Professors Mislead FCC on Basic Copyright Law

Cross-posted from the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property (CPIP) blog.

In a letter submitted to the FCC late last week defending the Commission’s deeply flawed set-top-box proposal,[1] a group of professors make an incredible claim: Everyone is perfectly free to distribute copyrighted works online however they please. No license? No problem! According to these professors, many of whom teach copyright law, copyright owners have no distribution right in cyberspace. If you think this sounds wrong, you’re right! This claim sounds ridiculous because it is ridiculous, and it’s simply amazing—and troubling—that professors would mislead the FCC in this way.

The professors argue that a copyright owner’s “right to distribute encompasses the distribution of physical copies of a work, not electronic transmissions.” In support, they cite no case law whatsoever. There’s a good reason for this: None exists. The reality is that every single court that has ever considered this argument on the merits has rejected it. Time and again, this argument has been summarily dismissed by the courts. As the Nimmer on Copyright treatise puts it: “No court has held to the contrary on this issue[.]” Yet, the professors present this to the FCC as an accurate description of the law, with no equivocation whatsoever.

In their defense, one can make a plausible argument that this follows from certain parts of the Copyright Act. And the professors do in fact cite these parts. They quote Section 106(3), which gives copyright owners the exclusive right “to distribute copies . . . of the copyrighted work to the public,” and Section 101, which says that “copies are material objects.” At first blush, one could question how it’s possible to distribute a “material object” online. Indeed, many academics have questioned this very thing. For example, one professor wrote in 2001 that “transmitting copyrightable works over a computer network such as the Internet do[es] not involve any transfer of such material objects.” On this view, transfers over digital networks are not distributions of material objects.

While some academics may insist that this is the only way to interpret the Copyright Act, the reality is that the courts have uniformly interpreted it differently. Many courts have explicitly rejected the textual argument that there are no digital distributions, and many others have just assumed that such digital distribution rights exist. As the district court in Arista Records v. Greubel noted in 2006, despite “scholarly articles reflecting debate over the scope” of the distribution right, “the courts have not hesitated to find copyright infringement by distribution in cases of file-sharing or electronic transmission of copyrighted works.” The district court then cited opinions by the Supreme Court in New York Times v. Tasini, the Seventh Circuit in In re Aimster, and the Ninth Circuit in A&M Records v. Napster that applied the distribution right in cyberspace without even flinching.

Perhaps the most in-depth analysis of the issue comes from London-Sire v. Doe, where District Judge Nancy Gertner held in 2008 that it “makes no difference that the distribution occurs electronically[.]” Judge Gertner reasoned that “[w]hat matters in the marketplace is not whether a material object ‘changes hands,’ but whether, when the transaction is completed, the distributee has a material object.” Even though the “distributee” has a different “material object”—the hard drive or other storage media where the file resides—Judge Gertner held that a digital distribution has taken place nonetheless. She warned that “an overly literal definition of ‘material object’ . . . ignores the phrase’s purpose in the copyright statutes.”

Other courts have adopted this reasoning. For example, the district court in Capitol Records v. ReDigi cited London-Sire approvingly: “[T]he Court agrees that ‘[a]n electronic file transfer is plainly within the sort of transaction that § 106(3) was intended to reach [and] … fit[s] within the definition of ‘distribution’ of a phonorecord.’” The court then held that the distribution right exists in cyberspace: “Accordingly, the court concludes that . . . the sale of digital music files on ReDigi’s website infringes Capitol’s exclusive right of distribution.” Likewise, just last year, the district court in BMG v. Cox relied on London-Sire in holding that, “[n]ot only can electronic files be ‘material objects,’ but transferring files using a BitTorrent protocol satisfies the transactional element of distribution.”

The fact is that courts have not wavered in finding that the distribution right applies online. As one district court said in 2012, “[i]n the electronic context, copies may be distributed electronically.” The point is so well-settled that it defies logic to claim otherwise, and it’s certainly consistent with other parts of the Copyright Act. For instance, Section 506(a)(1)(B) makes it a crime to “willfully” infringe by “distribution, including by electronic means[.]” And Section 115(c)(3)(A) creates a compulsory license “to distribute . . . by means of a digital transmission[.]” If digital distributions didn’t implicate the public distribution right, it wouldn’t be a crime to distribute “by electronic means,” and one wouldn’t need a license to distribute “by means of a digital transmission.”

