Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Yesterday's oral argument in Oil States

This blog addresses the law and economics of patent remedies, and thus the constitutionality of inter partes review is a bit far afield; so I won't dwell on that matter, except to note one aspect of the oral argument that troubled me, from an economic perspective.  I'm referring to the comments made by Justice Breyer at pp. 29-31, where he states 
. . . suppose that the patent has been in existence without anybody reexamining it for 10 years and, moreover, the company's invested $40 billion in developing it. And then suddenly somebody comes in and says: Oh, oh, we -- we want it reexamined, not in court but by the Patent Office. Now, that seems perhaps that it would be a problem or not? . . .
. . . [D]o people gain a kind of vested interest or right after enough time goes by and they rely on it sufficiently so that it now becomes what? Is there something in the Constitution that protects a person after a long period of time and much reliance from a reexamination at a time where much of the evidence will have disappeared?
Later, at page 50, Justice Breyer appears to back away from a "vested right theory," but a related argument is taken up by Justice Gorsuch at pp. 47-48:
Mr. Stewart, let's say we had a land patent. Let's say the land patent said it becomes invalid if  anybody in -- uses the land in an improper way, in violation of an environmental law, labor law, you choose. 
Let's say the land then gets developed and turns into a housing development outside of, I don't know, Philadelphia. And it turns out, though, that a great-grandfather who owned the land originally back when it was a farm, indeed violated a labor or environmental law, rendering the land patent invalid on its terms. 
Could -- couldn't the Bureau of Land Management, for example, or some other department, Interior, official just pull back the patent?
The implication here, particularly of the latter quote from Justice Gorsuch, seems to be that invention patents and land patents should be treated the same way, and thus that at some point reliance interests should trump the public's interest in seeing that invalid patents are cancelled.  And yet from an economic perspective this makes no sense, because (as economists have been noting for decades) unlike land or personal property intellectual property is nonrivalrous.  Only a limited number of people can inhabit or use the same real or personal property at the same time, but an infinite number of people could use the inventive principle that is the subject of an invention patent without depleting it.  Or, to think of it another way, in Justice Gorsuch's example if my land is taken away I have to find another place to live.  If my patent is invalidated, I may suffer a financial loss (I can't license the patent any more, or use it to exclude competitors), and that's obviously undesirable from my point of view; but unless some other body of law (such as FDA regulation) prevents me there is nothing stopping me from continuing to use the inventive principle as much as I want.  

This seems like a pretty fundamental distinction to me, and I certainly hope that the outcome of Oil States does not hinge on such a weak analogy between real and intellectual property.  Comments?

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