The rash of filings before the law took effect contributed to the overall increase. But the numbers continued to rise after the law was implemented because NPEs were undaunted by the nonjoinder rule. They were now filing separate suits against each defendant, even if they were all being accused of infringing the same patent.
Many of the ranked firms defended clients against those nonpracticing entities. This is to be expected, given that NPEs accounted for 40 percent of all patent lawsuits filed in 2011, according to a study published by the University of California Hastings College of Law. Those NPEs, defined as "entities whose primary focus is deriving income from licensing and litigation as opposed to making products," accounted for only 22 percent of patent suits filed in 2007, according to the study, which was part of a Government Accounting Office research project using Stanford Law School's Lex Machina database.
One particularly active NPE in 2011 was Stamford, Connecticut-based Walker Digital LLC, which has more than 400 patents in its intellectual property portfolio. On April 11, 2011, it filed 15 patent infringement suits against more than 100 companies, including Apple Inc., Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Amazon.com Inc. The patents that were allegedly infringed covered a range of areas from gaming to telephony to image capture. Many of the firms near the top of the rankings defended clients against Walker Digital. Fish alone handled 11 of those suits, Chaplin said.
The growth in NPE activity explains the high placement of plaintiffs firm Niro, Haller & Niro. It was number four overall in the number of cases it handled in 2011 and number one in the number of cases where it represented the plaintiff. Chicago-based Niro, a firm known for its representation of NPEs, helped inspire the term patent troll. In 2011 Niro handled 105 cases and represented plaintiffs in 100 of them.
NPEs weren't the only patent asserters, however. Competitors also sued to protect their IP and presumably their market share. Another firm that benefited from these battles was Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, which was formed in 2011 through the merger of Kilpatrick Stockton and IP firm Townsend and Townsend and Crew. Kilpatrick not only made it into the top tier for the first time but ranked second in the number of clients it defended in 2011 patent suits. Many of its clients are big players in the technology sector.
Technology-based lawsuits related to semiconductors, smart-phone wars, and the Internet kept most of our top-ranking firms busy in 2011. Pharmaceutical and life sciences litigation was also active, said Anthony Insogna of Jones Day, who in 2011 represented Celgene Corp. in several Hatch-Waxman patent infringement cases. Fish's Chaplin, whose firm represented Allergan Inc. in two big cases in 2011, agrees. "We've seen our pharma practice increase quite a bit," she said.
IP lawyers are benefiting from all the patent litigation activity, but in-house counsel are reeling at the size of awards. While the median award in a patent case plummeted in 2010 to $1.9 million, it once again skyrocketed in 2011 to $8.8 million, according to the PricewaterhouseCoopers study. The last time it was higher was in 2005 when it hit $10.2 million, adjusted for inflation.
NPEs are responsible for much of that increase. The PricewaterhouseCoopers study notes awards to NPEs in the last decade have been almost double the size of awards to practicing entities. The major changes contained in the patent reform law ultimately did not address the calculation of damages in patent infringement cases, although the topic had been discussed in earlier drafts of the legislation. So damage awards may continue to remain high.
There is some good news for companies defending themselves against patent infringement charges, however. Lawyers believe that the days of runaway damages are starting to become a thing of the past. They say the Federal Circuit is starting to clamp down, throwing out outsize verdicts. "District courts will eventually get the message," said Jones Day partner and IP attorney Brian Poissant.
Even so, it doesn't appear as if patent litigation will decline in the near future. "The number of patent trolls are increasing," Poissant said. "The old standbys are still there, but a lot more have gotten into the business."