Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently disclosed that gross merchandise sales in the Amazon Marketplace by independent third party sellers (as opposed to sales made directly by Amazon itself) had grown to 58% of total sales. According to data company Statista, 73% of those sellers were small businesses with between 1-5 employees. For many of them, sales on Amazon comprise their entire revenue.
Discussion of the opportunity Amazon Marketplace represents for small business, however, is joined by the voices of many retailers complaining about sales of counterfeit and stolen goods. To better police its online sales, Amazon has launched initiatives such as Project Zero which allows owners of brands to delete counterfeit products.
The online retail giant’s latest enforcement effort—designed to combat patent infringement—has been dubbed the Utility Patent Neutral Evaluation Procedure (UPNEP). Under this new trial program, a company that believes certain products for sale on the Amazon Marketplace infringe its patents can request an evaluation by depositing $4,000. If the seller does not dispute the accusation, Amazon removes the infringing products from the marketplace, and refunds the deposit to the patent owner. If the seller decides to fight the claim, it also deposits $4,000. Amazon then assigns a lawyer with patent expertise to resolve the dispute. The patent owner submits an opening brief, the merchant files a response, and then the patent owner may submit a reply. The lawyer reviews the submissions, and decides whether the listing should be removed or maintained. The winner gets its money back, and the loser’s $4,000 gets paid to the lawyer. There is no discovery, and no appeal or request for reconsideration. The whole process takes just a few months from start to finish.
Many stakeholders in the Amazon ecosystem have applauded the UPNEP as providing both patent owners and Amazon merchants with a quick and cost-effective mechanism for resolving infringement disputes arising from third-party listings. While participation in the program does not prevent a patent owner from commencing a lawsuit, many sellers do not reside in the United States, and thus may not be subject to service of process in a U.S. federal court. Without UPNEP, patent owners would have little to no recourse in such cases.
Law firms with IP litigation expertise are already offering to represent both patent owners and accused sellers in connection with the program. One such firm told The Information that his client boosted sales by 700% after using UPNEP to remove listings that were knockoffs of the client’s patented product. Consultants who advise Amazon sellers are also positioning specialized services. One such consultant advised The Information that a cup manufacturer client had used UPNEP to remove 170 product listings that it believed were infringing its patents.
There are some detractors, however. Deriding the new initiative as “the District of Amazon Federal Court,” Paul Morinville of IP Watchdog says the new initiative is a symptom of a broken patent system. He questions, among other issues, whether the lawyers evaluating the claims will be impartial, or beholden to Amazon’s interests.
IMS Elite Expert Peter Kent, who has served as an expert in several Amazon-related cases, is monitoring developments closely. “A critical question in my mind about the UPNEP program,” explains Kent, “is whether it will be exploited by larger companies trying to knock out competitors using spurious patent claims. For instance, if a small merchant who can’t afford the $4,000 doesn’t respond, their product listings are automatically removed, regardless of the merits of the petitioning company’s patent claims.”
At IMS, we’ll continue to monitor whether UPNEP—and the model it represents—becomes popular for resolving disputes between patent owners and merchants. With experience on more than 5,000 patent matters in the past decade, proprietary intelligence systems, and the best-in-class network of top experts from complex areas ranging from 5G, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality, IMS stand ready to connect you with the expert best-aligned for your needs.