George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School

How Rhetorical Epithets Have Led the FTC Astray in its Study of Patent Licensing Firms

We’ve all heard the narrative about patent licensing firms, often referred to pejoratively as “patent trolls.” These patent owners, who choose to license their innovations rather than build them, are the supposed poster-children of a “broken” patent system. It’s as if commercializing one’s property, just like a landlord leases his land for another to use, is suddenly a bad thing. Nevertheless, the power of this “troll” rhetoric cannot be denied. Many provisions in 2011’s Leahy-Smith America Invents Act were aimed at starving out these “trolls,” and no less than five bills currently under consideration in the House and Senate seek to further deflate their sails.

Another example of the powerful appeal of the “patent troll” rhetoric is that the agencies charged with enforcing antitrust law have also been convinced that there is something amiss with the commercial licensing of patented innovation in the marketplace. This has been a key feature of the deployment of patented inventions in America’s innovation economy since the early nineteenth century, as scholars have shown. Last year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) instigated its own investigative study of what it calls “patent assertion entities” (PAEs), which is merely a more formal and neutral-sounding synonym for the popularized “patent troll” epithet.

In a new paper published in the George Mason Law Review, Sticks and Stones: How the FTC’s Name-Calling Misses the Complexity of Licensing-Based Business Models, CPIP Senior Scholar Kristen Osenga takes a closer look at the FTC’s ongoing study of PAEs and finds that it is destined to fail for two simple, yet inescapably obvious, reasons.

The first is the basic definitional problem of the FTC’s characterization of PAEs, which puts all patent licensing firms in the same boat. Failing to take a more nuanced approach, Osenga warns, “fires up the rhetoric but obscures thoughtful discussion and debate about the issue.” Building upon her previous work, she explains:

[T]he real problem is that patent licensing firms are treated as a homogenous category, with no attention paid to the wide range of business models that exist under the patent licensing firm umbrella. The categorical determination of patent licensing firms as “problems” imputes to a large, diverse group of firms the negative actions and qualities of a small number of bad actors.

Since not all “trolls” are alike, Osenga cautions, it’s “naïve and inaccurate” to lump them all together. And when the FTC makes this mistake, it leads to a situation “where words actually can hurt, much more so than sticks and stones.” The FTC’s study is explicitly “premised on a one-size-fits-all conception of patent licensing firms.” Rather than shedding much-needed light on the complex innovation ecosystem, the study promises to squander the opportunity by failing to recognize that not all “trolls” are the same.

Osenga notes that the FTC is uniquely situated to obtain nonpublic information about how these patent licensing firms operate using its investigative power under Section 6(b) of the FTC Act. Unfortunately, however, the study is premised on the faulty notion that the only upside of patenting licensing firms is to “compensate inventors.” But this focus on patents-as-incentives misses the forest for the trees, Osenga urges, as it fails to account for the larger patent-commercialization network:

[T]here are many steps between invention and the introduction of an actual product to the market and consumers. These steps include transforming an idea in to a marketable embodiment, developing facilities to produce the marketable embodiment, creating distribution channels to bring the embodiment to the consumer, and making the consumer aware of the new product. Each of these steps requires its own additional resources in the form of both capital and labor.

The FTC study, like many patent skeptics, fails to consider the benefits of the division of labor that patent licensing firms represent. Not every inventor is willing or able to bring an invention to the marketplace. Osenga’s point is that patent licensing does more than simply compensate inventors for their troubles; it creates liquid markets and solves problems of asymmetrical actors and information. These exchanges increase innovation and competition by playing the role of match-maker and market-maker, and they place valuable patents into the hands of those who are better positioned to exploit their worth.

Osenga points out that there are indeed possible negative effects with patent licensing firms. For example, they sometimes engage in ex post licensing, waiting to offer licenses until after the would-be licensee has already adopted the technology. These firms can be better positioned litigation-wise since their potential exposure is typically less than that of the infringers they sue. Finally, patent aggregators tend to have greater market power, and it can be difficult to judge the quality of any given patent that’s asserted when they offer to license their entire portfolio.

As with all things, Osenga stresses, there’s both good and bad. The problem is figuring out which is greater. The FTC could conduct a study that reveals a “detailed understanding of the complex world of patent licensing firms,” she laments, but that’s not what the FTC is doing:

[T]he configuration of the study is slanted in such a way that only part of the story will be uncovered. Worse still, the study has been shaped in a way that will simply add fuel to the anti-“patent troll” fire without providing any data that would explain the best way to fix the real problems in the patent field today.

This leads to the second problem with the FTC study, which follows as a necessary, logical consequence from the first definitional problem: There are serious methodological problems with the study that will undermine any possible empirical conclusions that the FTC may wish to draw.

Osenga says that the FTC’s study is simply not asking the right questions. Painting a complete picture of complex licensing schemes requires more than just counting the number of patents a firm has and adding up the attempts to negotiate license deals. To really get to the bottom of things, she contends, the FTC should be asking why patentees sell their patents to licensing firms and why licensing firms buy them from patentees. Better still, ask them why they decided to become patent licensing firms in the first place.

This insight is powerful stuff. It’s not enough to simply ask these firms what they’re doing; to really understand them, the FTC must ask them why they’re doing it. And the results are likely to be varied:

Some, of course, begin with this business model in mind. Others invent new technology but are unable to successfully commercialize it themselves, despite making efforts to do so. Still others exist as practicing entities for years or decades before something changes—supply change issues, rampant infringement by competitors, and regulatory initiatives—and they are no longer able to exist as a viable practicing entity.

Similarly, the FTC could ask them what kind of firms they are, and these answers are also likely to be diverse. Osenga’s point is that the FTC’s questions aren’t designed to showcase the vast differences between the various types of patent licensing firms. If the FTC wants to get to the bottom of how these firms affect innovation and competition, the first step should be to realize that they’re not all the same. The FTC’s study is as clumsy as those who refer to all such firms as “patent trolls,” and the lack of nuance going in will unfortunately produce a study that lacks nuance coming out.

In the end, Osenga agrees that deterring abusive behavior is a good thing, and she worries about innovation and competition. However, unlike many in patent policy debates, she is also concerned that the rhetoric is having an undue influence on policymakers. Throwing all patent licensing firms under the “patent troll” bus will not get us the narrowly-tailored reforms that we need. Sadly, the FTC’s approach with its ongoing study appears to have swallowed this rhetoric wholesale, and it seems unlikely that the results will be anything but more fuel for the “patent troll” pyre.