To claim that the “right to distribute encompasses the distribution of physical copies of a work, not electronic transmissions,” as the professors do, is simply wrong. There’s certainly an argument that can be made, but it’s not an accurate description of the law—which is how the professors present it. Everyone knows the distribution right exists online, and it’s industry practice to license digital distributions. Do you think iTunes and Amazon pay for distribution licenses because they just feel like it? It’s disturbing that professors would state without any qualification that electronic transmissions don’t implicate the distribution rights of copyright owners. And if they’re willing to say that, it makes you wonder what else they’re willing to say.


[1] My colleagues and I have written extensively about the copyright concerns with the FCC’s set-top box proposal. See, for example, here, here, here, and here. The FCC now claims that a revised version of its proposal addresses these concerns, but the new language has not yet been released. Despite this fact, these professors claim that the yet-to-be-released proposal “does not interfere with any legitimate copyright interests of programmers, and that it is within the Commission’s authority to implement.” We’ll save our analysis of the new proposal for when the text itself is made available.

Criminal Copyright Infringement is Crime of “Moral Turpitude”

This past Friday, the Board of Immigration Appeals held that criminal copyright infringement constitutes a “crime involving moral turpitude” under immigration law. The Board reasoned that criminal copyright infringement is inherently immoral because it involves the willful theft of property and causes harm to both the copyright owner and society.

The respondent, Raul Zaragoza-Vaquero, was indicted in 2012 for selling illicit CDs of popular artists including Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, and Jennifer Lopez over a five-year period. After a three-day trial, the jury found Zaragoza-Vaquero guilty of criminal copyright infringement under Section 506(a)(1)(A), which makes it a crime to “willfully” infringe “for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain.” The crime was a felony under Section 2319(b)(1) because it involved the “reproduction or distribution, . . . during any 180-day period, of at least 10 copies or phonorecords, of 1 or more copyrighted works, which have a total retail value of more than $2,500.” Zaragoza-Vaquero was sentenced to 33 months in prison and ordered to pay $36,000 in restitution.

Under immigration law, an alien who has been ordered removed from the United States may ask the Attorney General to cancel the removal order. However, there is an exception for “any alien convicted of . . . a crime involving moral turpitude,” in which case the Attorney General is powerless to cancel the removal. Zaragoza-Vaquero was ordered removed in early 2015, and the Immigration Judge pretermitted his application to have the removal order cancelled by the Attorney General. The Immigration Judge held that criminal copyright infringement is a “crime involving moral turpitude,” thus making Zaragoza-Vaquero ineligible for such cancellation. On appeal, the Board agreed, rejecting Zaragoza-Vaquero’s bid to have the Attorney General consider his removal.

Even though crimes of “moral turpitude” have been removable offenses since 1891, Congress has never defined what the phrase means nor listed the crimes that qualify. That job instead has been left to immigration judges and the federal courts. In 1951, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that “crimes in which fraud was an ingredient have always been regarded as involving moral turpitude.” Indeed, many property crimes have been held to involve “moral turpitude” when committed willfully because there is the criminal intent to defraud the property owner of its rights. “Moral turpitude” has thus been found to exist in numerous crimes against property, including arson, burglary, embezzlement, extortion, blackmail, bribery, false pretenses, forgery, larceny, receiving or transporting stolen goods, and check or credit card fraud.

Crimes against intellectual property have likewise been found to involve “moral turpitude.” For example, the Ninth Circuit held in 2008 that the use of counterfeit marks, in violation of state law, is “a crime involving moral turpitude because it is an inherently fraudulent crime.” The Ninth Circuit reasoned: “Either an innocent purchaser is tricked into buying a fake item; or even if the purchaser knows the item is counterfeit, the owner of the mark has been robbed of its value. The crime is really a species of theft. . . . The commission of the crime necessarily defrauds the owner of the mark, or an innocent purchaser of the counterfeit items, or both.”

