Patent News

Dec. 31, 2014

Houston Chronicle: Congress arrives too late in patent troll debate, by Chris Tomlinson

This article originally appeared in Houston Chronicle on December 31, 2014.

One of the beautiful things about the common law system is that if you wait long enough, a problem usually takes care of itself as precedent and procedures evolve as the legal landscape changes.

That innovative approach helps, especially when Congress is gridlocked. Now that Republicans control all of Congress, though, some lawmakers are ready to pass bills intended to address the rampant patent litigation that has plagued high-technology companies.

The problem is Congress is arriving too late to the fight and could do more harm than good.

The rules for patent litigation are important to Houston and Dallas law firms because of the popularity of filing suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, based in Marshall and Tyler. The district’s judges and juries have earned a reputation for ruling in favor of plaintiffs, and patent-holding companies have set up offices in the district to justify filing cases there.

In 2013, plaintiffs filed 1,386 patent cases in East Texas, the most in any district in the nation, according court records. Eastern District judges have the third-highest case load in the country.

There is fierce debate about the legitimacy of many of these cases, with defendants calling plaintiffs “patent trolls.” Critics accuse plaintiffs of using obscure patents to force successful companies to pay licenses for ubiquitous technology. More than a dozen laws proposed in Congress are intended to cut back on such lawsuits.

Defenders of patent litigation accuse big companies of ripping off small inventors’ intellectual property. Sometimes, though, cases can be a clash of titans, such as recent suits between Apple and Samsung. Whether someone is an opportunistic troll or David challenging Goliath is up to a jury or judge to decide.