3 reasons juries have no place in the patent system

Unless you spent the weekend under a rock, you’ve heard that a jury ordered Samsung to hand Apple (s aapl) $1.05 billion for violating its patents. The verdict and month long trial has captivated tech types but also provides more ammunition for critics who say juries shouldn’t be deciding these questions in first place.


The jury in Apple-Samsung confronted hundreds of questions, some of them on topics obscure enough to make an intellectual property lawyer blanche — design patents, patent exhaustion and so on. Yet, they were done in less than three days. As Abovethelaw editor, Elie Mystal, mused “It would take me more than three days to understand¬†all the terms in the verdict! Much less come to a legally binding decision on all of these separate issues. Did you guys just flip a coin?”

A more damning criticism came from the popular Groklaw site which pointed out a series of basic errors by the jury: a decision to award $2 million for a patent that Samsung hadn’t infringed in the first place; a decision to assign damages based on punishment, not compensation.

This type of slapdash decision-making lends support to Judge Richard Posner and others who argue that it’s time to end jury trials in patent cases. Here are three more reasons Apple v Samsung should not have gone before a jury:

Reason 1: Jurors can be influenced by brand loyalty

Let’s remember that the jurors who decided the case were not Blind Justice but consumers who are influenced by brands.

That influence can be considerable. According to Robert Kozinets, a marketing professor at York University, “brand communities” that emerge around products like Apple’s are supplanting religions or neighborhoods as a source of personal identity. He says that Apple today has greater ideological power than many countries.

“That identification with Apple will lead to community and a sense of loyalty. It also leads to a sense of empowerment that can lead people to step up and protect it because they know there are so many others like them.”

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with defending Apple (or Google (s goog) or Microsoft (s msft)). The problem is that brand loyalty can interfere with patent policy. When asked to decide a patent case, juries are likely to go with emotion over evidence — deciding a case based on brand loyalty rather than the law at hand.

In the case of Apple-Samsung, the trial was about a beloved American brand versus a foreign competitor. Not only that, but the trial took place in Silicon Valley, right in the heart of Apple land. This was like asking Boston Red Sox fans to judge the conduct of the New York Yankees.

In this climate, it’s no wonder that the jury appears to have made their decision based on a desire to “send a message” to Samsung rather than parsing harder technical questions about whether Apple’s rectangle and “bounce-back” patents should have existed in the first place.

Reason 2: Juries are too easily swayed by “he’s a copycat”

During the trial, Apple offered an easy-to-follow narrative that is familiar to anyone who has been in grade school: “That’s my idea. He took it and pretended it was his.”¬†Samsung on the other hand had to explain why, even though Apple had patents, it was not infringing and that the patents were not actually valid patents and so on. One story is crisp and clean, the other is furtive and guilty-sounding. Guess which story has more punch in the hands of a trial lawyer?

In the words of Posner: “patent plaintiffs tend to request trial by jury because they believe that jurors tend to favor patentees, believing that they must be worthy inventors defending the fruits of their invention against copycats.”

Unfortunately, these simple narratives distort what patents are all about. Patents are not primarily about stopping copycats (that’s why we have trademarks) but are instead a form of industrial policy based on 20-year monopolies. If the policy is effective, it produces more innovation. If the patent policy is not effective, it creates monopolies that harm competitors and consumers. In Apple-Samsung, there’s a good chance we’re doing the latter; we may regard Apple as an innovator and Samsung as a copycat — but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to award Apple sweeping monopolies that may raise prices and stunt the smartphone market.

Patents are as complex as other industrial policies like subsidies or regulatory regimes. When disputes arise, they should be put before an expert tribunal rather than a jury that is easily swayed by schoolyard “copycat” narratives.

Reason 3: Jury trials over patents are a waste of money

Apple and Samsung will spend ¬†from $20 million to $500 million in legal fees, according to sources surveyed by the Wall Street Journal. While the companies would have blown a bundle no matter what, the jury presence added millions to the tab. This figure doesn’t even take account of the costs to the federal justice system or to the jurors and their employers. And for what? To respond to questions likely beyond their capacity and that will, in any case, be picked apart on appeal.

There’s a faster, cheaper and more efficient way to handle this. As Judge Posner proposes, it makes sense to stuff future patent disputes into a corner of the US Patent and Trademark Office.

Juries are not responsible for all that ails the patent system. But getting rid of them would be a useful step.

(Image by Junial Enterprises via Shutterstock)