Similarly, the Board of Immigration Appeals held in 2007 that trafficking in counterfeit goods, in violation of federal law, is a crime of “moral turpitude.” The Board reasoned that the conviction required the federal prosecutor to prove that the defendant “intentionally trafficked” and “knowingly used a spurious trademark that was likely to confuse or deceive others.” Even though the statute did not require proof that the defendant had the specific intent to defraud, the Board held that such trafficking involved “moral turpitude” because it is “inherently immoral” to willfully exploit the property owner and the public.

Turning back to Zaragoza-Vaquero, the Board defined “moral turpitude” as “conduct that shocks the public conscience as being inherently base, vile, or depraved, and contrary to accepted rules of morality and the duties owed between persons or to society in general.” The Board then noted that trafficking in counterfeit goods has been held to be a crime of “moral turpitude” because it involves (1) “theft of someone else’s property,” (2) “proof of intent to traffic,” (3) “societal harm,” and (4) “dishonest dealing and deliberate exploitation of the public and the mark owner.”

Reasoning by analogy to these trafficking cases, the Board ultimately held that criminal copyright infringement “must also be a crime involving moral turpitude.” Criminal copyright infringement statutes “were enacted to protect a form of intellectual property,” and offenses “must be committed willfully, meaning that a defendant must voluntarily and intentionally violate a known legal duty not to infringe a copyright.” The Board noted that criminal copyright infringement “also involves significant societal harm,” since “piracy” has “harmed the film and recording industries, including actors, artists, and musicians.” It pointed to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office, which found that “intellectual property crimes cause negative effects on health, safety, and lost revenue.”

The Board’s holding that criminal copyright infringement is a crime of “moral turpitude” thus extends the long line of cases finding that crimes against property are inherently immoral when the criminal intentionally defrauds the owner of its rights. While many will surely balk at the suggestion that there’s anything immoral about criminal copyright infringement, I think the Board reached the right conclusion—both in the moral and legal sense. A defendant such as Zaragoza-Vaquero, who for years willfully infringed for profit, has acted in a way that shocks the conscience and has shown a conscious disregard for the rights of others. And while prosecutors need not show the specific intent to defraud in securing such a conviction, the element of willfulness suffices to establish the intent to defraud the copyright owner of its property.

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© 2016 Devlin Hartline. Licensed under the Law Theories Public License 1.0.

Federal Circuit Again Finds Computer-Implemented Invention Patent Eligible

Cross-posted from the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property blog.

In Tuesday’s McRO v. Bandai decision, the Federal Circuit has once again reversed a district court’s determination that a computer-implemented invention (aka “software patent”) was not patent eligible under Section 101 of the Patent Act. This continues the Federal Circuit’s recent trend of clarifying the Supreme Court’s two-step patent-eligibility test under Mayo and Alice. The first step asks whether the invention is “directed to” a patent-ineligible concept, such as an abstract idea. If so, the second step then asks whether there is an “inventive concept” that transforms the concept into a patent-eligible invention. While the Supreme Court gave little guidance on what “directed to” and “inventive concept” mean in practice, the Federal Circuit’s recent decisions have made the Mayo-Alice test far less abstract—rather ironic, given that the test itself assesses abstractness.

This past May, the Federal Circuit held in Enfish that, in the software context, the “directed to” inquiry looks at whether “the plain focus of the claims is on an improvement to computer functionality itself.” Since the database claims at issue focused on specific improvements to computer capabilities, they were not “directed to” a patent-ineligible concept under Section 101. Two months later in Bascom, the Federal Circuit stated that an “inventive concept can be found in the non-conventional and non-generic arrangement of known, conventional pieces.” And even though each software claim, related to filtering content on the internet, was “known in the art” when taken individually, the Federal Circuit held that the claims, in combination, were patent eligible because they transformed “the abstract idea of filtering content into a particular, practical application of that abstract idea.”

Adding to this recent line of cases upholding the patent-eligibility of computer-implemented inventions, the Federal Circuit’s new opinion in McRO v. Bandai sheds even more light on the Section 101 analysis under the Mayo-Alice test. The invention at issue involved automated lip-syncing for computer-generated animation, which the district court held was drafted too broadly to be patent eligible. The Federal Circuit reversed, noting that courts “must look to the claims as an ordered combination,” even under the first step of the Mayo-Alice test. The Court of Appeals thus found that the proper analytical centerpiece was “whether the claims in these patents focus on a specific means or method that improves the relevant technology.” Since the invention constituted a “combined order of specific rules that renders information into a specific format that is then used and applied to create desired results,” the Federal Circuit held it patent eligible under Section 101.

