Supreme Court: Licensee in Good Standing May File Declaratory Judgment

MedImmune v. Genentech (Supreme Court 2007).

Declaratory judgment (DJ) actions are often used by potential defendants to obtain a declaration that a patent is invalid, unenforceable, or not infringed.  Under Federal Circuit law, a licensee cannot challenge a patent without first breaching the license.  The CAFC's reasoning was that a licensee in good standing feels no apprehension of suit since the license is essentially a settlement between the parties. Without an apprehension of suit, the DJ action would not rise to an actual controversy as required by the Constitution.

In a broadly worded opinion, the Supreme Court has scrapped the Federal Circuit's "reasonable-apprehension" test on declaratory judgment standing in favor of a rule that allows licensee's in good-standing to file DJ actions.

We hold that petitioner was not required, insofar as Article III is concerned, to break or terminate its 1997 license agreement before seeking a declaratory judgment in federal court that the underlying patent is invalid, unenforceable, or not infringed.

There are several things to note immediately:

Not Limited to Patents: This case at least extends to all licensing issues and likely to most contracts -- whether or not they involve patents or intellectual property.

Suggested Contractual Work-Around: Reading between the lines, the opinion may indicate that a contractual "prohibition against challenging the validity of the patents." may serve to block challenges by licensee's in good standing. Without the clause, however, the Court found no such prohibition:

To begin with, it is not clear where the prohibition against challenging the validity of the patents is to be found. It can hardly be implied from the mere promise to pay royalties on patents

Regarding apprehension of suit, the Opinion's footnote 11 is a complete divergence from common practice -- finding that a licensee who pays royalties either in fear of an injunctions or for fear of treble damages is being coerced in a way that creates an Article III case or controversy.