New CPIP Policy Brief: Barnett on the End of Patent Groupthink

In a new CPIP policy brief entitled The End of Patent Groupthink, CPIP Senior Fellow for Innovation Policy Jonathan Barnett highlights some cracks that have emerged in the recent policy consensus that the U.S. patent system is “broken” and it is necessary to “fix” it. Policymakers have long operated on the basis of mostly unquestioned assumptions about the supposed explosion of low quality patents and the concomitant patent litigation that purportedly threaten the foundation of the innovation ecosystem. These assumptions have led to real-world policy actions that have weakened patent rights. But as Prof. Barnett discusses in the policy brief, that “groupthink” is now eroding as empirical evidence shows that the rhetoric doesn’t quite match up to the reality. This has translated into incremental but significant movements away from the patent-skeptical trajectory that has prevailed at the Supreme Court, the USPTO, and the federal antitrust agencies.

Prof. Barnett first looks at how, for the past decade or so, the groupthink about “royalty stacking” and “patent holdup” has led to efforts by the FTC and DOJ Antitrust to limit the enforceability and licensing of standard-essential patents (SEPs) that underlie the global smartphone market. However, this past December, the DOJ and USPTO changed course, saying now that SEP owners should be treated just like any other patent owner and instead expressing concerns about the possibility of “patent holdout” by well-resourced infringers. As Prof. Barnett explains, the theories and stylized models that influenced these federal agencies are now being displaced by empirical data and real-world models that better reflect how the smartphone market actually operates.

Turning to the Supreme Court, Prof. Barnett discusses the overlooked dissent in Oil States by Justice Gorsuch, which was joined by Chief Justice Roberts, in 2018. On the one hand, the Oil States majority continued the Court’s recent spate of cases reflecting the groupthink skepticism towards patents. Justice Gorsuch’s dissent, on the other hand, perhaps reflects a nascent movement among some members of the Court to revisit this conventional wisdom. Prof. Barnett points out other underdiscussed examples of this growing phenomenon within the Court, from cabining the powers of the PTAB in SAS Institute, to questioning the PTAB’s immunization from judicial review in Cuozzo, to finding that federal agencies lack standing to invoke AIA challenges in Return Mail.

Finally, Prof. Barnett addresses the current move away from the old groupthink at the USPTO, where the current leadership has expressed its support of robust patent protection. For starters, empirical evidence has discredited the widely-repeated view that the USPTO is a “rubber stamp” that approves almost all patent applications. As to inter partes reviews (IPRs), Prof. Barnett notes that, early on, institutions and invalidations were the common outcome. While this could support the conclusion that “bad” patents were being struck down, the data is also consistent with the conclusion that the process is sometimes being used opportunistically to invalidate “good” patents. Responding to this concern, recent changes in the examination process, such as the narrower claim construction standard and broader claim amendment opportunities, may enable patentees to survive unjustified validity challenges at the PTAB.

Moving forward, Prof. Barnett suggests that the tide may be turning in the patent policy world as widely shared assumptions behind patent-skeptical groupthink are subjected to rigorous empirical scrutiny. The inescapable truth is that the U.S. innovation economy has flourished while commentators have suggested it should have languished under the supposed burdens of strong patent protection. Prof. Barnett points out that skeptics may have failed to appreciate how robust patents support private incentives to bear the high costs and risks of innovation and commercialization. Current signs of a “redirect” from the old groupthink are a welcome change for preserving the intricate infrastructure that supports a vigorous innovation ecosystem.

To read the policy brief, please click here.