the Federal Arbitration Act (9 U.S.C. §1, et seq.) as evidencing a “national policy favoring arbitration” (Nitro-Lift v. Howard); and recognized “an emphatic federal policy in favor of arbitral dispute resolution” (Marmet Health Care v. Brown). Likewise, the Patent Act provides at 35 U.S.C. §294(a) that any arbitration clause contained in a patent agreement shall be presumed valid, irrevocable and enforceable.

However, in actual practice, relatively few patent disputes are submitted to arbitration. Worldwide, only a few hundred requests to arbitrate patent disputes are filed each year. By comparison, in 2012 more than 5,000 patent lawsuits were filed in U.S. District Courts, not to mention courts of other nations. So what’s the problem? If arbitration is so great, why are so few patent disputes resolved in arbitration? More important, are patent litigants missing something? Should they rely on arbitration more often? Continue reading

Design Patents in China: Applications, Infringement and Enforcement

Design patents have been making the news. Last summer, Apple’s $1.05 billion verdict against Samsung was famously based, in part, on the finding that Samsung infringed Apple’s rounded-rectangle and edge-to-edge glass designs. Since then, Yamaha, Thule, Oakley, Nike and Spanx, to name just a few, have litigated in the U.S. over the design of headphones, ski racks, sunglasses, footwear and women’s undergarments. And just last month, former head of the USPTO, David Kappos, published an OpEd piece describing design as “the new frontier of intellectual property.”

Nothing has fundamentally changed about the nature of design patents. The first US design patent was granted in 1842. The Statue of Liberty, Coke bottle, Volkswagen Beatle, Stealth Bomber and Star Wars’ Yoda are all protected by design patents. Design patents have long played an important role in consumer electronics, automotive, apparel, jewelry, packaging and other industries.

But industrial design is becoming increasingly important, Mr. Kappos explains, because the increasing functionality of man-made devices brings with it increasing complexity, so innovative companies are constantly seeking superior designs, a convergence of form and function that helps make the complex simple and sets their companies apart; and protecting such designs is critical.

While that explanation sounds reasonable, in China there are additional factors and – as always – the picture is complex and uncertain, but it is perfectly clear that companies doing business in China, from manufacturing to sales, should seriously consider the roles design patents can play with respect to brand protection, counterfeiting and unscrupulous business practices. Continue reading