Guest column: ‘Law machine’ puts patent files at Congress’s fingertips

Somewhat late to the dance, the US legal system is finally meeting information technology. And Josh Becker has made sure there is a “law machine” ready to take patent proceedings into the 21st Century.

Becker, a successful VC and tech pro in Silicon Valley, is CEO of fast-growing Lex Machina (latin for “law machine”) to collect and analyze millions of documents produced by the US courts. This vast database was created with the public interest in mind.

“From day one, we were trying to advance the public interest by creating tools that would help create more transparency around the legal process, and especially those cases around the intellectual property that drive the US economy,” Becker explained to me. “That’s why we have always made our tool and data available for free to Congress, judges and the academic community.”

Pretty timely given that Congress is in the throes of considering patent reform legislation. Interested Congressional staff can visit https://lexmachina.com/customer/public-interest/

What is in that searchable database? More than 6 million digitized court documents, with the data structured so that a user can discover trends, probabilities, and case histories in different districts around the country. That can be vital information for both the plaintiff and the defendant in the high stakes patent cases — but it also provides critical data for policymakers trying to strike the right balance.

“We believe that openness and digital government is good for just this reason,” Becker explains. “We can then analyze the data to help policymakers as they shape law around the intellectual property that is increasingly fundamental to US economic growth.”

Becker knows policy. He is a former Congressional staffer who wandered into the tech field and found multiple successes in stops at Netscape, in the venture industry, and later as co-founder of Dice.com, a leading online job portal.

Holding both a JD and an MBA from Stanford, he saw an opportunity at that intersection.

“IP as a percentage of US assets has increased dramatically, and with it the number of cases around IP and the sizes of judgments “ he noted. “Now that the data exists, and our team figured out how to collect and structure it, we found ourselves in a $200 billion dollar market where we can do well by doing good.”

Today, the firm continues to collect all the available data, and then structure it. Becker uses a sports analogy to explain it.

“It’s like Moneyball except it’s about litigation rather than baseball. We collect all the data and statistics so that you can search and find new insights,” he told me. “For instance, what percentage of cases in a given district have been found in favor of the plaintiff, and what have the average settlements been?”

“When you have the data, you can make informed decisions based on hard facts  — again, like Moneyball.”

Congress has already acknowledged that Lex Machina is offering something of value. With passage of the America Invents Act, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) was tasked with looking at patent litigation. The GAO chose Lex Machina to compile data on a random sample of 500 patent cases filed 2007-2011 (100 per year) and to describe key characteristics of the plaintiffs and defendants.

In a subsequent report, the GAO report called for the US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) to examine trends in patent litigation and link this information to patent examination data to improve patent quality.

“If we do this right, there will be better policy, better patents, better process, more economic value and less damaging litigation.”

Hon. Phillip Bond is a former undersecretary of Commerce for technology and a former CEO of the trade association TechAmerica. Today he is president and CEO of Bond & Associates, a technology and healthcare lobby firm
 with offices in Washington and Silicon Valley.