It is often said that “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” The same basic principle applies to patent infringement—as a defendant in a Texas patent case recently discovered, much to its chagrin. The US District for the Eastern Court of Texas has ruled that having a policy of ignoring other companies’ patents is sufficient grounds to support claims of willful patent infringement. Such claims can lead to treble damages and attorneys’ fees being awarded against the party found to have willfully infringed the patents.
The patent dispute (Motiva Patents, LLC v. HTC Corporation) involves two makers of virtual reality hardware. Motiva Patents LLC claimed that HTC Corp.’s Vive virtual reality system willfully infringed upon five of its patents related to a system controller that users employ to engage in virtual reality activities.
HTC officials, however, argued they could not have willfully infringed upon Motiva’s patents because they knew nothing of that technology. In fact, they said HTC had a policy of deliberately not reviewing other companies’ patents—and employees were instructed not to do so, according to court documents.
But rather than protect the company, the Eastern District Court found this policy opened the door for support of Motiva’s assertions that HTC willfully infringed upon Motiva’s patents. The court stated that intentionally being blind to the facts was essentially the same as knowing about a competitor’s patent and infringing on it anyway.
The lesson for other companies is plain and simple —not only is a policy of intentionally ignoring competitors’ patents an inadequate defense, it actually can make defendants more vulnerable to willful patent infringement findings. Just as the head-in-the-sand defense isn’t much help to an ostrich in imminent danger, it can be a risky strategy for any company that desires to avoid being on the losing end of a willful patent infringement suit.
In addition, companies should take steps to understand the lay of the patent landscape in the field where they introduce and sell products. Such prudent preventative steps can help to reduce the costly risks of willful patent infringement.