November 13, 2016 | Commentary on Property and Economic Rights, Regulation

The FTC’s PAE Study Recommendations: Case Not Proven

On October 6, 2016, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued Patent Assertion Entity Activity: An FTC Study (PAE Study), its much-anticipated report on patent assertion entity (PAE) activity.  The PAE Study defined PAEs as follows:

Patent assertion entities (PAEs) are businesses that acquire patents from third parties and seek to generate revenue by asserting them against alleged infringers.  PAEs monetize their patents primarily through licensing negotiations with alleged infringers, infringement litigation, or both. In other words, PAEs do not rely on producing, manufacturing, or selling goods.  When negotiating, a PAE’s objective is to enter into a royalty-bearing or lump-sum license.  When litigating, to generate any revenue, a PAE must either settle with the defendant or ultimately prevail in litigation and obtain relief from the court.

The FTC was mindful of the costs that would be imposed on PAEs, required by compulsory process to respond to the agency’s requests for information.  Accordingly, the FTC obtained information from only 22 PAEs, 18 of which it called “Litigation PAEs” (which “typically sued potential licensees and settled shortly afterward by entering into license agreements with defendants covering small portfolios,” usually yielding total royalties of under $300,000) and 4 of which it dubbed “Portfolio PAEs” (which typically negotiated multimillion dollars licenses covering large portfolios of patents and raised their capital through institutional investors or manufacturing firms).

Furthermore, the FTC’s research was narrowly targeted, not broad-based.  The agency explained that “[o]f all the patents held by PAEs in the FTC’s study, 88% fell under the Computers & Communications or Other Electrical & Electronic technology categories, and more than 75% of the Study PAEs’ overall holdings were software-related patents.”  Consistent with the nature of this sample, the FTC concentrated primarily on a case study of PAE activity in the wireless chipset sector.  The case study revealed that PAEs were more likely to assert their patents through litigation than were wireless manufacturers, and that “30% of Portfolio PAE wireless patent licenses and nearly 90% of Litigation PAE wireless patent licenses resulted from litigation, while only 1% of Wireless Manufacturer wireless patent licenses resulted from litigation.”  But perhaps more striking than what the FTC found was what it did not uncover.  Due to data limitations, “[t]he FTC . . . [did not] attempt[] to determine if the royalties received by Study PAEs were higher or lower than those that the original assignees of the licensed patents could have earned.”  In addition, the case study did “not report how much revenue PAEs shared with others, including independent inventors, or the costs of assertion activity.”

Curiously, the PAE Study also leaped to certain conclusions regarding PAE settlements based on questionable assumptions and without considering legitimate potential incentives for such settlements.  Thus, for example, the FTC found it particularly significant that 77% of litigation PAE settlements were for less than $300,000.  Why?  Because $300,000 was a “de facto benchmark” for nuisance litigation settlements, merely based on one American Intellectual Property Law Association study that claimed defending a non-practicing entity patent lawsuit through the end of discovery costs between $300,000 and $2.5 million, depending on the amount in controversy.  In light of that one study, the FTC surmised “that discovery costs, and not the technological value of the patent, may set the benchmark for settlement value in Litigation PAE cases.”  Thus, according to the FTC, “the behavior of Litigation PAEs is consistent with nuisance litigation.”  As noted patent lawyer Gene Quinn has pointed out, however, the FTC ignored the alternative eminently logical possibility that many settlements for less than $300,000 merely represented reasonable valuations of the patent rights at issue.  Quinn pithily stated:

[T]he reality is the FTC doesn’t know enough about the industry to understand that $300,000 is an arbitrary line in the sand that holds no relevance in the real world. For the very same reason that they said the term “patent troll” is unhelpful (i.e., because it inappropriately discriminates against rights owners without understanding the business model and practices), so too is $300,000 equally unhelpful. Without any understanding or appreciation of the value of the core innovation subject to the license there is no way to know whether a license is being offered for nuisance value or whether it is being offered at full, fair and appropriate value to compensate the patent owner for the infringement they had to chase down in litigation.

I thought the FTC was charged with ensuring fair business practices? It seems what they are doing is radically discriminating against incremental innovations valued at less than $300,000 and actually encouraging patent owners to charge more for their licenses than they are worth so they don’t get labeled a nuisance. Talk about perverse incentives! The FTC should stick to areas where they have subject matter competence and leave these patent issues to the experts.     

In sum, the FTC found that in one particular specialized industry sector featuring a certain  category of patents (software patents), PAEs tended to sue more than manufacturers before agreeing to licensing terms – hardly a surprising finding or a sign of a problem.  (To the contrary, the existence of “substantial” PAE litigation that led to licenses might be a sign that PAEs were acting as efficient intermediaries representing the interests and effectively vindicating the rights of small patentees.)  The FTC was not, however, able to comment on the relative levels of royalties, the extent to which PAE revenues were distributed to inventors, or the costs of PAE litigation (as opposed to any other sort of litigation).  Additionally, the FTC made certain assumptions about certain PAE litigation settlements that ignored reasonable alternative explanations for the behavior that was observed.  Accordingly, the reasonable observer would conclude from this that the agency was (to say the least) in no position to make any sort of policy recommendations, given the absence of any hard evidence of PAE abuses or excessive waste from litigation.

