CAFC Denies Joint Infringement Claim and Maps Out Infringement Avoidance Schemes

BMC v. Paymentech (Fed. Cir. 2007)

BMC’s patents cover a method for processing a debit transaction without using a PIN. The payment industry is divided so that there is no single party that infringes an entire claim. However, when combined, the effort of a payee’s agent, an ATM network, and a financial institution

The usual rule is that direct infringement occurs only when a single actor performs each and every element” of an asserted claim. Likewise, inducement requires proof of underlying single-actor direct infringement.  Under a doctrine akin to agency, all actions ‘controlled’ by the single actor are considered to be performed by the single actor.  Thus, courts have long held that you cannot avoid liability by simply “having someone else carry out one or more of the steps” on your behalf. 

Here, BMC acts for an extension of the law in cases where parties are cooperating in a manner that infringes the patent – even though no single party controls the others. The CAFC, however, refused to extend the law — even while admitting that its decision paves a clear pathway for would-be infringers to avoid liability:

“This court acknowledges that the standard requiring control or direction for a finding of joint infringement may in some circumstances allow parties to enter into arms-length agreements to avoid infringement.”

The CAFC’s concern, of course is that allowing this type of joint infringement would greatly increase potential liability of many many companies. For instance, here, BMC would like to hold ATM networks liable even though their actions do not involve any novel part of BMC’s invention. Without any controlling party, BMC’s claim of infringement fails.

As part of its justification, the court cited Mark Lemley’s divided infringement article. In that article, Lemley argues that patent drafters can avoid most potential joint infringement problems by drafting claims that focus on one party at a time.

Notes:

  • The doctrine of control is certainly not as strict as typical agency doctrine.  And, in this opinion the court gives some positive language to capture bad behavior. For instance, the court noted approvingly that district courts have held parties liable for who ‘mastermind’ a scheme of contracting-out steps of a patented process.  As a strict liability claim, the CAFC is correct to avoid undue expansion of the class of potential defendants. However, the hole created by the CAFC is potentially quite large — I have proposed a new cause of action for conspiratorial infringement that would not require a single controlling entity, but would require a mens rea requirement similar to that of inducement.  
  • Related Material:
    • Fromson v. Advance Offset Plate, Inc., 720 F.2d 1565, 1568 (Fed. Cir. 1985) (finding no direct infringement by manufacturer who performed the first step of a process claim even where its customer performed the other step of the claim)
    • Cross Medical Products, 424 F.3d at 1311 (rejecting patentees’ efforts to combine the acts of surgeons with those of a medical device manufacturer to find direct infringement of an apparatus claim).
    • An expanded joint infringement notion is supported by the CAFC’s recent On Demand decision where the court noted that “[i]t is not necessary for the acts that constitute infringement to be performed by one person or entity.”
    • In PharmaStem, the CAFC did not decide the issue, but noted that the “viability and scope of [the theory of joint infringement] liability is a subject of considerable debate.”
    • Applied Interact, LLC v. Vermont Teddy Bear Co., Inc.  2005 WL 2133416 (S.D.N.Y.,2005), the district court noted that infringement by separate entities requires “some connection” between the entities.
    • Free Standing Stuffer, Inc. v. Holly Dev. Co., 187 U.S.P.Q. 323 (N.D. Ill. 1974), requires a “sufficient connection to, or control over” third party entities performing some of the elements.
    • Cordis Corp. v. Medtronic AVE, Inc., 194 F. Supp. 2d 323 (D. Del. 2002) (requiring close relationship between defendant and the doctors performing part of the patented process).
    • Shields v. Halliburton Co., 493 F.Supp. 1376 (W.D. La. 1980) (finding defendants liable for infringement based on the combined actions of two entities).
    • Wegner well thought viewpoint from 2001
    • Sriranga Veeraraghavan, Joint Infringement of Patent Claims: Advice for Patentees, 23 Santa Clara Computer & High Tech L.J. 211 (2006).

