The Federal Trade Commission has released a long-awaited report on “patent assertion entities” (PAEs). As defined by the FTC, a “patent assertion entity” is a company that, as a primary business function, acquires patents from third parties and seeks to generate revenue by asserting them against accused infringers. These firms typically generate revenue by licensing these patents or, more rarely, through successful patent litigation. Such firms also typically open patent license negotiations by immediately demanding payment or filing a patent infringement suit.
The FTC made use of its subpoena power to obtain data on more than 2000 patent holding companies that it determined fit the PAE mold. It found that only a small minority of these PAEs had ever asserted their patent rights in court. The FTC found that, generally, these companies could be separated into two different categories: “portfolio PAEs” and “litigation PAEs.”
“Portfolio PAEs” assembled large portfolios, often containing hundreds or thousands of patents, and received most of their money through licensing. Typically, they were able to do this without first suing the alleged infringers. While “portfolio PAEs” accounted for only a small portion of the licenses in the study (around 9%), these licenses accounted for an overwhelming majority of the total revenue of all licenses looked at in the study (around 80%, or approximately $3.2 billion in licensing revenue). These entities typically received most of their initial startup capital from investors, which included institutional investors and manufacturing firms.
“Litigation PAEs” typically operated by suing potential licensees and using the threat of prolonged litigation to induce defendants to settle and take licenses. These companies typically operated using small portfolios, usually containing fewer than ten patents. The typical charge for these licenses was just under the lower bound of early-stage costs for defending against a patent suit; as a result, the FTC has concluded that such lawsuits are “consistent with nuisance litigation.” However, while these litigation PAEs represented most of the litigation activity within the FTC’s study (around 96%), and were responsible for most of the licenses examined by the study (around 91%), these PAEs only received around 20% of the total licensing revenue.
Several interesting results came out of the FTC study. First, it did not appear that many (if any) patent defendants negotiated patent licenses when faced with a demand letter from a litigation PAE, and that in essentially all cases, the PAE had to file suit against the defendant to bring them to the negotiating table.
Second, while a large number of the patents that were asserted by PAEs had to do with either information and communications technology (ICT) or computer software, most of the litigation PAE targets were not in the software industry; instead, it appeared that the largest plurality of PAE targets were in the consumer retail industry. These targets included, for example, store retailers that operated fixed point-of-sale operations and non-store retailers (such as Internet sites) that directly sold products.
The FTC’s findings also suggest that many of the solutions put in place with the stated goal of curbing the abuses of litigation PAEs, such as legal fee shifting, may not be as effective as hoped. Most litigation PAEs are small companies with few assets, and most PAE litigation appears to settle early, before an award of fees is considered. The FTC has prepared some of its own ideas, such as discovery reform, which may help to curb the abuses of litigation PAEs where past reform efforts have failed.