Several commentators have praised the Federal Circuit’s decision. Bob Sachs, who specializes in patentable subject matter as a partner at Fenwick & West, points out that the Federal Circuit, for the first time, has used preemption to find that the invention was not “directed to” patent-ineligible subject matter. The Federal Circuit here looked at preemption as part of the first step of the Mayo-Alice test, finding it relevant to whether the invention was “directed to” a patent-ineligible concept in the first place. As Sachs explains, the Federal Circuit “confirms Enfish’s holding that the improvement provided by the specific claim limitations can be considered” under the first step of the Mayo-Alice test. Moreover, Sachs notes that the “panel here makes clear that a demonstration of meaningful non-preemption is sufficient to establish that a claim is not ‘directed to’ an abstract idea, and thus eligible at step 1.”

Other observers, including Erich Andersen, VP and Deputy General Counsel at Microsoft, and Gene Quinn of IPWatchdog, have applauded the Federal Circuit for making the patent-eligibility analysis even more concrete in light of the Supreme Court’s rather abstract abstractness test in Mayo and Alice. If anything, the Federal Circuit here has not only built upon its prior precedents in Enfish and Bascom, it has tied them together by explaining that ordered combinations are relevant to both the first and second steps of the Mayo-Alice test. In the end, the patent eligibility of a computer-implemented invention appears far more settled than ever before–a great result for inventors of so-called “software patents.” The Federal Circuit’s decision is certainly a far cry from the supposed death-knell for “software patents” predicted by several commentators after the Supreme Court’s opinion in Alice.

CloudFlare’s Desperate New Strategy to Protect Pirate Sites

Cross-posted from the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property (CPIP) blog.

CloudFlare has earned a somewhat dubious reputation in the online world. Website owners can set up CloudFlare in just a few minutes, gaining the performance, security, and privacy benefits the service provides. Traffic routed through CloudFlare’s global content delivery network is cached for faster delivery times and protected from numerous online threats. Pirate sites have flocked to the service because it hides their true identities from copyright owners by default. And it probably doesn’t hurt that CloudFlare CEO Matthew Prince thinks that “censoring the Internet” is “creepy,” even “under a court order.”

Prince practices what he preaches, and CloudFlare has been all-too-ready to lend a helping hand to even the most notorious pirates. When The Pirate Bay rose from the ashes in early 2015, CloudFlare provided the site with services that helped manage its massive server loads. CloudFlare’s encryption technology even made it easy for users in the UK to circumvent the High Court’s ban ordering ISPs to block the pirate site. Amazingly, The Pirate Bay is now back in the United States, using its original thepiratebay.org Virginia-based domain and benefiting from CloudFlare’s robust services to make its criminal enterprise run smoothly worldwide.

Of course, the only reason CloudFlare can get away with supporting the world’s most-visited torrent site is because the DMCA is such a mess. Courts have set the bar so high that CloudFlare wouldn’t likely be found to have red flag knowledge of the massive amounts of infringement it certainly knows its service enables for globally-infamous criminal infringers like The Pirate Bay. Rather than taking the high road and refusing to work with obvious pirate sites, CloudFlare lawyers up when pushed and denies the supportive role that its service provides.

We saw this last year in the Grooveshark case. After the original Grooveshark site was found liable for willful infringement and agreed to shut down, copycat sites sprung up at different top-level domains such as grooveshark.io and grooveshark.pw. The plaintiffs obtained a temporary restraining order against the copycats, which registrars Namecheap and Dynadot promptly complied with by disabling some of the domains. But when the plaintiffs asked CloudFlare to stop providing services to some of the other copycats, they were met with firm resistance. The plaintiffs had to turn to the court for an order clarifying that the injunction against the copycat sites prevented CloudFlare from providing them services.

