Ars Technica reported last week on a number of names under consideration by the White House to lead the Patent and Trademark Office. This is an unusually fraught decision for President Biden: his recent, inspiring decision to support waiving intellectual property restrictions on COVID-19 vaccines has thrust IP into a spotlight it doesn’t usually occupy. The PTO, as Zena Wolf and I wrote for The American Prospect, is the section of the executive branch that does the most to set policies and priorities on IP for the rest of the federal government. Especially as the range of acceptable policies on IP widens dramatically in a post-TRIPS waiver world, the priorities of its director will matter a lot.
So the fact that most of the names Ars Technica reported are under consideration are deeply corporate-aligned is simply infuriating. To take just one example, here is a brief summary of Jannie Lau’s work on behalf of InterDigital.
Lau, a contender to run PTO, worked as the top lawyer for a patent troll firm.
- Lau was the Chief Legal Officer and General Counsel at a firm called InterDigital. During her time there, she held $2 million worth of stock. She departed InterDigital in 2019.
- InterDigital describes itself as a wireless telecommunications firm, but it does not build any infrastructure or provide any products. Instead, over 90 percent of its revenue comes from its patents; the firm’s engineers develop new technologies, apply for broad patents on them, then the firm either licenses the patented technologies to telecomm firms that actually produce technologies for regular payments, or threatens to sue. InterDigital, in other words, directly produces nothing of value to the economy. Its business model rests on exploiting the patent and legal systems.
- In one representative case, InterDigital sued Samsung, Huawei, ZTE, and Nokia for alleged copyright infringement on “anything you can possibly think of that might connect to the Internet in any way,” in the words of one journalist. InterDigital proposed an import ban on the four companies to protect its patents, even though it offers no products from which the alleged copyright infringement might be stealing business.
- Many companies end up signing licensing agreements with InterDigital because it would be either cheaper or easier than dealing with a costly legal battle. Apple, for instance, signed a licensing agreement with InterDigital in 2016, and Samsung settled with the company for just under $500 million in 2014.
- As of February 2019, InterDigital owned over 30,000 patents. Lau departed InterDigital in 2019 — she sits on a few Boards of Directors and corporate advisory councils, but has not listed any other primary employment on her LinkedIn page.
InterDigital has been found to have abused its patent monopolies.
- In an ironic twist, Big Tech has actually successfully sued InterDigital for its monopolistic practices. More specifically, Microsoft sued InterDigital in 2016, claiming it falsely promised to license its standard-essential patents, then failed to do so. (Standard-essential patents, or SEPs, are privately-held patents on something that is the agreed-on standard for a given product, like if someone had a patent on three-prong plugs and required other companies to work out a costly licensing agreement every time they tried to manufacture a product that needs a power outlet. In this situation, patent-holders are required to license under “fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory” (FRAND) terms. This is similar to, but distinct from, a mandatory licensing agreement, in which a government requires a patent-holder to license their technology for the sake of the public interest.)
- InterDigital took the case all the way to the Court of Appeals, which still ruled against its claims of patent infringement.
InterDigital spent millions lobbying PTO to strengthen patent laws.
- Disclosures in the Senate lobbying database show that InterDigital spent over $2.5 million lobbying to “[protect] the value of US IP” in 2020 alone.
- The Patent and Trademark Office is one of the agencies InterDigital lobbied on IP issues, meaning that if appointed, Lau would be personally lobbied by her former subordinates from when she was an InterDigital executive.
PHOTO: “The Huge Societal Costs Of NPE Software Patent Lawsuits” by opensourceway is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0