July 27, 2018—One week ago, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision in Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe v. Mylan Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 18-1638 (Fed. Cir. July 20, 2018)–by all accounts, one of this decade’s most important decisions concerning the America Invents Act and the patent system. The primary issue in the case was whether the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe (or any tribe, for that matter) is immune from the USPTO’s inter partes review (“IPR”) proceeding, which can result in cancellation of a patent. Allergan, a pharmaceutical company, had transferred title to certain patents to the Tribe after its competitor, Mylan, had instituted an IPR of the patents. The Tribe claimed that the USPTO could not review the patents due to sovereign immunity.
The Federal Circuit held that tribal sovereign immunity does not apply to IPR proceedings. It cited the Supreme Court’s recent Oil States decision (I wrote about the case earlier this year), which explained that IPRs arise “between the Government and persons subject to its authority in connection with the performance of the constitutional functions of the executive or legislative departments.” Thus, IPR is “simply a reconsideration of” the original patent grant by the federal Government. Although initiated by a private party, the Director of the USPTO must decide to institute the proceedings, and the USPTO acts “as the United States in its role as a superior sovereign to reconsider a prior administrative grant and protect the public interest in keeping patent monopolies ‘within their legitimate scope.’” The federal Government being supreme, tribes cannot invoke sovereign immunity.
The Federal Circuit’s final reference to protecting the public interest resonated with me, as well as Judge Dyk’s concurring opinion, which provided insightful context about the importance of reviewing patents post-grant. Certainly no one expects that the USPTO will perfectly examine every patent application and grant patents without error, but striving to achieve perfection is vital–even if impossible under current circumstances. As Judge Dyk illuminated:
[T]he USPTO–then and now–is an agency with finite resources that sometimes issues patents in error. Currently, for instance, the USPTO receives over 600,000 applications a year. Patent examiners receive roughly 22 hours to review each application, an amount of time that 70% of examiners report as insufficient. And the USPTO struggles to attract and retain examiners with the technical competence required to understand the inventions being reviewed and to perform sufficiently thorough prior art searches.
The USPTO “is under pressure to make speedy determinations on whether or not to grant patents.” As such, “pre-grant patent examination was–and still is–an imperfect way to separate the good patents from the bad. Resource constraints in the initial examination period inevitably result in erroneously granted patents.” A glut of bad patents–or the perception thereof–negatively affects the public’s view of the patent system’s fairness and credibility. Thus, Congress created IPRs to combat pre-grant examination constraints, creating a streamlined procedure to challenge patents, in the hopes of restoring trust in the patent system. As an initial matter, I’m not sure attempting to solve the effect of the USPTO’s constraints was better than solving its cause.
In a recent article, I wrote about similar concerns as those expressed by Judge Dyk:
The USPTO, as the agency tasked with examining patent applications, is the first line of defense against patent fraud. But some point to the USPTO’s examination policies as potentially inviting fraud. By way of background, the USPTO’s patent examiners (those who review applications) are evaluated on a quota system, which encourages them to examine as many applications as possible. Some commentators have questioned whether this policy has turned the USPTO into a rubber-stamp institution. In the meantime, the number of patent applications and grants since 2000 has almost tripled. This has led to an even greater need for the USPTO to quickly accept or reject patents so as not to fall behind. The cycle is further incentivized by the increasing economic and financial value of patents. And it is also enabled by the difficulty, high cost, and/or impossibility of investigating every representation made by patent applicants. The USPTO simply does not have the wherewithal to investigate every claim of inventorship, utility, novelty, and other issues related to patentability. Thus, along with the important interests at stake, the complexities of patent law and the USPTO’s current weaknesses combine to create a situation in which fraud is less likely to be identified and thwarted.
In the context of the Mohawk Tribe appeal, the overwhelming public interests in reviewing potentially-invalid patents were brought to bear against the amorphous concept of sovereign immunity. It was absolutely necessary that tribes be subject to IPRs, lest private parties be enabled to take advantage of the USPTO’s constraints and “rent” the protection of sovereign immunity. Indeed, in a recent article, another commentator argued that the Federal Circuit’s decision had an “inescapable wisdom” because, had the result been any different, “every holder of questionable U.S. patents would have been rushing to one Native American tribe or another seeking deals to shelter possibly bogus rights.”
Going further, though, one can imagine more than just deals between tribes and private parties, but also the emergence of an entirely new form of patent assertion entity, patent troll (which some, but not all, criticize), and perhaps even a hybrid form of “patent privateer.” A tribe could, itself, become a mass aggegator of patents with a huge advantage: that the avenues for challenging its patents are more limited than a traditional patent holder. And one can imagine patent alliances renting tribal sovereign immunity for large market players. Any of these could exacerbate the David-and-Goliath scenario some defendants find themselves in after being sued for infringement. But, if the Federal Circuit’s decision holds–and I predict it will, especially in view of Oil States–such possible negative effects will not come to pass. However, as Judge Dyk implied (and it bears repeating), the patent system is imperfect and still has a way to go.