It’s bad enough when a patent holder enforcing their rights in court try to exclude the public from those fights. What’s even worse is when courts endorse these secrecy tactics, just as a federal court hearing an EFF unsealing motion ruled in May. 

EFF continues to push for greater transparency in the case, Entropic Communications, LLC v. Charter Communications, Inc.,  and is asking a federal court of appeals to reverse the decision. A successful appeal will open this case to the public, and help everyone better understand patent disputes that are filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas.

Secrecy in patent litigation is an enduring problem, and EFF has repeatedly intervened in lawsuits involving patent claims to uphold the public’s right to access court records. And in this case, the secrecy issues are heightened by the parties and the court believing that they can jointly agree to keep entire records under seal, without ever having to justify the secrecy. 

This case is a dispute between a semiconductor products provider, Entropic, and one of the nation's largest media companies, Charter, which offers cable television and internet service to millions of people. Entropic alleged that Charter infringed its patents (U.S. Patent Nos. 8,223,775; 8,284,690; 8,792,008; 9,210,362; 9,825,826; and 10,135,682) which cover cable modem technology. 

Charter has argued it had a license defense to the patent claims based on the industry-leading cable data transmission standard, Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS). The argument could raise a core legal question in patent law: when is a particular patent “essential” to a technical standard and thus encumbered by licensing commitments?  

But so many of the documents filed in court about this legal argument are heavily redacted, making it difficult to understand. EFF filed to intervene and unseal these documents in March. EFF’s motion in part targeted a practice that is occurring in many patent disputes in the Texas district court, whereby parties enter into agreements, known as protective orders. These agreements govern how parties will protect information they exchange during the fact-gathering portion of a case. 

Under the terms of the model protective order created by the court, the parties can file documents they agree are secret under seal without having to justify that such secrecy overrides the public’s right to access court records. 

Despite federal appellate courts repeatedly ruling that protective orders cannot short-circuit the public’s right of access, the district court ruled that the documents EFF sought to unseal could remain secret precisely because the parties had agreed. Additionally, the district court ruled that EFF had no right to seek to unseal the records because it filed the motion to intervene and make the records public four months after the parties had settled. 

EFF is disappointed by the decision and strongly disagrees. Notably, the opinion does not cite any legal authority that allows parties to stipulate to keep their public court fights secret. As said above, many courts have ruled that such agreements are anathema to court transparency. 

Moreover, the court’s ruling that EFF could not even seek to unseal the documents in the first place sets a dangerous precedent. As a result many court dockets, including those with significant historic and newsworthy materials, can become permanently sealed merely because the public did not try to intervene and unseal records while the case was open. 

That outcome turns the public’s right of access to court records on its head: it requires the public to be extremely vigilant about court secrecy and punishes them for not knowing about sealed records. Yet the entire point of the presumption of public access is that judges and litigants in the cases are supposed to protect the public’s right to open courts, as not every member of the public has the time and resources to closely monitor court proceedings and hire a lawyer to enforce their public rights should they be violated.

EFF looks forward to vindicating the public’s right to access records on appeal. 

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