Perfect Storm for ITC Patent Reform

Seven weeks ago, the International Trade Commission announced its decision to ban the importation of some late model iPhones and iPads after finding that Apple had infringed patents owned by rival Samsung. In today’s Wall Street Journal, Verizon Vice President Randal Milch has publicly implored President Obama to exercise his power to veto the ITC’s decision. Such a move could be just the thing to prompt real reform of the ITC’s disruptive role in the patent system.

The prospect of a presidential veto of an ITC exclusion order is pretty exciting. The statutory power of the president to disapprove a decision by the ITC has only been exercised five times since the ITC was created in 1975 and the last president to use the power was Ronald Reagan. Disapproving this new order would certainly turn some heads, and it’s not as unlikely as you might think.

Anti-ITC sentiment has been growing steadily in recent years. In 2006, the Supreme Court made it more difficult for U.S. courts to issue injunctive relief in patent cases, dealing a major blow to patent trolls who buy-up patents for the sole purpose of litigating them. The Court’s holding did not apply to the ITC, making the trade agency a more attractive venue for those unsavory litigants. Now the ITC has decided that it can issue injunctions (as it has in the Apple-Samsung dispute) even when the patent owner previously agreed to license the technology to all who offer a reasonable royalty. More and more observers are coming to recognize that the ITC’s powers are inappropriate and need to be reined in.

A presidential veto of the Apple ban could be just the right thing to push Congress or the agency itself to implement real reform. The House has held a number of committee hearings on the topic in the last two years, and bringing ITC remedies in line with district court practices is included in the Obama Administration’s newest outline for patent reform

Even the ITC’s staunchest advocates would rather have transparent and predictable limits than face the specter of ad hoc nullification of orders resulting from expensive litigation.  As Verizon’s Milch explains in his closing paragraph:

If the administration signaled that it would veto ITC relief orders in instances where courts would have found such orders inequitable, it could discourage parties from clogging the ITC’s docket with such cases in the first place. Then the White House could, mercifully, find it unnecessary to veto ITC decisions, perhaps for another 25 years.

Aligning ITC and district court remedies will do a lot to reduce the disruptive impact of having two venues for patent litigation, but a better policy would be to end the agency’s patent jurisdiction entirely. There is simply no need for an import-only specialized patent court. The law the ITC uses to litigate patents was devised in 1922 to prevent “unfair methods of competition” by foreigner manufacturers.  It is a protectionist relic that should be repealed. 

Unless we abolish the institution now, at some point—maybe in 25 years, probably sooner—the ITC will be messing things up again.