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Court Refuses to Keep Patent Licensor's Secrets

DEEPLINKS BLOG
May 8, 2019

Court Refuses to Keep Patent Licensor's Secrets

Patent owners shouldn’t be allowed to keep basic facts about their patents secret—especially when they initiate litigation in courts, which are presumptively open to the public. Uniloc is one of the worst examples of such a company: it doesn’t make any products, but sues lots of others that do. Then, it hides its licensing agreements while demanding fees from hundreds of other companies that make products supposedly covered by the patents in their vast portfolio. But those secretive tactics may finally be coming to an end: a federal judge has ruled, for the second time, that Uniloc must unseal documents about how it licenses its patents.

In 2018 alone, Uniloc filed more than 170 patent infringement lawsuits against a wide array of technology companies that make products we all use. EFF has fought repeatedly for the public’s right to access court documents in patent cases, and we moved to intervene in Uniloc v. Apple—where Apple is arguing that Uniloc doesn't have the right to sue—because the basic facts of patent ownership should not be shrouded in secrecy. 

At an earlier hearing on Apple’s motion to dismiss Uniloc’s whole case, Judge Alsup called out Uniloc’s wildly improper sealing requests, saying, “There is no way this deserves to be under seal." He then denied all of the sealing requests, and gave Uniloc a short time to appeal before making the documents public. We hoped that would change Uniloc’s approach to sealing, and afterwards, the company did file public versions of some of the sealed documents. But it still sought to hide information that there was no basis to seal, like the names of companies they had licensed. So EFF renewed its motion to intervene and opposed Uniloc’s motion for reconsideration.

Two days before the argument on that motion was set to take place, Judge Alsup sent down an order that, again, denies Uniloc’s sealing requests. Uniloc now has two weeks to re-file unsealed versions of all documents publicly, or to file an appeal to the Federal Circuit. The judge also granted EFF’s motion to intervene for the purpose of opposing Uniloc if it decides to appeal.

Judge Alsup’s order makes clear how important transparency is in patent litigation:

Because Uniloc’s rights flow directly from this government-conferred power to exclude, the public in turn has a strong interest in knowing the full extent of the terms and conditions involved in Uniloc’s exercise of its patent rights and in seeing the extent to which Uniloc’s exercise of the government grant affects commerce.

He also noted that “patent holders tend to demand in litigation a vastly bloated figure in ‘reasonable royalties’ compared to what they have earned in actual licenses of the same or comparable patents,” and that “[t]here is a public need to police this litigation gimmick via more public access.”

 We agree. This order should send a strong signal to patent owners, lawyers, and judges alike that the public has a right to know who truly owns any patent. If Uniloc does decide to appeal this decision, EFF will oppose.

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