You’re not supposed to be able to litigate in secret in the U.S. That’s especially true in a patent case dealing with technology that most internet users rely on every day.

 Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s happening in a case called Entropic Communications, LLC v. Charter Communications, Inc. The parties have made so much of their dispute secret that it is hard to tell how the patents owned by Entropic might affect the Data Over Cable Service Interface Specifications (DOCSIS) standard, a key technical standard that ensures cable customers can access the internet.

In Entropic, both sides are experienced litigants who should know that this type of sealing is improper. Unfortunately, overbroad secrecy is common in patent litigation, particularly in cases filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas.

EFF has sought to ensure public access to lawsuits in this district for years. In 2016, EFF intervened in another patent case in this very district, arguing that the heavy sealing by a patent owner called Blue Spike violated the public’s First Amendment and common law rights. A judge ordered the case unsealed.

As Entropic shows, however, parties still believe they can shut down the public’s access to presumptively public legal disputes. This secrecy has to stop. That’s why EFF, represented by the Science, Health & Information Clinic at Columbia Law School, filed a motion today seeking to intervene in the case and unseal a variety of legal briefs and evidence submitted in the case. EFF’s motion argues that the legal issues in the case and their potential implications for the DOCSIS standard are a matter of public concern and asks the district court judge hearing the case to provide greater public access.

Protective Orders Cannot Override The Public’s First Amendment Rights

As EFF’s motion describes, the parties appear to have agreed to keep much of their filings secret via what is known as a protective order. These court orders are common in litigation and prevent the parties from disclosing information that they obtain from one another during the fact-gathering phase of a case. Importantly, protective orders set the rules for information exchanged between the parties, not what is filed on a public court docket.

The parties in Entropic, however, are claiming that the protective order permits them to keep secret both legal arguments made in briefs filed with the court as well as evidence submitted with those filings. EFF’s motion argues that this contention is incorrect as a matter of law because the parties cannot use their agreement to abrogate the public’s First Amendment and common law rights to access court records. More generally, relying on protective orders to limit public access is problematic because parties in litigation often have little interest or incentive to make their filings public.

Unfortunately, parties in patent litigation too often seek to seal a variety of information that should be public. EFF continues to push back on these claims. In addition to our work in Texas, we have also intervened in a California patent case, where we also won an important transparency ruling. The court in that case prevented Uniloc, a company that had filed hundreds of patent lawsuits, from keeping the public in the dark as to its licensing activities.

That is why part of EFF’s motion asks the court to clarify that parties litigating in the Texas district court cannot rely on a protective order for secrecy and that they must instead seek permission from the court and justify any claim that material should be filed under seal.

On top of clarifying that the parties’ protective orders cannot frustrate the public’s right to access federal court records, we hope the motion in Entropic helps shed light on the claims and defenses at issue in this case, which are themselves a matter of public concern. The DOCSIS standard is used in virtually all cable internet modems around the world, so the claims made by Entropic may have broader consequences for anyone who connects to the internet via a cable modem.

It’s also impossible to tell if Entropic might want to sue more cable modem makers. So far, Entropic has sued five big cable modem vendors—Charter, Cox, Comcast, DISH TV, and DirecTV—in more than a dozen separate cases. EFF is hopeful that the records will shed light on how broadly Entropic believes its patents can reach cable modem technology.

EFF is extremely grateful that Columbia Law School’s Science, Health & Information Clinic could represent us in this case. We especially thank the student attorneys who worked on the filing, including Sean Hong, Gloria Yi, Hiba Ismail, and Stephanie Lim, and the clinic’s director, Christopher Morten.

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