Lawmakers question patent complaint process at USITC

Some witnesses call for Congress to change the way the agency hears patent disputes

By , IDG News Service |  IT Management

The U.S. Congress should limit the ability of patent holders that don't make products to file infringement complaints at the U.S. International Trade Commission because of a huge increase in cases there, representatives of some companies told lawmakers Tuesday.

Patent assertion entities (PAEs), companies that own patents but don't make products, are using the patent complaint process at the USITC to "coerce settlements" from other companies, said Russell Binns Jr., associate general counsel at networking vendor Avaya. In many cases, PAEs -- often called patent trolls -- don't want the USITC to use its power to bar the importation of infringing products, but instead, they want to use the USITC to drive settlements in corresponding court cases, he said.

Patent complaints are costing U.S. companies billions of dollars, Binns told the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee's intellectual property subcommittee.

"PAEs have discovered that the much lower bar for obtaining exclusion orders at the ITC gives them tremendous leverage to demand outrageous licensing fees -- even as they pursue cases in federal court," he said. "This often leads to companies being left with little choice but to give in to PAE demands, resulting in truly wasted capital, higher costs for consumers, and barriers to American innovation."

The number of so-called section 337 complaints filed at the USITC during the past decade is triple the number from decades before, said Representative Howard Coble, a North Carolina Republican. "The cost to defend [a patent complaint] far outweighs the cost to accuse," he said.

The USITC can unleash the "ultimate punishment" against alleged infringers by barring their products from import into the U.S., Coble said.

More than 90 percent of patent infringement cases at the USITC in 2012 had a corresponding court case elsewhere, added Colleen Chien, an intellectual property law professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law.

"The freedom of PAEs to litigate has created serious issues for the patent system," she said. "Scads of entities that have nothing to do with the patent system -- retailers, bakeries, funeral homes, advertising firms, and even politicians -- are getting sued and receiving demand letters."

Some subcommittee members suggested they are looking for ways to limit the number of patent complaints filed at the USITC. Chien called on Congress to prohibit companies from having patent infringement lawsuits in court while they have an active complaint at the USITC. Congress should limit patent infringement complaints against users of potentially infringing technologies, she added.

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