Thursday, July 21, 2022

USPTO-WIPO agreement on resolution of SEP disputes won't truly 'enhance the efficiency of licensing of standard[-]essential patents'--institutional self-importance meets Big Tech's SEP devaluation agenda

Normally, neither the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) nor the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) should advance a patent devaluation agenda. It's plainly inconsistent with those institutions' mandates. But yesterday the USPTO and WIPO issued a press release on an agreement "to partner on dispute resolution efforts related to standard[-]essential patents" that I don't view favorably at this stage.

When President Biden appointed Kathi Vidal, a patent litigator known for her Big Tech ties, to head the USPTO, there was widespread concern in the IP community that she might take initiatives that benefit infringers rather than innovators. With respect to PTAB inter partes reviews, it's too early to tell. With the stroke of a pen she undid some of her predecessor's PTAB rules favoring discretionary denials. We'll see what comes out of the current decision-making process, and it's important that stakeholders on both sides of the debate accept her invitation to submit amicus briefs.

With respect to standard-essential patents (SEPs), three of the Biden Administration's agencies (DOJ, USPTO, NIST) refrained from adopting a policy statement that was heavily criticized by SEP holders (or reinstating an older policy position of that kind). The question is now what the USPTO's partnership with WIPO means.

It could be that in the end it's just bureaucratic activism: governmental agencies like to draw attention to their work on a hot-button issue regardless of whether such work will actually have much of an effect. But there is also the possibility that Director Vidal is indeed pursuing a SEP devaluation agenda, while WIPO just has a "business development" objective with respect to its alternative dispute resolution (ADR) services. As I'll discuss in a moment, it looks like WIPO's SEP ADR initiative isn't going too well.

The press release quotes Director Vidal as saying that "SEP policy is an international issue of international importance." That is correct: SEP licenses are typically global portfolio licenses.

Given that WIPO and the USPTO agree on the international dimension of SEP policy, antisuit injunctions and antisuit damages motions should actually be the number one item on their list. Instead, they leave the heavy lifting to the courts. Case in point, later today (Thursday) Judge Rodney Gilstrap of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas will hold an Ericsson v. Apple motion hearing on Apple's request for an antisuit damages order as the iPhone maker is currently unable to sell 5G devices in Colombia due to a SEP injunction obtained by Ericsson.

There is nothing in the USPTO-WIPO announcement to specificially suggest that WIPO and the USPTO seek to "enhance the efficiency of licensing of standard essential patents" (a quote from Director Vidal's statement) in a balanced fashion. To increase the efficiency of SEP licensing, one needs to tackle the problem of hold-out, which is widespread, and of outlier cases of hold-up. But this is all that the announcement says about the scope of the five-year agreement:

  • Cooperate on activities that will lend efficiency and effectiveness to the resolution of disputed standard essential patent matters by leveraging existing WIPO Arbitration and Mediation Center and USPTO resources, and

  • Engage in stakeholder outreach to raise awareness of the services provided by the WIPO Arbitration and Mediation Center through joint USPTO-WIPO programs.

The second bullet point is laughable: the stakeholders on both sides of the SEP licensing negotiation table are sufficiently sophisticated to know that WIPO offers arbitration and mediation services. This is not like teaching traffic rules to children.

Toward the end of the press release, WIPO Director General Daren Tang promotes WIPO's ADR services. On WIPO's website I found the following information:

"In recent years, the WIPO Arbitration and Mediation Center (the 'WIPO Center') has administered some 55 WIPO mediation cases relating to FRAND licensing negotiations."

Interestingly, they're not saying anything about SEP arbitration proceedings. The key difference is that arbitration will result in a decision, while mediation is just an attempt to bring parties together. The "Summary of WIPO FRAND ADR case examples" is also just about mediation, and WIPO can't even claim that its mediation efforts actually resolved a single dispute. The first example just "prompted renewed licensing negotiations" between a patent pool and implementers, half of which were Asian companies. The second one is that "IP courts in China have referred ten ICT patent infringement cases to WIPO Mediation. Seven of those cases involved claimants from Europe." And then "a large Asian manufacturer submitted a unilateral request to WIPO Mediation concerning its SEP infringement litigation against a large European SEP holder"

If this was the track record of a private mediator, he or she would find it hard to be hired again.

There are reasons to suspect here that it's not really SEP holders who expect WIPO's ADR services to be of any help to them. It's more like some players on the implementer side hope to be deemed willing licensees based on their requests for WIPO ADR.

Hopefully I'm just being too skeptical and this is more than a scheme to facilitate hold-out and devalue SEPs. In the short term, I actually think an initiative like LIFT--which was announced this week-- is more likely to enhance the efficiency of SEP licensing. Gustav Brismark and Bowman Heiden discussed it in an IAM article, Building incentives to overcome the SEP licensing prisoner’s dilemma (paywalled).