Unfortunately, the reasonable observer would be mistaken.  The FTC recommended reforms to: (1) address discovery burden and “cost asymmetries” (the notion that PAEs are less subject to costly counterclaims because they are not producers) in PAE litigation; (2) provide the courts and defendants with more information about the plaintiffs that have filed infringement lawsuits; (3) streamline multiple cases brought against defendants on the same theories of infringement; and (4) provide sufficient notice of these infringement theories as courts continue to develop heightened pleading requirements for patent cases.

Without getting into the merits of these individual suggestions (and without in any way denigrating the hard work and dedication of the highly talented FTC staffers who drafted the PAE Study), it is sufficient to note that they bear no logical relationship to the factual findings of the report.  The recommendations, which closely echo certain elements of various “patent reform” legislative proposals that have been floated in recent years, could have been advanced before any data had been gathered – with a saving to the companies that had to respond.  In short, the recommendations are classic pre-baked “solutions” to problems that have long been hypothesized.  Advancing such recommendations based on discrete information regarding a small skewed sample of PAEs – without obtaining crucial information on the direct costs and benefits of the PAE transactions being observed, or the incentive effects of PAE activity – is at odds with the FTC’s proud tradition of empirical research.  Unfortunately, Devin Hartline of the Antonin Scalia Law School proved prescient when commenting last April on the possible problems with the PAE Report, based on what was known about it prior to its release (and based on the preliminary thoughts of noted economists and law professors):

While the FTC study may generate interesting information about a handful of firms, it won’t tell us much about how PAEs affect competition and innovation in general.  The study is simply not designed to do this.  It instead is a fact-finding mission, the results of which could guide future missions.  Such empirical research can be valuable, but it’s very important to recognize the limited utility of the information being collected.  And it’s crucial not to draw policy conclusions from it.  Unfortunately, if the comments of some of the Commissioners and supporters of the study are any indication, many critics have already made up their minds about the net effects of PAEs, and they will likely use the study to perpetuate the biased anti-patent fervor that has captured so much attention in recent years.

To the extent patent reform is warranted, it should be considered carefully in a measured fashion, with full consideration given to the costs, benefits, and potential unintended consequences of suggested changes to the patent system and to litigation procedures.  As John Malcolm and I explained in a 2015 Heritage Foundation Legal Backgrounder which explored the relative merits of individual proposed reforms:

Before deciding to take action, Congress should weigh the particular merits of individual reform proposals carefully and meticulously, taking into account their possible harmful effects as well as their intended benefits. Precipitous, unreflective action on legislation is unwarranted, and caution should be the byword, especially since the effects of 2011 legislative changes and recent Supreme Court decisions have not yet been fully absorbed. Taking time is key to avoiding the serious and costly errors that too often are the fruit of omnibus legislative efforts.

Notably, this Legal Backgrounder also noted potential beneficial aspects of PAE activity that were not reflected in the PAE Study:

[E]ven entities whose business model relies on purchasing patents and licensing them or suing those who refuse to enter into licensing agreements and infringe those patents can serve a useful—even a vital—purpose. Some infringers may be large companies that infringe the patents of smaller companies or individual inventors, banking on the fact that such a small-time inventor will be less likely to file a lawsuit against a well-financed entity. Patent aggregators, often backed by well-heeled investors, help to level the playing field and can prevent such abuses.

More important, patent aggregators facilitate an efficient division of labor between inventors and those who wish to use those inventions for the betterment of their fellow man, allowing inventors to spend their time doing what they do best: inventing. Patent aggregators can expand access to patent pools that allow third parties to deal with one vendor instead of many, provide much-needed capital to inventors, and lead to a variety of licensing and sublicensing agreements that create and reflect a valuable and vibrant marketplace for patent holders and provide the kinds of incentives that spur innovation. They can also aggregate patents for litigation purposes, purchasing patents and licensing them in bundles.

This has at least two advantages: It can reduce the transaction costs for licensing multiple patents, and it can help to outsource and centralize patent litigation for multiple patent holders, thereby decreasing the costs associated with such litigation. In the copyright space, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) plays a similar role.

All of this is to say that there can be good patent assertion entities that seek licensing agreements and file claims to enforce legitimate patents and bad patent assertion entities that purchase broad and vague patents and make absurd demands to extort license payments or settlements. The proper way to address patent trolls, therefore, is by using the same means and methods that would likely work against ambulance chasers or other bad actors who exist in other areas of the law, such as medical malpractice, securities fraud, and product liability—individuals who gin up or grossly exaggerate alleged injuries and then make unreasonable demands to extort settlements up to and including filing frivolous lawsuits.

In conclusion, the FTC would be well advised to avoid putting forth patent reform recommendations based on the findings of the PAE Study.  At the very least, it should explicitly weigh the implications of other research, which explores PAE-related efficiencies and considers all the ramifications of procedural and patent law changes, before seeking to advance any “PAE reform” recommendations.

About the Author

Alden Abbott Deputy Director of the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies and the John, Barbara, and Victoria Rumpel Senior Legal Fellow
Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies

This piece first appeared on Truth on the Market.