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Court Competition for Patent Cases

There are ninety-four federal district courts in the United States, but nearly half of the six thousand patent cases filed in 2013 were filed in just two of those courts: the District of Delaware and the Eastern District of Texas. In the Eastern District of Texas and the District of Delaware—neither of which is home to a major technology industry —patent litigation comprises an astounding proportion of each court’s docket: twenty-eight percent of 2013 filings in the Eastern District of Texas were patent cases while fifty-six percent of 2013 filings in the District of Delaware were patent cases. In fact, the two judges with the busiest patent dockets—Judge Rodney Gilstrap in the Eastern District of Texas and Judge Leonard Stark in the District of Delaware—have larger patent dockets than does the entire Central District of California, the district that receives the third most patent cases in the country.

While the popularity of the Eastern District of Texas and the District of Delaware with patent plaintiffs is a relatively recent phenomenon, the litigation tactic of selecting the court that offers the greatest odds of success—otherwise known as forum shopping—is not. Forum shopping has been a significant concern in the patent system for over forty years. Forum shopping is generally understood to be driven by the search for favorable substantive law, favorable procedural rules, or “home court advantage.” However, the persistence of forum shopping in patent law cannot be fully explained by substantive legal differences or home court advantage. Patent litigants cannot obtain substantive legal differences by forum shopping because all federal district courts are bound by the same legal rules that come from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Furthermore, the fact that the majority of patent cases are filed in district courts that do not have sizeable technology industries indicates that most forum shopping is not the result of major technology companies seeking the advantages of litigating at the nearest courthouse.

That leaves procedural differences. This Article theorizes that forum shopping in patent law is driven, at least in part, by federal district courts competing for litigants. This competition occurs primarily through procedural and administrative differentiation among courts. All patent infringement cases are heard in federal court and are therefore governed by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Despite the existence of the Federal Rules, district courts across the United States have adopted local rules specifically for patent cases. Intriguingly, some districts have adopted local patent rules despite almost never hearing patent cases in their courtrooms, suggesting that local patent rules serve a signaling function for courts looking to attract potential patent litigants.