New CPIP Policy Brief: The Long Shadow of the Blackberry Shutdown That Wasn’t

CPIP has published a new policy brief by CPIP Senior Fellow for Innovation Policy Jonathan Barnett entitled The Long Shadow of the Blackberry Shutdown That Wasn’t. The policy brief looks at how the Blackberry litigation and the “patent troll” narrative ultimately contributed to the Supreme Court’s 2006 decision in eBay v. MercExchange that limited the availability of injunctive relief for successful patentees.

Professor Barnett then examines the problematic legacy of the post-eBay case law, which significantly shifted the legal infrastructure supporting the U.S. innovation markets. In particular, he explains how this shift has led to opportunistic infringement that favors downstream incumbents with the resources to fund extensive litigation at the expense of upstream innovators—a dynamic that is exemplified in the recent litigation between Sonos and Google.

The introduction is copied below:

Introduction

In early 2006, there was widespread public interest in a seemingly arcane patent infringement litigation brought by a small IP licensing entity, NTP, Inc., against Research in Motion (or “RIM”), the maker of the then-ubiquitous Blackberry mobile communications device. The reason: NTP alleged that the Blackberry device and service infringed upon its patents relating to wireless email communications. In the district court litigation, NTP had secured a judgment of willful patent infringement against RIM, entitling NTP to treble damages, attorneys’ fees, and a permanent injunction (stayed pending appeal) that placed at risk the continued operation of the Blackberry service.

Given NTP’s success at the district court, and uncertainty surrounding RIM’s ability to design a non-infringing alternative, there seemed to be a material risk that the appeals court would sustain the lower court’s rulings and, most importantly, the injunction order. Faced with this predicament, RIM settled all claims with NTP in March 2006 for the impressive sum of $612.5 million.

In this contribution, I revisit the almost 15-year-old Blackberry litigation and its connection with both the Supreme Court’s 2006 decision in eBay, Inc. v. MercExchange LLC, which limited patent owners’ ability to secure injunctions, and ongoing infringement litigation (commenced in January 2020) involving Google and Sonos, a leading innovator and supplier of wireless audio systems. While the eBay decision may have deterred certain opportunistic uses of patent infringement litigation, there are growing indications that it has had a significant adverse effect on the innovation ecosystem.

As illustrated by the Google/Sonos litigation, eBay and post-eBay case law has enabled incumbents that maintain key technology platforms and distribution pathways to infringe upon patent-protected technologies held by others at relatively modest legal and business risk. The increasing normalization of patent infringement as a rational business strategy endangers the property-rights infrastructure behind important segments of the U.S. innovation economy.

To read the policy brief, please click here.