Sane and Sound

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“The hallmark of sanity is to remain firmly tethered to reality,” said the federal judge to the parties of a patent infringement litigation between a large Canadian computer company and a small, patent holding company (a.k.a. “patent troll”) after a jury had found the computer company liable for infringement. The computer company in question? Research In Motion, makers of the Blackberry. The case finally settled for $612.5 million.

That was March 2006. In May 2006 there followed the Supreme Court’s announcement of its decision in the case of eBay v. MercExchange. In eBay, the Supreme Court overturned the Federal Circuit rule that permanent injunctions should issue against patent infringers “absent exceptional circumstances.” Many large companies in the software industry, which tend to be defendants, have hoped that eBay would put an end to “patent trolls” and their own patent infringement liability. Indeed, since eBay only a handful of injunctions have issued to patent owners who do not practice their invention.

“But,” wrote the Supreme Court in eBay, “traditional equitable principles do not permit such broad classifications.” And thus, just over three years later, on Dec. 22, 2009, the Federal Circuit upheld an injunction and award of $290 million in damages for patent infringement – this time to a small Canadian startup, i4i Inc. The defendant was Microsoft Corporation, maker of Microsoft .Word, which had incorporated into its software an XML editor patented by the startup.

The difference between the cases? Unlike the “patent trolls” in the earlier cases against RIM and eBay, one of the inventors behind the i4i patents, Michael Vulpe, was also an entrepreneur, who had started a business to commercialize the patented concepts.

Although Vulpe’s apparent victory should be an occasion for rejoicing by libertarians (most of them, anyway) and other believers in strong property rights, one wonders what reality is faced by inventors without the desire or skill to become entrepreneurs.

Some might say the law has, .at least for the moment, achieved a delicate balance between the exclusivity needed to encourage investment in new technology and the access needed to spread that new technology around. Others might say that a better way to determine what “reality” is most “sane” is to rely on private negotiations based on the principle of strong property rights. The eBay decision discouraged negotiation; the recent decision may lead to more negotiation and less litigation.

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