Thursday, February 25, 2021

Automotive industry falls into political trap, allows patent reform opponents to portray concerns over injunctions as single-industry issue: German parliament hearing

The short version of what happened at yesterday's patent reform hearing in the German Bundestag (Federal Parliament) is that the positions taken by the seven panelists were materially consistent with how I had summed them up in advance, but the overall perception was even worse for the cause of patent injunction reform.

The video recording of the two-hour meeting of the Legal Affairs Committee became available today. If those seeking to preserve the status quo had scripted the hearing, it wouldn't have been less balanced.

The lone voice--among seven "experts" (who in a U.S. Congressional hearing would be sworn in and called "witnesses")--in favor of a proportionality defense to injunction claims was, as expected, the VDA (German automotive industry association). That fact alone supported the anti-reform camp's narrative, but politicians and co-panelists alike capitalized on the situation and reinforced their portrayal of proportionality as the cause of the German automotive industry plus a bunch of foreign infringers.

There actually is a reasonably broadbased coalition of companies who consider the near-automatic injunction regime unsustainable. That movement comprises not only car makers but also telecommunications service providers, Internet service providers, and even adidas. While the ip2innovate group succeeded in bringing a diversity of companies together, it has failed miserably to advocate the cause. It's been amateurish beyond belief, and the state of affairs in the legislative process speaks volumes--as does the fact that ip2innovate wasn't represented on the panel.

The pro-reform camp should have declined to participate in this farce. They should have demanded a more balanced composition of the panel. Failing that, they should have focused on delegitimizing the event. But they've been strategically misguided all along.

The performance of the automotive industry group's representative was uninspiring. He had prepared some talking points, and given that he's not an IP expert, this could have gone worse. Still, the fact that his understanding of the issue lacks breadth and depth became clear on some occasions. For example, when asked by a member of parliament to compare the German patent injunction regime to the situation in other jurisdictions, he just claimed that courts in other countries could order monetary compensation instead of injunctions, but wasn't able to substantiate this in any way. He didn't even explain the difference between common law and civil law jurisdictions.

When I listened to the anti-reform panelists' statements and, even more so, the parliamentarians' questions, it felt like watching something that must have happened in a parallel universe. It was all completely detached from the reality of patent litigation in Germany. Politicians probably didn't know because the pro-reform movement is too incompetent and uncapable to properly and convincingly explain the situation to them, and to debunk certain smokescreens. The anti-reform panelists described the world out there as one in which patent infringement is avoidable, and the scope of a patent is clear by reading its claim 1--when in reality even reasonable people can easily disagree on claim construction, and most patents aren't valid as granted, so they're either invalid or the valid scope is narrower. But in a field of technology where keyword searches aren't nearly as targeted as in chemistry, the problem is already where to start with patent clearance.

Two female patent attorneys stole everyone else the show: Dr. Alissa Zeller of BASF, speaking on behalf of the vci (German chemical industry association), and Dr. Renate Weisse, a Berlin-based patent attorney in private practice. I disagreed with virtually everything Dr. Weisse said, and when referencing her client base she conveniently omitted that it also includes large corporations and "institutions" (presumably patent troll Fraunhofer). Dr. Zeller's views just didn't reflect the reality of the information and communications technology industry; some of what she said may very well apply to her own industry. But the way they advanced their agenda was first-rate.

Dr. Weisse was far more aggressive and outspoken, but Dr. Zeller, too, came across as very assertive, effectively argued in favor of the status quo, and described the potential implications of the current proposal (notwithstanding the Federal Court of Justice already having stated clearly that near-automatic injunctions are here to stay) as if the world was about to descend into chaos.

The two of them could have faced any ten representatives of the pro-reform camp (as opposed to just one) and would have eaten them alive. Their statements at the hearing could be used for any video tutorial on effective IP advocacy.

By contrast, those advocating proportionality just don't have what it takes to win. Their objective--less leverage for patent holders in negotiations--could only be achieved through a systemic departure. But how can they be revolutionaries in the political arena if their own organizations don't even let them act outside 20th-century structures, such as industry associations?

More than a year ago I explained to them what it would take to win. I also created a chart to put the anti-reform camp's talking points into perspective (click on the image to enlarge):

What you see in that chart is the story that was told during yesterday's hearing.

I'm already looking past that reform bill (while still keeping an eye on the process) and profoundly concerned that Nokia and Ericsson may win the pan-European lobbying battle over component-level SEP licensing. In the worst case, the CJEU will even lower the bar for preliminary injunctions (over any category of patents, ultimately also SEPs). But for now I still hope that those who botched the patent reform effort will learn from their mistakes and do better next time. "Next time" is now.

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