Verizon Vs. Vonage: Restraint of Competition?

Full disclosure: I am a longstanding and happy customer of Vonage, and would hate to seem them fail, particularly at the instigation of a Luddite and blantantly anti-competitive force like Verizon. I have also been suspicious of Verizon’s patent claims (the Patent and Trademark Office has had a recent bad habit of granting far reaching “method” patents on “methods” that are actually pretty common usage), and the fact that a jury found in Verizon’s favor isn’t convincing (juries are ill equipped to evaluate patents).

It turns out that neutral parties have come to similar conclusions. Below is a post from Macroblog:

The Nattering Naybob has been thinking about this story

Vonage Holdings Corp. must pay $58 million plus monthly royalties to Verizon Communications Inc. for infringing three patents on Internet-telephone service, a federal jury ruled…

The jury found that three of five disputed patents were infringed and all five are valid.

… and he is not happy. Naybob’s post contains a long and detailed discussion of what the disputed patents are about. Most of it is beyond me, but I do get the drift:

To allow a patent like this to stand would be analogous to allowing Verizon to patent the common practice of placement and use of salt and pepper shakers on public restaurant and cafeteria tables.

If these patents and their claims are found valid, Vonage would find it difficult to design an alternative way of hooking its network to the [PSTN].

And so would any VoIP provider as the entire VoIP industry has built its back on the ENUM standard in RFC 3761. Therefore, the entire VoIP industry would have to shut down, and the ENUM internet standard as defined would also be dead.

OK, I don’t exactly understand that last part. Nor do I feel competent to judge Naybob’s claim that the patent system is in this specific case being used to restrain competition rather than protect legitimate intellectual property rights. But it does bring to mind Adam Jaffe and Josh Lerner’s “Innovation and Its Discontents.”Say Jaffe and Lerner:

….The origin of these pathologies goes back to 1982, when the process for judicial appeal of patent cases in the federal courts was changed, so that such appeals are now all heard by a single, specialized appeals court, rather than the twelve regional courts of appeal, as had previously been the case. And in the early 1990s, Congress changed the structure of fees and financing of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) itself, trying to turn it into a kind of service agency whose costs of operation are covered by fees paid by its clients (the patent applicants)

It is now apparent that these seemingly mundane procedural changes, taken together, have resulted in the most profound changes in U.S. patent policy and practice since 1836. The new court of appeals has interpreted patent law to make it easer to get patents, easier to enforce patents against others, easier to get large financial awards from such enforcement, and harder for those accused of infringing patents to challenge the patents’ validity. At roughly the same time, the new orientation of the patent office has combined with the court’s legal interpretations to make it much easier to get patents. However complex the origins and motivations of these two Congressional actions, it is clear that no one sat down and decided that what the U.S. economy needed was to transform patents into much more potent legal weapons, while simultaneously making them much easier to get.

An unforeseen outcome has been an alarming growth in legal wrangling over patents. More worrisome still, the risk of being sued, and demands by patent holders for royalty payments to avoid being sued, are seen increasingly as major costs of bringing new products and processes to market. Thus the patent system — intended to foster and protect innovation — is generating waste and uncertainty that hinder and threaten the innovative process…..

And to the litigation issue discussed in the Naybob post:

….The reliance on jury trials is a critical problem. The evidence in a patent case can be highly technical, and the average juror has little competence to evaluate it. Having decisions made by people who can’t really understand the evidence increases the uncertainty surrounding the outcome. The combination of this uncertainty with the legal presumption of validity — the rule that patents must be presumed legitimate unless proven otherwise — is a big reason why accused infringers often settle rather than fight even when they think they are right.

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