By Dennis Crouch
By their nature, patents have the power to control the ways that we can use our property. Gun laws can prohibit gun owners from shooting in certain areas. In the same way, a patent covering a particular gun will prohibit an individual (without license) from building or using a gun with that design. This is true even if the individual owns all the raw materials necessary to build the gun. Following this train reasoning, Courts have historically recognized that the public has a right to access patent information. Traditionally, US courts have operated in a manner that is open and public. However, in recent years more and more judges have allowed the courts to become a largely secret adjudication forum. [Note here that this issue will be a topic of one of our panels at the October 4 Conference here at Mizzou]. This parallels the rise in the ongoing secret adjudication both for grand juries and national security issues.
In Apple Inc. v. Samsung Electronics Co. (Fed. Cir. 2013), the Federal Circuit largely rejects any general public interest in patent and litigation information and instead holds that the public interest must be definite and particularized in order to have merit. The court writes:
We recognize the importance of protecting the public's interest in judicial proceedings and of facilitating its understanding of those proceedings. That interest, however, does not extend to mere curiosity about the parties' confidential information where that information is not central to a decision on the merits. While protecting the public's interest in access to the courts, we must remain mindful of the parties' right to access those same courts upon terms which will not unduly harm their competitive interest. For the reasons set forth above, we hold that the district court abused its discretion in refusing to seal the particular documents that Apple and Samsung challenge in these appeals.
Ordinarily, this type of appeal does not reach a court of appeals because most district court judges are extremely willing to allow parties to keep file documents, briefs, and testimony under seal in a way that is generally kept secret from the public. As with most disputes, the judge does not intervene when all parties agree to keep information secret. Here, Judge Koh refused to keep documents under seal even though both parties (Apple and Samsung) had stipulated that they could be so filed.
Writing for the court, Judge Prost highlights what the "extraordinary" notion that a patent trial should be open to the public.
Consistent with the extraordinary level of interest in the case, the press was given extraordinary access to the judicial proceedings. Unlike many patent trials, which often contain mountains of sealed exhibits and occasionally have closed courtroom proceedings, the district court explained to the parties before the trial that "the whole trial is going to be open." Consequently, the district court agreed to seal only a small number of trial exhibits. And shortly after the close of business each day, the parties, by order of the court, provided the press with electronic copies of every exhibit used at trial that day. Similarly, most exhibits attached to pre-trial and post-trial motions were ordered unsealed.
In its decision, the Federal Circuit purported to follow Ninth Circuit law requiring that "That is, the party [wanting to seal records] must articulate compelling reasons supported by specific factual findings that outweigh the general history of access and the public policies favoring disclosure, such as the public interest in understanding the judicial process." Here, the inclusion of trade secret information is often sufficient to warrant sealing of records.
In rejecting the district court's decision, the Federal Circuit held that Judge Koh had applied a too stringent standard. In particular, Judge Koh asked for "compelling reasons" for sealing the documents while the law only requires "good cause."