US Congress Investigates Patent ‘Gifts’ That Evade Inter Partes Review (arstechnica.com)

AnalogDiehard writes: Congress created the Inter Partes Review (IPR) in 2012 within the U.S. Patent Office Patent Trials and Appeals Board (PTAB) as a faster and cheaper way to challenge and invalidate bad patents. The IPR expense is a fraction of the cost of a multimillion dollar patent court trial; it is loved by patent challengers and hated by patent owners. The pharmaceutical company Allergen has exploited a novel tactic to evade the IPR process: they hand them to a Native American Indian tribe for safekeeping. Under the arrangement, the tribes earn millions in royalties as long as the patents are valid, they license them back to Allergan, and the patents under the tribes’ ownership is immune from lawsuits via sovereign immunity. Under the colonial-era concept of “sovereign immunity” which is codified in the 11th amendment, certain groups like states, universities, and tribes are immune from lawsuits, thus the drug patents are shielded from the IPR process leaving only a full blown multimillion dollar court trial for generic drug companies. This tactic is also attracting the attention of non-practicing entities — the polite term for “patent trolls” — and one such NPE company has already exploited sovereign immunity with the intention to sue Apple for infringement.

But court cases have limited the scope of sovereign immunity (especially for commercial activity), and now Congress is investigating Allergan over the tactic that has Congress not only greatly concerned about competition in the drug industry (and exorbitant prices of pharmaceuticals), but also the questionable use of the sovereign immunity law. The four lawmakers who signed the letter to Allergan state: “The unconventional maneuver has received considerable criticism from the generic competitors challenging the drug’s patents under the process Congress created (IPR) to enable timelier review of such challenges (read: a fraction of the cost of a court trial).” The letter also notes that the key ingredient in the patent was set to expire in 2014 and that Allergan had filed more patents to extend patent protection to 2024, a signal that Congress is watching for exploitation of patent law to enable “perpetual patents” widely used by the pharmaceuticals.

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