Opinion

Alison Frankel

New class action: Real victims of Samsung infringement are consumers

Alison Frankel
Feb 10, 2014 19:55 UTC

Once again, we are reminded that defendants underestimate the creativity of the class action bar at their own peril.

Last week, the firms Reese Richman and Halunen & Associates filed quite an interesting class action complaint in federal court in San Francisco. The case asserts that Samsung’s infringement of various Apple patents in its mobile devices – as established in a jury trial in federal court and in a proceeding at the U.S. International Trade Commission – has injured unwitting Samsung mobile device buyers who believed they were purchasing non-infringing products. According to the complaint, the resale market for Samsung devices has been hard-hit by infringement findings against the company; the suit claims that Samsung owners are actually in danger of violating the Tariff Act of 1930 if they attempt to resell infringing tablets and smartphones.

As you may recall, Samsung is on the hook to Apple for more than $900 million in damages after a partial damages retrial in November of its first round of patent infringement claims against Samsung in San Francisco federal court. The purported nationwide consumer class action actually claims far more than that on behalf of Samsung device purchasers. Under one of the suit’s causes of action, the class wants Samsung to repay the entire cost of the infringing mobile devices to the consumers who bought them – or at least the lost value consumers have realized as a result of Samsung’s infringement. Under another theory, class members assert that Samsung must disgorge to them all of its profits from selling infringing devices. That’s a lot of money: According to Apple, Samsung took in $3.5 billion in revenue from the sale of almost 11 million infringing devices.

So what are these theories that give rise to such outsize potential liability? The complaint claims breach of warranty on behalf of Samsung purchasers nationwide, citing state consumer warranty laws. It also claims violations of New York and New Jersey deceptive trade practices laws on behalf of the nationwide class. The New York law, according to the complaint, provides for at least $50 in statutory damages to every purchaser of an infringing device (or, if Apple’s sales tally is correct, $550 million). The New Jersey law allows consumers to seek damages based on arguments that they wouldn’t have bought the devices at all if they’d known of Samsung’s infringement. But that’s not all: The suit also alleges unjust enrichment under California, New York and New Jersey statutes, demanding restitution of the full purchase price of the infringing products. (In addition, the complaint alleges California unfair trade practices laws on behalf of a California-only class.)

Mayer Brown‘s Class Defense Blog, where I first heard about the Samsung consumer suit, points out some of the potential obstacles for consumers claiming damages from the purchase of infringing products, some specific to smart device cases (Did consumers really know or care about infringement claims when they bought tablets and smartphones?) and some the usual class action defenses, such as whether injury and damages can be shown on a nationwide class basis. Mayer Brown’s Archis Parasharami says in the blog post that he’s skeptical judges will buy the theory that infringement harms consumers, but if they do, you can expect a proliferation of such claims. “It is easy to see why plaintiffs’ lawyers might find these kinds of cases attractive,” he wrote. “If the result of a battle between competitors is that a product has been determined to be infringing by a court or agency, that may substantially reduce the work a plaintiffs’ lawyer needs to do to pursue the case. And that lawyer will likely argue that key aspects of liability have already been established before the class action even gets started.”

Dueling cert petitions give SCOTUS choice on software patent review

Alison Frankel
Nov 8, 2013 19:26 UTC

On Wednesday, CLS Bank filed a brief opposing U.S. Supreme Court review of a spectacularly controversial en banc decision from the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals. You probably remember the Federal Circuit ruling from last May in the CLS case: The en banc court held that Alice Corp’s computer-implemented escrow system is not eligible for patents, but couldn’t muster a majority to explain why. The 10 appellate judges ended up writing six different opinions, none of which attracted enough co-signers to provide long-sought clarity on a standard for the patent-eligibility of abstract ideas that are implemented via computers. As Alice’s lawyers at Sidley Austin explained in their certiorari petition in May, “The legal standards that govern whether computer-implemented inventions are eligible for patent protection … remain entirely unclear and utterly panel dependent.”

CLS’s counsel at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher didn’t contest that assertion – the precedential muddle isn’t really debatable – but argued that the Federal Circuit reached the right conclusion when it found Alice’s escrow system ineligible for patenting. With three new judges on the Federal Circuit, CLS said, it makes more sense to give the new judges – Richard Taranto, a former senior partner at Farr & Taranto; Raymond Chen, the onetime solicitor general of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office; and Todd Hughes, who most recently served in the Justice Department’s civil division – a chance to consider computer-implemented patent eligibility. “The reconstituted court is capable of settling its own internal divisions,” CLS’s brief said. Gibson Dunn actually uses seemingly irreconcilable post-CLS Federal Circuit panel decisions in Bancorp v. Sun Life and Accenture v. Guidewire to underscore its argument that the discussion of software patent eligibility is still percolating healthily in the Federal Circuit so the Supreme Court needn’t get involved.

