The US Supreme Court voted 7-2 to uphold an administrative review process that has helped technology firms like Apple, Google, and Samsung to invalidate patents without taking the disputes to court, USA Today reports (opens in new tab).
At issue here is a reviews process that Congress created in 2011 to speed up patent disputes and deal with potentially questionable patents. One of the bane of technology firms is the existence of patent trolls—companies that don't actually make products, but secure patents with the sole purpose of suing other outfits for royalties.
Some of that is fair game, and in other cases, the patents are flimsy at best. However, taking these matters to court is an expensive proposition. Presenting disputes to the US Patent and Trademark Office's Patent Trial and Appeal Board is both cheaper and faster, and over the past several years, hundreds of patents have been invalidated in this manner. According to Reuters, Apple wrote in its legal papers that disputing a patent through the patent office costs around $350,000 to litigate, versus $3 million when taking the matter to district court.
While technology companies have an obviously vested interest in patent disputes and how they are handled, it was a legal squabble between two energy companies that ultimately brought the matter before the Supreme Court. Oil States Energy, the company challenging the administrative appeals process, argued it altered 400 years of judicial review and makes it harder.
Other critics have referred to the review board as a patent "death squad," according to Bloomberg, claiming that leaving these matters for the USPTO to decide instead of the courts is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court disagreed.
"The decision to grant a patent is a matter involving public rights—specifically, the grant of a public franchise," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote. He added that the review system "is simply a reconsideration of that grant, and Congress has permissibly reserved the PTO’s authority to conduct that reconsideration."
As far as the Supreme Court is concerned, the process allows the USPTO to quickly and easily correct its own errors.