Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Industry body says Apple advocates rules that would give patent trolls access to injunctions

Recently the Federal Circuit scheduled the hearing on Apple's appeal of the denial of a permanent injunction against Samsung after last year's trial. The hearing will be held on March 4. From the outside it looks like one of the last steps before this dispute will be history.

Three weeks ago I wrote about Apple's opposition to an amicus curiae brief submitted by Google, SAP, Red Hat, Rackspace, and -- notably -- Samsung competitors LG and HTC. The brief was accepted by the Federal Circuit over Apple's objections. Apple may have opposed the filing just because this was an opportunity to highlight Google's special involvement with the case in an effort to diminish the brief's credibility, but even if one viewed Google (like Apple suggested) as a de facto party to the case, the other filers have quite some credibility.

Cases should be decided on the merits, not on amicus brief campaigns. That said, it says something that Apple has support only from Nokia and Ericsson -- the company with which Apple now has a dispute over potentially much more money than what the remaining parts of the Samsung case are about, especially since the Apple-Ericsson situation is very unbalanced (Apple has much less offer to Ericsson in terms of a patent license, so it won't be able to offset the inbound licensing cost with much of an outbound licensing revenue stream).

Besides the aforementioned group of companies, the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA), whose members are listed here, also submitted a brief. It already did so back in mid-December, but it appeared on the Federal Circuit docket only yesterday. I've also found it (PDF document) in the Briefings & Filings section of CCIA's website.

It focuses on two issues. The first one is about whether a feature-specific injunction should be easier for Apple to obtain. CCIA argues that the scope of the injunction was already considered.

There's a second, shorter part that raises an issue I wish to highlight. CCIA says "the special treatment Apple requests would open the door to patent assertion entities [i.e., patent trolls] to demand injunctions."

CCIA takes issue with the notion that a patent holder shouldn't have to prove a causal nexus between the infringement of a small feature of a multifunctional device and the alleged irreparable harm because it's so easy to work around.

In light of strict page limits, it would be unfair to both Apple and CCIA not to consider an important nuance: while this particular part of Apple's pro-injunction argument could indeed open the floodgates to injunctions obtained by patent trolls (which could also hurt Apple in the future), I understand Apple's position as being about the combination of the availability of workarounds and the patent holder having a "reputation for innovation." The second part would be much harder (though not impossible) for a patent troll to satisfy.

CCIA nevertheless has a point. In order to obtain an injunction against Samsung (over patent claims that are too narrow to give Apple strategic leverage), Apple must try different things to lower the hurdle. Apple wants to have its cake and eat it (get an injunction against Samsung but preserve much of its ability to fend off injunction demands by trolls), and that's always risky. Presumably the perfect outcome from Apple's point of view wouldn't be that the court reverses Judge Koh's injunction denial just based on the availability-of-workarounds basis. Apple almost certainly hopes for the aforementioned combination of that one with the "reputation for innovation" criterion. However, this here could go wrong in two ways:

  1. An appellate decision that emphasizes the "small feature" part (or is based entirely on it) would have exactly the effect CCIA warns against, whether or not this would have been Apple's intention. Apple can make its case but it can't write the decision even if it prevails.

  2. I've previously criticized the "reputation for innovation" criterion as a very vague and soft one, and I think it runs counter to the traditional logic of the patent system, which is all about technological merits (what contribution was made to the state of the art relative to the prior art?). If this approach was adopted by the court, patent law would depart from its focus on rewarding inventiveness and start to reward PR and marketing. A patent troll (not a small one, obviously) could spend a lot of money promoting its inventions and its research and development efforts to maximize the leverage it gets from its patents. And if it has other licensees, those are arguably harmed by infringement, and by extension, the patent holder is then harmed as well.

Apple is doing so well. It doesn't really need an injunction (over patent claims of limited scope) other than for publicity and pride. In terms of natural allies for Apple when it comes to balanced patent policy, the likes of Google, Samsung and SAP -- companies that also have a strong reputation for innovation -- would clearly be a better fit (because their uncompromised priority is on making real products) than Nokia and Ericsson. It's possible that just the increased cost of licensing patents from Nokia and Ericsson in the future (those also have non-standard-essential patents, so FRAND alone can't solve the entire problem for Apple) will outweigh any positive effects that Apple could get, in the most optimistic scenario, from a successful appeal.

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