Samsung Supreme Court appeal critical to rural innovation

Technological advancement, both innovative devices and new infrastructures, have always been at the heart of increased prosperity for America's farmers and rural communities. From the 18th and 19th century inventions of the cotton gin, the moldboard plow and the telegraph to today’s ongoing development of self-driving tractors, areal drones and the internet, technological advancements in both devices and infrastructure drive systemic changes in rural America — increasing productivity, enhancing safety and bringing about new and more efficient ways by which farmers and rural residents bring products to market. 

Patent rights make these inventions possible. They play a unique role in protecting inventors — especially small businesses in rural America. As one of the leading advocates for America’s farmers, ranchers and other rural residents, the National Grange closely follows trends and advancements in technology that benefit our members, and the corresponding patent laws designed to protect them, for 150 years.

To that end, the National Grange recently filed an amicus curiae brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in a patent case between Samsung and Apple that threatens to weaken patent standards and thus harm rural businesses and innovators. This week, Samsung filed a reply brief with the Supreme Court that reiterated the important legal issues at stake in the case and why the court must agree to hear the case when it meets in conference later this month.  

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Rural businesses face a host of difficult challenges. Many continue to struggle with historical disadvantages arising from greater geographic distances to centers of commerce. They face stiff challenges to access the capital needed to start or expand a business. They often are the first to suffer from a business downturn because they are usually at the end of the supply chain, providing a single product or service to a larger business or manufacturer. 

 

Patent protections are an important tool for growing a successful rural business. Patents protect fledgling rural inventors with limited legal recourse from having their innovations ripped off by larger competitors, business partners or other bad actors.

The National Grange has taken an interest in this case between the two tech giants because the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit’s decision, if left in place, would weaken patent quality and thus make it easier to file a lawsuit claiming a patent has been infringed upon. This would add yet another potential hurdle for innovative rural businesses to worry about. The Supreme Court must seize its opportunity to correct the lower court’s ruling and help reestablish predictable patent quality standards that correspond with modern commerce and technology.   

The Federal Circuit’s decision would drastically weaken a doctrine in patent law known as the “obviousness standard" — an important classification in patent law.  "Obviousness" refers to the assessment of an invention’s novelty with respect to previous inventions, thereby determining if the proposed development is actually “new” and eligible for a patent.

Patent holders have long relied on strong obviousness standards to demonstrate that their inventions are indeed innovative and distinct. The Federal Circuit’s controversial ruling would dramatically weaken the standard.

The Federal Circuit’s decision makes it much easier to file frivolous lawsuits challenging legitimate inventions. Unfortunately, small businesses are often the prime targets of patent trolls hoping for quick financial settlements from those unable to absorb years of legal fees and lost productivity.

Small businesses are not the only ones that would suffer from low quality patents and unnecessary litigation. In fact, allowing the Federal Circuit’s ruling to stand could well disrupt the entire supply chain for manufactured products — as larger companies that source their components from smaller suppliers would in turn be forced to raise their prices, slowing orders or cutting relationships with smaller, rural suppliers altogether. 

Still other potential major disruptions for rural entrepreneurs are the risks to further deployment of advanced telecommunications infrastructures throughout rural America if the Federal Circuit's ruling stands. Internet connectivity is a great equalizer, making it possible for anyone to operate a business from anywhere. Smartphones and other mobile devices provide a means to connect all Americans. They are helping close the rural digital divide.

But mobile devices and other technological systems also have some of the most complicated manufacturing supply chains anywhere in the world. A modern mobile device may contain hundreds of individually patented components, each of which could be subject to frivolous patent enforcement lawsuits under the Federal Circuit's ruling.  Weaker patent protections will slow the positive trend of bridging the digital divide by making mobile telecommunications devices more expensive and making it harder for innovators to develop solutions that connect rural America.

Patent protections make it possible for rural inventors to innovate and protect their inventions. The Supreme Court has the opportunity to support these critical protections by restoring the strength of the obviousness standard. The outcome of this case will have a lasting impact on rural businesses. 

The National Grange encourages the Supreme Court to hear the case and overturn the Federal Circuit’s ruling. The stakes for the future of agricultural innovation and American farmers are too significant to ignore.  

Leroy Watson is a member of the board of directors of the National Grange — the nation's oldest general farm and rural public interest organization with more than 2,000 affiliated local, county and state Grange chapters across the U.S. 


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