Blog | 03/18/2024

From Patents to Policy: The Potential Ripple Effects of Revising the Chevron Doctrine


The Chevron doctrine, stemming from the 1984 Supreme Court case Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., has profoundly shaped the way U.S. regulatory agencies interpret and enforce federal statutes. By allowing agencies to exercise their expertise within their regulatory domain, provided their interpretations are reasonable, Chevron deference strikes a balance between legal oversight and regulatory efficiency.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in the combined cases Loper Bright v. Raimondo and Relentless Inc. v. Department of Commerce. The fate of the Chevron doctrine hangs in the balance, and many commentators believe the Court will discard Chevron. Let’s discuss the implications of such a decision on intellectual property law and regulations, with a particular focus on what it might mean for smaller entities like technology startups. While the future remains uncertain, exploring the possible ramifications of such a legal shift offers valuable insight into how innovation and regulatory compliance might evolve.

The Law of Unintended Consequences

In evaluating the potential dismantling of the Chevron doctrine, it’s instructive to consider the principle known as “the law of unintended consequences” and the metaphor of Chesterton’s Fence. The latter, from the writings of G.K. Chesterton, suggests that one should not remove a fence without first understanding why it was erected in the first place. This wisdom underscores the importance of considering the original purpose and the potential ramifications of altering long-standing legal and regulatory structures, such as Chevron deference.

The principle of Chesterton’s Fence—urging caution before removing established structures without understanding their purpose—is illustrated in the passage of the America Invents Act (AIA) of 2011. Enacted with the intention of streamlining the patent process and reducing litigation, the AIA marked the most significant overhaul of the U.S. patent system in decades. Among its reforms, the shift from a “first-to-invent” to a “first-inventor-to-file” system was aimed at simplifying the application process and aligning U.S. patent law with international standards.

However, the AIA’s well-intentioned changes brought about unintended consequences that underscore the complexity of reforming existing laws—including intellectual property laws. Some smaller inventors and startups, which the patent system seeks to protect and encourage, found themselves at a disadvantage to larger counterparts, struggling with the increased pace and cost of filing patents in what has become more of a “race to the patent office” environment. This real-world example underscores not just the potential for unintended consequences within patent law, but also serves as a cautionary tale for broader regulatory environments.

As the AIA’s reforms have shown, changes intended to simplify and improve one area of the law can lead to increased challenges for those it aims to benefit, particularly small entities and startups. This experience mirrors the concerns surrounding the potential overhaul of the Chevron doctrine.

The doctrine, much like a proverbial fence, was established to address specific needs within the regulatory and judicial landscape, balancing agency expertise and judicial oversight. It has, over the decades, facilitated a certain predictability and efficiency in how federal statutes are interpreted and enforced, particularly in complex areas intersecting with intellectual property law. Intellectual property, by its nature, thrives on a delicate balance between protecting innovators’ rights and fostering a competitive, dynamic environment conducive to further innovation.

As we await the Supreme Court’s ruling regarding the fate of the Chevron doctrine, it’s important to ponder the “fence” that Chevron represents—not just as a barrier but as a boundary that delineates roles and responsibilities within the federal regulatory framework. Removing this boundary without fully appreciating its function could introduce a series of unintended consequences, particularly for the realm of intellectual property. These consequences might manifest as increased litigation, higher barriers to entry for startups, and a chilling effect on the very innovation that intellectual property laws are designed to promote.

The Potential Impact of Less Regulatory Deference on Intellectual Property

The impending decision on the Chevron doctrine not only raises questions about the direction of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), but also signals potential shifts across a spectrum of regulatory environments intersecting with intellectual property (IP). The USPTO, which relies on Chevron deference for interpreting complex statutes in patent law, exemplifies the immediate challenges of a post-Chevron landscape. Should this deference be curtailed, the agency’s decisions and regulations might face heightened scrutiny and uncertainty, complicating the patent examination process and affecting applicants’ strategies.

This scenario at the USPTO serves as a microcosm for the broader regulatory ecosystem. Similar challenges could ripple through antitrust enforcement, where the FTC and DOJ navigate IP rights within competitive markets; biotechnology, where the FDA’s expedited approval processes for new medical innovations could slow; environmental law, with the EPA’s facilitation of green technologies potentially facing roadblocks; and telecommunications, as the FCC’s management of spectrum rights and net neutrality principles might encounter increased litigation. Each of these domains relies on a nuanced interpretation of laws that govern the balance between innovation, public interest, and market competition.

Accordingly, a shift in Chevron deference, therefore, could potentially introduce a layer of unpredictability and legal complexity, affecting not just the USPTO but also the broader landscape of regulatory action that is intertwined with intellectual property. This interconnectedness underscores the need for careful consideration of the potential consequences that such a legal shift might entail for innovation and regulatory clarity across industries.

Overarching Concerns for Small Entities

“It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” – Neil Bohrs, Nobel-prize winning physicist

It’s impossible to predict exactly what the impact of overturning the Chevron doctrine will be, but it’s worth thinking about the effect on IP law and innovation, particularly related to small entities. In a landscape where regulatory guidance could become less predictable, these entities—already navigating the complexities of innovation and market entry—could find themselves disproportionately affected.

Small entities and startups thrive on their agility to innovate and bring disruptive technologies to market. However, this agility is predicated on a stable legal and regulatory framework. Chevron deference arguably provides that—at least to a greater extent than the alternative. This enables smaller players to navigate patent laws and regulatory approvals with a greater degree of certainty. The potential erosion of this deference could potentially pose several challenges, including:

  • Increased Legal Complexity and Costs: Without the guiding principle of Chevron deference, small entities may face a tangled web of regulatory interpretations, leading to increased litigation costs and legal complexities. For startups, where resources are finite, these additional expenses could divert crucial funding away from research and development, stifling innovation at its source.
  • Difficulty in Raising Capital: Investors seek stability and predictability. The prospect of a more uncertain regulatory environment makes the task of securing investment potentially more daunting for small entities. The fear of protracted legal battles and the potential for sudden shifts in regulatory stance could deter investment in new and innovative ventures, particularly those that challenge the status quo.
  • Barriers to Market Entry and Competitive Positioning: The ability to quickly adapt and bring innovations to market is a cornerstone of startup success. Chevron deference has arguably, at least to some extent, streamlined the regulatory approval process, allowing small entities to plan and execute their market entry strategies with confidence. Without it, the pathway to market could become more cumbersome, delaying the introduction of innovative products and services and affecting competitive positioning within the industry.


As the legal community and industry stakeholders await the Supreme Court’s decision, the exploration of these potential implications underscores the importance of preparing for a range of outcomes in the evolving landscape of IP law and innovation. As we navigate these complex issues, the wisdom of Chesterton’s Fence reminds us that in the pursuit of legal reform, understanding the foundations of our regulatory structures is paramount. Only then can we ensure that our efforts to foster innovation do not inadvertently undermine the very ecosystem we aim to protect.

Keep Reading