With the backing of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, CloudFlare put up a big fight. It denied that it was in “active concert or participation” with the copycats, which under Rule 65 would have made it bound by their existing injunction. CloudFlare argued that its services were merely passive and that the domains would still remain accessible even if its services were cut off. The district court rejected CloudFlare’s self-serving arguments, noting that it was in fact aiding and abetting the copycat sites by operating their authoritative domain name servers and optimizing their traffic worldwide. Since CloudFlare had actual notice of the injunction and was in “active concert or participation” with the enjoined copycats, it was also bound by their injunction under Rule 65.

Hit with what must have been the eye-opening reality that, under penalty of contempt, it couldn’t knowingly help its enjoined customer engage in the very wrong the court had ordered it to stop committing, one might think that CloudFlare would have become more respectful of court orders involving its customers. However, as recent developments in the MP3Skull case show, CloudFlare has decided to again take the low road in shirking its responsibility to the court. And its argument here as to why it’s beyond the court’s reach is even more desperate than before.

In April of 2015, several record label plaintiffs sued MP3Skull for copyright infringement, easily obtaining a default judgment when the defendants failed to respond to the suit. Earlier this year, the plaintiffs were granted a permanent injunction, which the defendants quickly flouted by setting up shop under several different top-level domains. Naturally, the common denominator of these multiple MP3Skull sites was that they used CloudFlare. The plaintiffs’ lawyers sent a copy of the injunction against the pirate sites to CloudFlare, asking it to honor the injunction and stop supplying services to the enjoined domains. But, as with Grooveshark, CloudFlare again refused to comply.

The record label plaintiffs have now gone back to the district court, filing a motion requesting clarification that CloudFlare is bound by the injunction against the MP3Skull sites. They argue that the “law is clear that CloudFlare’s continued provision of services to Defendants, with full knowledge of this Court’s Order, renders CloudFlare ‘in active concert or participation’ with Defendants,” and they point to the opinion in the Grooveshark case in support. According to the plaintiffs, the only issue is whether CloudFlare is aiding and abetting the enjoined defendants by providing them services.

CloudFlare opposes the motion, though it noticeably doesn’t deny that it’s in “active concert or participation” with the enjoined defendants. Instead, CloudFlare argues that, since this is a copyright case, any injunction against it must comply with the DMCA:

Section 512(j) prescribes specific standards and procedures for injunctions against service providers like CloudFlare in copyright cases. It places strict limits on injunctions against eligible service providers. 17 U.S.C. § 512(j)(1). It specifies criteria that courts “shall consider” when evaluating a request for injunctive relief against a service provider. 17 U.S.C. § 512(j)(2). And it requires that a service provider have notice and an opportunity to appear, before a party may bind it with an injunction. 17 U.S.C. § 512(j)(3). Plaintiffs ignored those requirements entirely.

The gist of CloudFlare’s argument is that Section 512(j) controls injunctions against service providers like itself, notwithstanding the fact that Rule 65 binds those in “active concert or participation” with an enjoined party. In other words, CloudFlare says that the DMCA gives service providers unique immunity from having to obey court-issued injunctions under the Federal Rules—a remarkable claim requiring remarkable proof. And the case law cited to back up this claim? None. Zip. Nada. CloudFlare fails to produce one single cite showing that any injunctive-relief statute, whether copyright or otherwise, has ever been deemed to preempt the longstanding rule that it’s contempt of court to aid and abet an enjoined defendant. The desperation is palpable.

The reason the DMCA doesn’t apply to CloudFlare is obvious. Section 512(j) states that it “shall apply in the case of any application for an injunction under section 502 against a service provider” that qualifies for the safe harbors. CloudFlare goes on for pages about how it’s a service provider that would qualify for the safe harbor defense if given the chance, but all of this misses the point: CloudFlare is not being enjoined. The only service provider being enjoined is MP3Skull—and that injunction was issued under Section 502 without the limitations set forth in Section 512(j) because MP3Skull didn’t even bother to show up and attempt to claim the safe harbors. But the plaintiffs have not sought an injunction against CloudFlare, which they could only do by naming CloudFlare as a party to the suit.

Since CloudFlare itself isn’t being enjoined under Section 502, Section 512(j) provides it no limitations. The issue is simply whether, under the Federal Rules, CloudFlare is bound by the injunction that has already been issued against the MP3Skull sites. Perhaps not wanting to get bench-slapped again on the aiding and abetting question under Rule 65, CloudFlare is taking an even lower road with this desperate new argument that it’s magically immune to court orders against its customers under the Federal Rules. The district court has yet to rule on the plaintiffs’ motion, but my guess is that it will make short work in reminding CloudFlare of the court’s true power to hold aiders and abettors in contempt.

