The patent system seems in the midst of truly dramatic change. The last twenty years have seen the rise of a new business model – the patent troll – that grew to become a majority of all patent lawsuits. They have seen a significant expansion in the number of patents granted and a fundamental change in the industries in which those patents are filed. They have seen the passage of the most important legislative reform in the last sixty years, a law that reoriented legal challenges to patents away from courts and toward the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO). And they have seen remarkable changes in nearly every important legal doctrine, from patent eligibility to obviousness to infringement to remedies.
These changes have prompted alarm in a number of quarters. From the 1990s to the 2000s, as the number of patents and patent troll suits skyrocketed, technology companies and academics worried about the “crisis” in the patent system – a crisis of overprotection that might interfere with rather than promote innovation. By 2015, as patent reform took effect and the Supreme Court undid many of the Federal Circuit’s expansions of patent rights, it was patent owners who were speaking of a crisis in the patent system – a crisis of underprotection that might leave innovators without adequate protection. Depending on one’s perspective, then, the sky seems to have been falling on the patent system for some time.
Despite the undeniable significance of these changes in both directions, something curious has happened to the fundamental characteristics of the patent ecosystem during this period: very little. Whether we look at the number of patent applications filed, the number of patents issued, the number of lawsuits filed, the patentee win rate in those lawsuits, or the market for patent licenses, the data show very little evidence that patent owners and challengers are behaving differently because of changes in the law. The patent system, then, seems surprisingly resilient to changes in the law. This is a puzzle. In this article, I document this phenomenon and give some thought to why the fundamental characteristics of the patent system seem resistant to even major changes in patent law and procedure. The results pose some profound questions not only for efforts at patent reform but for the role of the patent system in society as a whole.