As election night in the US evolved, the Democratic community slowly started to realise the probability, and later the certainty, that there would be a shift of political parties in the White House.
Trying to assess how this transition of power will affect the world of IP is not an easy task. Policy documents that President-elect Donald Trump released before the election offer little assistance to the person holding the crystal ball. Yet, although it may be difficult to predict what type of IP policies the president-elect will advocate for; like many of his policies it may be easier to predict what he will oppose. In that regard there are two areas where the president-elect’s electioneering rhetoric may offer some insights into his plan for evolving U.S. IP policy during his administration; namely his staunch opposition to legislation supported by his predecessor, President Obama, and his advocacy against foreign nations that he deems to be “ripping off” the American people.
In regard to the first point, there is some evidence to the effect that President-elect Trump could put an end to a renewed push for further patent reform legislations that was supported by his predecessor and the giants of Silicon Valley, and specifically spearheaded by Google. To continue this reasoning we therefore find it necessary to provide a brief background.
The Obama administration set a goal to “increase the quality” of issued patents, which has been eagerly supported by the tech giants. In the eyes of those who supported President Obama’s efforts, by the time he assumed office in January 2009, the U.S. patent system was awash in too many low-quality (i.e., invalid) patents that were being exploited by the so-called “patent trolls” in order to exact ransom-like royalties from companies that rightly feared the costs and uncertainty of U.S. patent litigation. In part an effort to curb such abuses the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (AIA) was signed into law on September 16, 2011.
Among other things, the AIA made it much easier to challenge the validity of pending and issued patents. For example, the AIA offered additional avenues for third-parties to interfere in prosecution and challenging the validity of issued patents. The AIA specified an extended period for filing third-party submissions, and created new post-grant and inter partes review proceedings to challenge issued patents, without having to file suit in federal court. Further, the amendments to the novelty requirements (35 USC §102) also created more prior art, as it added foreign priority documents as well as public use and public sale outside of the U.S.
From a European practitioners perspective the initial reactions to the changes brought forth by the AIA were almost exclusively positive. The AIA makes the novelty statute much easier to understand, and the changes concerning third party submissions and post grant review further harmonises the US system with the European equivalent.
Much less discussed in Europe was the fact that the combination of the increased ways in which validity can be challenged and this past decade’s bar-raising case law have weakened the position of the patent holder. This of course also affects the value of US patents and thus the benefits of having a US patent.
In addition, President Obama’s selection of Michelle Lee as Director of the USPTO in 2014 – who was a former Deputy General Counsel for Google – did much to further the agenda favoured by the tech giants of Silicon Valley. Ms. Lee put her agenda into effect through both influencing the federal rules being set to implement the provisions of the AIA to make challenging the validity of patents easier and by pushing the USPTO on a path to increase the rigour of the examination process.
Given Mr. Trump’s railings against the recent cosiness between big business and the U.S. federal government and his general distrust of efforts pursued by his predecessor, this could signal that the idea that “increasing patent quality” as the main driver of U.S. patent policy could be coming to an end. Although large scale changes to the U.S. Patent Law are probably not in the near future, there are bills that would have taken Obama-era reforms even further that are likely dead in the water. Most notable are the Innovation Act and the PATENT Act which aimed to increase the requirements on the plaintiff in patent litigation and also shifts the fees to the losing party. The Innovation Act has the support of President Obama and would most probably have been supported by Secretary Clinton.
With Mr. Trump in the White House there is considerable probability that there will be at least a temporary halt in patent reform. Trump will most probably have a different view from that of Obama and Clinton (he is definitely a fan of court proceedings), and also, patent reform is probably very low on his list of priorities. The main backers of further legislative changes were almost lockstep opposition to Mr. Trump’s candidacy. Further, one could of course speculate that President-elect Trump’s advocacy for strong property rights in general could translate to strong support for intellectual property rights as well, meaning he would probably oppose further efforts to weaken the value of U.S. IP rights.
Secondly, strong IP protection could be considered one piece in his platform to increase the competitiveness of the US industry. One of the hallmarks of Mr. Trump’s campaign was his focus on calling out countries, such as China, for what he alleged were unfair practices against the United States. Although not mentioning patents specifically, his campaign website did complain about China’s alleged misappropriation of U.S. trade secrets, stating that he intends to “[u]se every lawful presidential power to remedy trade disputes if China does not stop its illegal activities, including its theft of American trade secrets.” His campaign website also extolled a recent U.S. International Trade Commission study that included “that improved protection of America’s intellectual property in China would produce more than 2 million more jobs right here in the United States.”
If Mr. Trump does intend to make it more difficult for countries that have a lower threshold of protection for IP rights to make their goods available in the U.S. market, increased support for strong patent rights could be one means for doing so. This is further evidence of his likely opposition of any further changes that would make patent rights harder to enforce and easier to challenge, and may even signal a shift away from the driving focus of patent quality during examination proceedings at the USPTO.
To summarise the speculations above, our best guess is that President-elect Trump’s entry into the White House may create a status quo in patent legislation and may signal a shift away from “patent quality” being the driver of USPTO policy. If that is good or bad probably comes down to which side of the table you are on.