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ITC Patent Cases Dramatically Drop, or Another Patent Litigation Myth Bites the Dust

The claim that there is a “patent litigation explosion” is a myth, but there’s a related patent litigation myth that has proven cantankerously resilient in the patent policy debates — there’s an “explosion” of patent-owners racing to the International Trade Commission (ITC) who are obtaining exclusion orders against infringers.

Well, this argument has crashed and burned against the hard facts of the actual numbers, but even before patent filings at the ITC dropped, this argument was still problematic.

The reason is that it was an example of a great game that we all learn in college: fun with statistics!  It’s the old rhetorical saw: If actual numbers don’t make something look bad, then just reframe the point as an out-of-context statistical claim and now it sounds like a complete disaster that demands immediate action by everyone—by Congress, by courts, and, given that the season is almost upon us, by Santa Claus (who should punish these allegedly rent-seeking patent-owners with coal in their stockings).

You may think I jest, but it’s common fare for commentators and academics to paint the situation in the ITC entirely in terms of statistical increases by patent-owners.  To take but one representative example from a 2009 academic article:

The ITC has become a popular forum for enforcing patents, with the number of actions increasing by nearly 80% since 2003.

An 80% increase in patent filings in six years!  This is clearly a litigation hurricane of historic proportions!  We must do something about this before the ITC is flooded like New York City was by Hurricane Sandy!

Yet, when one looks behind the statistics at the actual numbers, it’s almost laughable that numerous law journal articles, newspaper articles, and blog postings are breathlessly reporting on this as if this is a pressing policy problem in both the patent system and the ITC.  Congress even spent more taxpayer dollars holding hearings this past summer on this allegedly pressing problem, and what a waste of time this was.

Here’s the actual numbers behind the statistics: From 2003 to 2009 (fiscal year), patent filings in the ITC increased from 19 to 29.  In the ten years from 2001 to 2011, patent case filings in the ITC went from 29 to 70.  (Note the drop between 2001 and 2003, a drop that has occurred again and to which we will return shortly.)

So, commentators and academics want Congress to change the law to make it harder for patent-owners to seek relief at the ITC because patent filings increased in ten years from 29 cases to 70 cases.  Alas, 70 total cases doesn’t sound too bad, especially when hundreds of thousands of lawsuits and other regulatory cases are filed annually.  So, the easy answer to this problem is to reframe rhetorically the total cases: the shift from 29 to 70 cases is an increase of 141%!  In ten years!  Yep, fun with statistics.

But even if one thinks for some strange reason that 70 cases is a huge number of filings at the ITC, this is still an out-of-context assertion that doesn’t mean anything.  As empirical economists and statisticians always ask: What’s the baseline?

One good baseline is to compare ITC filings to patent infringement cases filed in plain-old-vanilla federal court. How many patent infringement cases are filed each year in federal court?  In 2010, the total number of patent infringement lawsuits was 3,605 cases.  Yes, you read that number right: 3,605 cases.  (That’s the last year for which we have numbers.)  And before readers jump to the conclusion that 3,605 cases is an unmitigated patent litigation explosion, this would be incorrect as well — as I explained in a previous blog posting, patent litigation rates today are approximately the same or less than the patent litigation rates from 1790 to 1860.

In sum, we’re supposed to be filled with shock and awe by the 70 patent cases that were filed in the ITC in 2011, as compared to the 3,605 cases filed in federal court.  These 70 patents cases at the ITC, we’re told, demand immediate congressional action to impose a regime change on the ITC in limiting its jurisdiction over patents.  To put it bluntly, people are getting their patent policy knickers in a twist because 1.94% of total patent infringement cases are also being filed in the ITC.  Yep, fun with statistics.

And as Billy Mays would say: But wait, there’s more!  (That OxiClean was definitely worth it.  My sneakers were never so clean.)

Lest one still thinks that the number of patent filings in the ITC is a problem, the ITC released last month its fiscal-year 2012 report on patent filings — a report that got about as much attention as a report on dryer lint accumulations in fiscal-year 2012.  Given the ongoing uproar over patent filings in the ITC, one would expect that the ITC’s report would be have been trumpeted in news articles, blog postings, and by the commentators and academics who have been singing this tune for the past several years.

Nope, not a single peep about this report has been made in the more-than-30 days since its release.  Why the silence — the deafening silence — about the most recent data from the ITC on patent filings?

The reason is simple: the facts in the latest ITC fiscal-year report don’t fit the policy narrative.  The ITC reported that patent cases filed in the ITC dropped from a high of 70 cases in 2011 to a total of 48 cases in 2012 (fiscal year).  In the statistical terms loved so much by the critics of patent filings at the ITC, patent filings dropped by 31.4% between 2011 and 2012 (fiscal years).  Now that’s an interesting statistical number about which much could be said — or, as is the case, not said and ignored in the hope that it’ll just go away.

So, what happened to the loud, incessant complaints about skyrocketing patent filings in the ITC?  Well, to paraphrase the old man at the end of every Scooby Doo episode: And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it wasn’t for you meddling facts!

UPDATE: I made some minor copy-edit changes to the text after I posted it.

Filed under: intellectual property, international trade, litigation, patent