V-Chip Declaratory Judgment Patent Case Reinstated by CAFC

VchipSony Electronics v. Guardian Media (Fed. Cir. 2007).

Guardian holds several patents for blocking naughty TV shows based on program classification codes. In 1999, Guardian sent a “notice of patent infringement” to Sony asserting that its V-Chip products “infringe the claims,” and later followed-up with a claim chart. Four years later, Guardian sent another letter offering to license its patents. After unsuccessful negotiations, Sony filed a declaratory judgment action in the Southern District of California — alleging non-infringement, invalidity, and unenforceability.

On motion, the district court dismissed the suit for lack of declaratory judgment jurisdiction — finding no actual controversy as required by the Constitution. In particular, the court noted that Guardian had not threatened to sue and the circumstances did not imply a threat of immediate suit. The court then went on to hold that even if jurisdiction existed it would use its discretion to decline hearing the case because (1) the question of jurisdiction is “close” and (2) it appears that the DJ plaintiffs are using the case as a negotiation tool rather than as a means to settle the dispute.

Particular Adverse Positions => DJ Jurisdiction: On appeal, the CAFC determined that an actual controversy certainly existed between Sony and Guardian at the time of the complaint. The parties had taken particular adverse positions regarding infringement and validity (associating particular claims with particular products; requesting a particular amount of money; arguing whether particular prior art references demonstrated particular claim elements). The facts of this dispute make it “manifestly susceptible of judicial determination.” (quoting 300 US 227 (1939)).

In short, because Guardian asserts that it is owed royalties based on specific past and ongoing activities by Sony, and because Sony contends that it has a right to engage in those activities without a license, there is an actual controversy between the parties within the meaning of the Declaratory Judgment Act.

Discretionary Dismissal: The Declaratory Judgment Act allows a court “substantial discretion” not to hear cases even when there exists an actual controversy. However, here, the CAFC found that the lower court’s two reasons for declining to hear the case were arbitrary and thus insufficient. Specifically, the question of jurisdiction is not a close call as the lower court had determined — rather it was only close because of an error of law. Additionally, the CAFC could not discern any “affirmative evidence” of plaintiffs’ nefarious reasons for filing suit.

Vacated and remanded to determine whether there may be other reasons for discretionary dismissal.

Notes:

  • Four other DJ plaintiffs had similar experiences and are discussed in the decision.

8 thoughts on “V-Chip Declaratory Judgment Patent Case Reinstated by CAFC

  1. Duncan: The patents changed hands between the first infringement notice and the second offer for a license (i.e., Guardian didn’t send the original notice letter, it was the inventor instead).

  2. Thanks ‘Just an ordinary inventor(TM)’
    From Dennis’ post they sent an infringemetn notice (soon followed by a claim chart) and then after nothing happened for 4 years, backed off and sent an offer to license. Can’t see how the second letter would be taken seriously at all.

  3. Its absolute solution is mutual agreement between both patentee and infringer to solve the problem in a right way.

  4. I get to say “I told you so” about MedImmune now. That case is going to make licensing negotiations a minefield.

  5. Dear Duncan Bucknell,

    Depending on circumstances, there may be over-riding reasons for a patentee to put a suspected infringer on notice of his patent despite the patentee (especially an independent patentee) wanting to avoid the risk of a Declaratory Judgment in an unfavorable jurisdiction initiated by the infringer.

    So, when a patentee sent a carefully worded notice letter to an suspected infringer, his patent attorney advised that also offering a license helped ward-off a potential DJ by lessening the apprehension of suit.

    As I recall the theory, the license offer helped support the notion that an infringement suit was not imminent. This theory is not to suggest that the “lacuna of US law” about which you inquired may not be found else where, e.g., in case law.

  6. Can someone please explain why it was a good idea for Guardian to send an offer to license after sending an infringement notice? Is there some lacuna of US law that I’m missing here?

  7. Ok this might be out there a bit, but it isn’t totally tagential . . . Does anyone have any idea of the Council of Foreign Relations position on the new patent reform bill. Moreover, are any of the major proponents of the bill controlled/influenced by members of the Council of Foreign Relations.

Comments are closed.