A company and its law firm have agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that they used deceptive sales claims and phony legal threats in letters that accused thousands of small businesses around the United States of patent infringement. The settlement would bar the company, MPHJ Technology Investments, LLC, and its law firm from making deceptive representations when asserting patent rights.
The settlement with MPHJ is the first time the FTC has taken action using its consumer protection authority against a patent assertion entity (PAE). PAEs are companies that obtain patent rights and try to generate revenue by licensing to or litigating against those who are or may be using patented technology.
“Patents can promote innovation, but a patent is not a license to engage in deception,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Small businesses and other consumers have the right to expect truthful communications from those who market patent rights.”
According to the FTC’s administrative complaint, MPHJ Technology Investments, LLC, bought patents relating to network computer scanning technology, and then told thousands of small businesses that they were likely infringing the patents and should purchase a license. In more than 9,000 letters sent under the names of numerous MPHJ subsidiaries, the complaint alleges, MPHJ falsely represented that many other companies had already agreed to pay thousands of dollars for licenses.
The administrative complaint also alleges that MPHJ’s law firm, Farney Daniels, P.C., authorized letters on the firm’s letterhead that were sent to more than 4,800 small businesses. These letters warned that the firm would file a patent infringement lawsuit against the recipient if it did not respond to the letter. The letters also referenced a two-week deadline and attached a purported complaint for patent infringement, usually drafted for filing in the federal court closest to the small business receiving the letter. In reality, the complaint alleges, the senders had no intention—and did not make preparations—to initiate lawsuits against the small businesses that did not respond to their letters. No such lawsuits were ever filed.
In the proposed consent order, announced today for public comment, MPHJ, Farney Daniels, and MPHJ’s owner, Jay Mac Rust, agree to refrain from making certain deceptive representations when asserting patent rights, such as false or unsubstantiated representations that a patent has been licensed in substantial numbers or has been licensed at particular prices. The proposed order also would prohibit misrepresentations that a lawsuit will be initiated and about the imminence of such a lawsuit.
The Commission vote to accept the proposed consent order was 5-0.
The FTC will publish a description of the consent agreement package in the Federal Register shortly. The proposed consent order will be subject to public comment for 30 days, beginning today and continuing through December 8, 2014, after which the Commission will decide whether to make the proposed consent order final. Interested parties can submit written comments electronically or in paper form by following the instructions in the “Invitation to Comment” part of the “Supplementary Information” section of the Federal Register notice.
NOTE: The Commission issues an administrative complaint when it has “reason to believe” that the law has been or is being violated, and it appears to the Commission that a proceeding is in the public interest. When the Commission issues a consent order on a final basis, it carries the force of law with respect to future actions. Each violation of such an order may result in a civil penalty of up to $16,000.
The Federal Trade Commission works for consumers to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices and to provide information to help spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish, visit the FTC’s online Complaint Assistant or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). The FTC enters complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to more than 2,000 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. The FTC’s website provides free information on a variety of consumer topics. Like the FTC on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to press releases for the latest FTC news and resources.