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Patent litigation is a growth industry. According to the American Intellectual Property Law Association, in cases where between $1 million and $25 million is at risk, a patent owner should expect to spend more than $2 million to litigate a patent through trial and appeal. Where more than $25 million is at risk, costs climb above $4 million. All this, to litigate a patent that an attorney likely wrote in a week or two, and that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office probably spent less than 20 hours examining.

But the specter of such costly outlays of time and money has not seemed to stem the tide. During the twelve-month period ending September 9, 2003, U.S. patent owners filed 2,788 patent infringement lawsuits, a 13 percent increase over the same period five years earlier. Similarly, in 2003 the United States issued 187,487 patents, a 22 percent increase over 1999. Patent litigation has become the sport of kings.

With all this patenting and patent litigation going on, you would expect businesspeople to have become more comfortable with patents and their enforcement. But you would be wrong. It seems that few challenges strike deeper fear in the heart of businesspeople today than the prospect of patent litigation. Patent owners fear staggering legal fees, and the risk that their key patents could be found invalid. Accused infringers fear, that their key products could be found infringing, shuting them down. Both sides fear that all-consuming litigation will distract executives from their core business missions.

But patent litigation often is not as bad you think. Most cases resolve far short of trial, either through settlement or pretrial court rulings, or summary judgment. In addition, it is rare for a court to order an accused infringer to stop selling the accused product during the litigation, a step known as preliminary injunctive relief. As a result, the market rumbling that often erupts from the filing of a patent infringement complaint typically dies down shortly thereafter, as the patent litigation lumbers along-often for years. During that time, customers relax, business proceeds, and lawyers litigate. Life goes on.

So, what does patent litigation involve? Let’s walk through the process, step by step.

After the patent owner files the complaint, the accused infringer has 20 days to answer. The parties often agree to extend this by a month or longer, especially if an early settlement seems possible. Unless there is a settlement, the parties’ lawyers confer over the following weeks, to try to agree on a litigation schedule. The parties then begin to exchange information, such as the identification of witnesses and relevant documents.

Next comes the process known as fact discovery, which takes place over the following nine months or so. Except for a trial, this is the most expensive part of the litigation. It also is the most distracting for the parties, as company documents get collected, copied, and exchanged, and company witnesses get deposed. During fact discovery, the parties serve and respond to written requests, including questions (“interrogatories”) that must be answered in writing, and requests for the production of documents and objects, such as prototypes of the patented invention and samples of the allegedly infringing products.

Fact discovery is followed by expert discovery. During this process, which typically lasts two to three months, witnesses who are permitted to give opinion testimony on complicated technical or legal issues, must prepare and provide to the other side written reports detailing their background, their opinions, and their bases for those opinions. Typically, expert discovery begins with each side producing expert reports on issues upon which it bears the burden of proof; e.g., infringement for the patent owner, and patent invalidity for the accused infringer. In response, the parties exchange expert reports rebutting one another’s initial expert reports, and take testimony from one another’s experts.

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