Do As I Say, Not As I Do: Google’s Patent Transparency Hypocrisy

Cross-posted from the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property (CPIP) blog.

It is common today to hear that it’s simply impossible to search a field of technology to determine whether patents are valid or if there’s even freedom to operate at all. We hear this complaint about the lack of transparency in finding “prior art” in both the patent application process and about existing patents.

The voices have grown so loud that Michelle K. Lee, Director of the Patent Office, has made it a cornerstone of her administration to bring greater transparency to the operations of the USPTO. She laments the “simple fact” that “a lot of material that could help examiners is not readily available, because the organizations retaining that material haven’t realized that making it public would be beneficial.” And she’s been implementing new programs to provide “easy access by patent examiners to prior art” as a “tool to help build a better IP system.”

We hear this complaint about transparency most often from certain segments of the high-tech industry as part of their policy message that the “patent system is broken.” One such prominent tech company is search giant Google. In formal comments submitted to the USPTO, for instance, Google asserts that a fundamental problem undermining the quality of software patents is that a “significant amount of software-related prior art does not exist in common databases of issued patents and published academic literature.” To remedy the situation, Google has encouraged the Patent Office to make use of “third party search tools,” including its own powerful search engines, to locate this prior art.

Google is not shy about why it wants more transparency with prior art. In a 2013 blog post, Google Senior Patent Counsel Suzanne Michel condemned so-called “patent trolls” and argued that the “PTO should improve patent quality” in order to “end the growing troll problem.” In comments from 2014, three Google lawyers told the Patent Office that “poor quality software patents have driven a litigation boom that harms innovation” and that making “software-related prior art accessible” will “make examination in the Office more robust to ensure that valid claims issue.” In comments submitted last May, Michel even proposed that the Patent Office use Google’s own patent search engines for “streamlining searches for relevant prior art” in order to enhance patent quality.

Given Google’s stance on the importance of broadly available prior art to help weed out vague patents and neuter the “trolls” that wield them, you’d think that Google would share the same devotion to transparency when it comes to its own patent applications. But it does not. Google has not mentioned in its formal comments and in its public statements that even using its own search engine would fail to disclose a substantial majority of its own patent applications. Unlike the other top-ten patent recipients in the U.S., including many other tech companies, Google keeps most of its own patent applications secret. It does this while at the same time publicly decrying the lack of transparency in the patent system.

The reality is that Google has a patent transparency problem. Not only does Google not allow many of its patent applications to be published early or even after eighteen months, which is the default rule, Google specifically requests that many of its patent applications never be published at all. So while Google says it wants patent applications from around the world to be searchable at the click of a mouse, this apparently does not include its own applications. The numbers here are startling and thus deserve to be made public—in the name of true transparency—for the first time.

Public Disclosure of Patent Applications

Beginning with the American Inventors Protection Act of 1999 (AIPA), the default rule has been that a patent application is published eighteen months after its filing date. The eighteen-month disclosure of the patent application will occur unless an applicant files a formal request that the application not be published at all. An applicant also has the option to obtain early publication in exchange for a fee. Before the AIPA, an application would only be made public if and when the patent was eventually granted. This allowed an applicant to keep her invention a trade secret in case the application was later abandoned or rejected.

The publication of patent applications provides two benefits to the innovation industries, especially given that the waiting time between filing of an application and issuance of the patent or a final rejection by an examiner can take years. First, earlier publication of applications provides notice to third parties that a patent may cover a technology they are considering adopting in their own commercial activities. Second, publication of patent applications expands the field of publicly-available prior art, which can be used to invalidate either other patent applications or already-issued patents themselves. Both of these goals produce better-quality patents and an efficiently-functioning innovation economy.

Separate from the legal mandate to publish patent applications, Google has devoted its own resources to creating greater public access to patents and patent applications. From its Google Patent Search in 2006 and its Prior Art Finder in 2012 to its current Google Patents, Google has parlayed its search expertise into making it simple to find prior art from around the world. Google Patents now includes patent applications “from the USPTO, EPO, JPO, SIPO, WIPO, DPMA, and CIPO,” even translating them into English. It’s this search capability that Google has been encouraging the Patent Office to utilize in the quest to make relevant prior art more accessible.