If, however, the court does decide to take up the issue, CLS wants the justices to use Alice’s case as their vehicle. And here’s where things get interesting in the great debate over whether otherwise-unpatentable abstract ideas become eligible for patents when they’re implemented via computers. Alice isn’t the only party with a pending cert petition on software patent eligibility. The online game company WildTangent is asking for Supreme Court review of a Federal Circuit panel decision that, according to WildTangent’s counsel at Latham & Watkins, sets so low a bar for patent eligibility that just about every computer-implemented abstract idea would survive. The Alice and WildTangent cases really pose the exact same question for the Supreme Court. So which should the justices take?

SCOTUS pay-for-delay ruling: New scrutiny for nonpharma patent deals?

Alison Frankel
Jun 17, 2013 21:08 UTC

In the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling Monday on pay-for-delay settlements in the pharmaceutical industry – in which a brand-name drugmaker pays generic rivals to drop challenges to its patent, thus assuring its monopoly – five justices agreed with the Federal Trade Commission that the key question isn’t whether pay-for-delay deals exceed the scope of the brand-maker’s patent. Courts cannot simply rubber-stamp such settlements as presumptively legal, the majority said in FTC v. Actavis. But nor can they assume that pay-for-delay settlements are illegal by their very nature. Instead, according to the majority, trial courts must conduct a “rule of reason” analysis to determine whether reverse-payment settlements violate antitrust law.

Those inquiries, the majority concedes, are probably going to be “time consuming, complex and expensive” – a much less convenient alternative to the simple scope-of-the-patent test endorsed by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in the underlying case and by several other federal circuits in previous pay-for-delay suits by the FTC and private plaintiffs. But the scope-of-the-patent approach “throws the baby out with the bath water,” the majority said. A patent holder has monopoly rights only when its patent is valid, the very inquiry that is aborted through pay-for-delay settlements.

The justices concluded that trial judges need not conduct a full-blown inquiry into a patent’s validity to evaluate the anticompetitive impact of a pay-for-delay deal, but can consider (among other factors) the size of the reverse payment as a proxy for the patent’s weakness. “An unexplained large reverse payment itself would normally suggest that the patentee has serious doubts about the patent’s survival,” the majority said, in an opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer. “And that fact, in turn, suggests that the payment’s objective is to maintain supracompetitive prices to be shared among the patentee and the challenger rather than face what might have been a competitive market – the very anticompetitive consequence that underlies the claim of antitrust unlawfulness.”

Microsoft win in rate-setting case vs Motorola is call to litigation

Alison Frankel
Apr 26, 2013 22:15 UTC

For the first time ever, a federal district judge has decided what constitutes a reasonable license rate for a portfolio of standard-essential patents. U.S. District Judge James Robart ruled late Thursday that Motorola is entitled to royalties of a half cent per unit for Microsoft’s use of standard-essential video compression patents and 3.5 cents per unit for Motorola’s wireless communication patents. According to Microsoft, those terms would require it to pay Motorola a grand total of about $1.8 million a year in royalties – a far cry indeed from the billions Motorola requested in a royalty demand to Microsoft in 2010. It’s still to be determined at a trial this summer whether Motorola breached its obligation to license its essential technology to Microsoft on reasonable terms. But make no mistake: Robart’s ruling on reasonable royalties is a dreadful outcome for Motorola and its parent, Google.

In fact, there’s a good argument that the framework Robart used to determine a fair royalty rate is bad news for all patent holders that depend on license fees for essential technology. Until the smart device wars, when Microsoft and Apple balked at Motorola’s licensing demands, product makers generally considered themselves to be at the mercy of companies that developed essential technology adopted by international standard-setting boards. Robart’s ruling, if it is eventually upheld by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, gives so-called implementers like Microsoft and Apple not only the methodology to whittle down patent holders’ licensing demands but also a recourse if negotiations stall. Implementers now know they can go to court and ask a judge to decide a fair royalty based on the relative value of essential patents to their final product. We’ve already seen courts and regulators blunt the threat of injunctions by holders of standard-essential patents. Robart’s decision shifts the balance of power even further away from patent holders.

To understand why, let’s run quickly through the findings in the 207-page opinion. The judge said early on that he agreed with Motorola’s lawyers at Ropes & Gray and The Summit Law Group that the best way to set a fair royalty rate would be to consider a hypothetical bilateral negotiation. He rejected Microsoft’s proposed “incremental value” approach, which would have based the value of essential patents on the cost of adopting alternative technology. But that was just about the only positive aspect of the ruling for Motorola.

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