There is no better example to demonstrate the swings that have characterized the patent troll/NPE narrative than to consider the reports about the sudden decline in patent litigation activity in the U.S. As Katfriend Joff Wild, the editor of Intellectual Asset Magazine, reported several weeks ago in a blog post, according to research data published by Unified Patents, an outfit that seeks to assist SME's against baseless patent litigation, it appears that for "the third quarter of this year (June to September), there was a 23% drop in the number of suits filed compared to the second quarter, and a 27% year-on-year reduction. The findings come just weeks after data released by Lex Machina showed that there had been a 40% fall in patent suits in September 2014 as compared to the same month in the previous year."
Unified Patent further examined where the decline came from and concluded that it derives primarily from what is called "NPE suits" in the high-tech sector. Thus, "[l]itigation initiated by operating companies fell by just 19 quarter on quarter, but actions launched by NPEs dropped by 301, from 885 in Q2 to 554 - a fall of 35%." Both Professor Mark Lemley of Stanford, the founder of Lex Machina and Shawn Ambwani, the CEO of Unified Patent, suggest that the decline is due in material part to the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court decision given in Jun 2014 in the case of Alice v CLS, which arguably makes it more difficult to obtain business method patents. Ambwani also attributes the result to the America Invents Act, although why its impact should only be acutely felt in Q2 2014 in connection with the filing of patent litigation is not fully clear. Wild reports that Professor Lemley has reacted to these data points by stating that “[t]he need for legislative reform is a lot less right now than it was a year ago and it probably makes sense to wait a bit and see how these cases play out and what the new dynamic looks like before we try to rewrite the rules."
It is interesting to compare Prof. Lemley's cautious observations with the conclusion that he reached in a law review article well worth reading, "Missing the Forest for the Trolls", written together with Douglas Melamed, Intel General Counsel, which appeared in the December 2013 issue of the Columbia Law Review. There, Lemley and Melamed conclude as follows:
Patent trolls are taking the rap for problems with the patent system. That is not to say trolls are not a problem; they are a large and growing one. But they are not the [emphasis in original] problem. Rather, they area a symptom of systematic issues the patent system faces in the IT industry—too many patents interpreted too broadly, a remedy system that routinely awards excessive damages and enables patent holders to bargain for excessively costly settlements, and an enormous patent royalty stacking problem. Practicing entities, as well as trolls, can and do take advantage of these issues. Rather than focusing on the trolls—the symptoms—the law should turn its attention to the disease itself."