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Michael Mazzeo, Jonathan Hillel, & Samantha Zyontz, Explaining the “Unpredictable”: An Empirical Analysis of Patent Infringement Awards, 35 Int’l Rev. of L. & Econ. 58 (2013).

A recent American Bar Association “Corporate Counsel” seminar styled itself as “The Uncertain Arena: Claims for Damages and Injunctive Relief in the Unpredictable World of IP Litigation.” The seminar began by recounting the seemingly surprising, $1 billion-plus damage awards in the patent infringement actions, Carnegie Mellon v. Marvell Technology, Apple v. Samsung, and Monsanto v. DuPont. These blockbuster awards stand in stark contrast to the usual awards of $20 million or less in a typical case.

By and large, in-house counsel have chalked up much of these differences to the luck of the draw. Such a sentiment is all-too-common not only among practitioners, but also among policymakers and academics. No less than the eminent IP scholar Mark Lemley has remarked, “Patent damages are unpredictable because the criteria most commonly used are imprecise and difficult to apply.”

Mazzeo, Hillel, and Zyontz make an impressive contribution to the literature by casting substantial doubt on such views. Specifically, in their recent empirical study of district court patent infringement judgments between 1995 and 2008, they show that patent damages can be explained in a large part by a fairly small number of patent-, litigant-, and court-related factors.

The authors assembled a set of over 1300 case outcomes from the PricewaterhouseCoopers database, which they boiled down to 340 judgments in favor of the patentholder in which award details were available. Although this number of judgments may seem low, based on independent work of my own for a study on the duration of patent infringement actions, these counts represent a high percentage of the total number of actions and judgments. Thus, it is unlikely that including the unavailable judgments and awards in the dataset would substantially change their results.

Mazzeo, Hillel, and Zyontz begin their exposition by noting—contrary to the widespread view that patent damages awards are shockingly high—that the median damage award has remained fairly constant from 1995 through 2008, at roughly a low $5 million. The billion-dollar damage awards in Apple v. Samsung and other cases are thus extreme outliers. Indeed, during the time period at issue, only eight awards came in over $200 million, yet those awards accounted for 47.6% of collective damages of all cases (other than generic-branded pharmaceutical disputes under the Hatch-Waxman Act). So, outside of a small number of highly publicized, blockbuster cases, damages awards are (perhaps shockingly) low – a fact that flies in the face of current rhetoric about outsized awards in patent cases.

The most impressive aspect of the article is the authors’ empirical models explaining roughly 75% of the variation among damages awards. In particular, they assemble various factors—including the number of patents asserted, the age of the patents, the number of citations to the patents, whether the defendant is publicly traded, and whether a jury or judge assessed damages—and construct a regression model that shows statistically significant relationships between these factors and the amount of damages awarded.

For example, in one model, if the defendant was publicly traded, damages were roughly 1.5 times higher than when the defendant was privately held, controlling for other factors. What is particularly striking is that the outlier awards—namely, those above $200 million—fall squarely within the model’s explanatory power. Thus, rather than being the random results of rogue juries, these large damage awards likely reflect a variety of measurable factors that point in favor of larger awards across the large number of cases confronted by the courts.

These findings have important public policy implications. As the authors point out, stable, predictable damage awards are essential for a properly functioning patent system. Otherwise, the careful balance of incentives to patentees to innovate and incentives to third parties either to acquire licenses to patented inventions or invent around would be thwarted.

On the other hand, Mazzeo, Hillel, and Zyontz overreach by concluding that their “findings thus bolster the core tenets of the patent system” that exclusive patent rights are an appropriate means for protecting inventions. Specifically, the authors’ argument that “several of the driving factors correspond to accepted indicators of patent quality” is insufficient to support such an assertion, because these factors—such as forward citations, number of claims, and number of patents—are accepted indicators of a patent’s economic “value,” not a patent’s “quality,” which concerns its validity. (Although there is very likely a relationship between the two notions, no study has resoundingly linked patent value to patent quality.) And typically these value indicators have been derived from studies of patent litigation. Thus, to argue that high damages in litigation justify the patent system on the basis of such metrics is essentially circular. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, it is very likely that patent damages as they stand should be reengineered to provide more optimal innovation incentives.

Nonetheless, despite this study’s inability to “bolster the core tenets of the patent system,” its result that damages awards are fairly predictable is a very important contribution to the literature. Moreover, this work provides the starting point for more comprehensive investigations of damages in patent cases, such as the follow-on study the authors recently undertook regarding non-practicing entity (NPE) and non-NPE suits. Additionally, their explanatory approach could be extended to the more basic win/loss determinations on infringement and validity. One cannot ask for much more in any empirical study, and Mazzeo, Hillel, and Zyontz deserve kudos for their exacting labors and notable insights.

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Cite as: Ted Sichelman, Are Patent Damages Uncertain?, JOTWELL (June 30, 2014) (reviewing Michael Mazzeo, Jonathan Hillel, & Samantha Zyontz, Explaining the “Unpredictable”: An Empirical Analysis of Patent Infringement Awards, 35 Int’l Rev. of L. & Econ. 58 (2013)),