Given Google’s commitment to patent transparency, one might expect that Google would at least be content to allow default publication of its own applications under the AIPA’s eighteen-month default rule. Perhaps, one might think, Google would even opt for early publication. However, neither appears to be the case; Google instead is a frequent user of the nonpublication option.

Google’s Secrecy vs. Other Top-Ten Patent Recipients

After hearing anecdotal reports indicating that Google was frequently using its option under the AIPA to avoid publishing its patent applications, we decided to investigate further. We looked at the patents Google received in 2014 to see what proportion of its applications was subject to nonpublication requests. To provide context, we also looked at how Google compared to the other top-ten patent recipients in this regard. The results are startling.

Unfortunately, there’s no simple way to tell if a nonpublication request was made when a patent application was filed using the USPTO’s online databases—nonpublication requests are not an available search field. The same appears to be true of subscription databases. The searches therefore have to be done manually, digging through the USPTO’s Public PAIR database to find the application (known in patent parlance as the “file wrapper”) for each individual patent that includes the individual application documents. Those interested in doing this will find startling numbers of patent applications kept secret by Google, both in terms of absolute numbers but also as compared to the other top-ten recipients of U.S. patents.

By way of example as to what one needs to look for, take the last three patents issued to Google in 2014: D720,389; 8,925,106; and 8,924,993.

For the first patent, the application was filed on December 13, 2013, and according to the application data sheet, no request was made to either publish it early or not publish it at all:

Since no such request was made, the application would normally be published eighteen months later or upon issuance of the patent. Indeed, that is what happened in due course—this patent issued just over one year after the application was filed, as it was concurrently published and issued in December of 2014.

For the second patent in our small set of examples, the application was filed on April 20, 2012. In this case, Google requested nonpublication by including a letter requesting that the application not be published:

Google thus opted out of the default eighteen-month publication rule, and the application was not published until the patent issued in December of 2014, some twenty months later.

Finally, for the third patent, the application was filed on November 10, 2011, and the application data sheet shows that Google requested the application not be published:

Google here again opted out of the default publication rule, and the application was not published until the patent issued in December of 2014—more than three years after the application was filed.

We applied this methodology to a random sample of 100 patents granted to each of the top-ten patent recipients in 2014.

In 2014, Google was one of the top-ten patent recipients, coming in sixth place with 2,649 issued patents:

SOURCES: USPTO PatentsView Database & USPTO Patent Full-Text and Image Database

We randomly sampled 100 patents for each of the top-ten patent recipients for 2014. We reviewed the file wrapper for each to determine the proportion of nonpublication requests in each sample.

Our results revealed that Google is an extreme outlier among top-ten patent recipients with respect to nonpublication requests. Eight of the top-ten patent recipients made zero requests for nonpublication, permitting their patent applications to be published at the eighteen-month deadline. The eighth-ranking patent recipient, Qualcomm, requested that one application not be published. By contrast, Google formally requested that 80 out of 100—a full 80%—of its applications not be published.

The following chart shows these results:

SOURCE: USPTO Public PAIR Database

Conclusion

Based on this result, Google deliberately chooses to keep a vast majority of its patent applications secret (at least it did so in 2014). This secrecy policy for its own patent applications is startling given both Google’s public declarations of the importance of publication of all prior art and its policy advocacy based on this position. It is even more startling when seen in stark contrast to the entirely different policies of the other nine top patent recipients for 2014.

It is possible that 2014 was merely an anomaly, and that patent application data from other years would show a different result. We plan to investigate further. So, stay tuned. But for whatever reason, it appears that Google doesn’t want the majority of its patent applications to be published unless and until its patents finally issue. This preference for secrecy stands in contrast to Google’s own words and official actions.

As one of the top patent recipients in the U.S., you’d think Google would want its applications to be published as quickly as possible. The other top recipients of U.S. patents in 2014 certainly adopt this policy, furthering the goal of the patent system in publicly disclosing new technological innovation as quickly as possible. The fact that Google does otherwise speaks volumes.