 

Inducement Requires Proof of Underlying Direct Infringement

PatentLawPic033ACCO v. ABA Locks and Belkin (Fed. Cir. 2007).

ACCO’s patent covers a method for locking a computer. Belkin’s lock can be used in an infringing manner (as well as in a non-infringing manner). At trial Belkin and ABA were found liable for willfully inducing infringement.

Inducement requires an underlying direct infringement; some action to encourage the direct infringement; and specific intent to encourage the infringement. Direct infringement requires either evidence of “specific instances of direct infringement” or proof that using accused device “necessarily infringes.”

Here, ACCO provided no evidence that any customer (apart from the expert witness) ever used the lock in an infringing manner. And, although the arguably “most natural” way of using the lock would infringe, there were other non-infringing ways of using the lock. (Belkin described a non-infringing use in its instruction manual).

  • The court suggested that a customer survey or other customer testimony would have been appropriate.

Based on ACCO’s failure to prove direct infringement, the CAFC reversed — finding no infringement.

Notes:

  • This decision is a reminder to litigators, not anything new.

Patent Plaintiffs Continue to Push for Expanded notion of Joint Infringement.

AdvanceME v. RapidPay (E.D. Tex. 2007).

Traditionally, direct patent infringement requires a single actor that causes infringement of each element of the asserted patent claim. An agency doctrine allows for multiple actors acting under control of a single entity. However, the common law of patents has long resisted calls for liability for any looser form of “joint infringement.”

In AdvanceME, the Texas court provided additional dicta expanding our notion of circumstances where two separate entities can combine to infringe a patent even when neither entity infringes all claim elements. Here, the court finds that multi-actor infringement requires (1) that all elements of the claim be performed and (2) that there be a “sufficient connection” between the accused actors. “A showing of ‘agency’ or ‘working in concert’ is not required.” The sufficient connection could instead “be shown through a contractual relationship.”

According to the court, joint infringement is easier to prove when a patent claim includes steps performed by two entities. The patent at issue here involves claims that move money from a customer to a merchant then to a merchant processor which is directly infringed by the merchant and merchant processor.

The infringement finding is, however, moot as the patent was also found invalid as anticipated and obvious.

Notes:

  • Read the case
  • The issue of joint infringement is “squarely raised” in another case – BMC v. PaymenTech. [See Divided Infringement]. Oral arguments were held in that case in April, and a decision is expected by October.
  • The expanded joint infringement notion is supported by the CAFC’s recent On Demand decision where the court noted that “[i]t is not necessary for the acts that constitute infringement to be performed by one person or entity.”
  • See Cross Medical (“However, if anyone makes the claimed apparatus, it is the surgeons, who are, as far as we can tell, not agents of Medtronic. Because Medtronic does not itself make an apparatus with the “interface” portion in contact with bone, Medtronic does not directly infringe.”)
  • In PharmaStem, the CAFC did not decide the issue, but noted that the “viability and scope of [the theory of joint infringement] liability is a subject of considerable debate.”
  • Applied Interact, LLC v. Vermont Teddy Bear Co., Inc.  2005 WL 2133416 (S.D.N.Y.,2005), the district court noted that infringement by separate entities requires “some connection” between the entities.
  • Free Standing Stuffer, Inc. v. Holly Dev. Co., 187 U.S.P.Q. 323 (N.D. Ill. 1974), requires a “sufficient connection to, or control over” third party entities performing some of the elements.
  • Cordis Corp. v. Medtronic AVE, Inc., 194 F. Supp. 2d 323 (D. Del. 2002) (requiring close relationship between defendant and the doctors performing part of the patented process).
  • Shields v. Halliburton Co., 493 F.Supp. 1376 (W.D. La. 1980) (finding defendants liable for infringement based on the combined actions of two entities).
  • Sriranga Veeraraghavan, Joint Infringement of Patent Claims: Advice for Patentees, 23 Santa Clara Computer & High Tech L.J. 211 (2006),