Richard Wolf

 |  USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court avoided an upheaval in the way patent disputes can be resolved out of court Tuesday by siding with regulators over judges.

The ruling was 7-2 and was written by Justice Clarence Thomas. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Neil Gorsuch dissented.

The case, while obscure to most Americans, had attracted an onslaught of legal papers from major companies and trade groups on both sides of the system Congress created in 2011. Billions of dollars hung in the balance.

On the winning side were the nation’s largest tech companies, including Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter. They argued that the Patent Trial and Appeal Board remained the best way to quash suspect patents, including those obtained by so-called patent “trolls” as a way to extract royalties.

On the losing side were major pharmaceutical companies and others seeking to return to a system under which only courts, not regulators, decided such disputes.

During oral argument in November, some of the court’s conservative justices said the process gives the executive branch powers that belong to federal judges. Liberal justices said Congress simply gave federal officials the ability to correct mistakes.

More than 7,000 petitions have been filed and more than 1,300 patents canceled through the process, saving both sides time and money. There currently are some 2.1 million patents in force, valued at $886 billion.

The dispute was between two energy companies arguing over equipment that protects wellheads during hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Oil States Energy Services, the company challenging the administrative appeals process, said it altered 400 years of judicial review dating back to the British Empire. 

But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the process merely gives the Patent and Trademark Office a streamlined method for correcting its own errors. In Great Britain hundreds of years ago, she asked during oral argument, “the King couldn’t say, ‘I made a mistake?'”





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