Vestigial Use

by Shubha Ghosh, Crandall Melvin Professor of Law and Director, Syracuse Intellectual Property Law Institute

As companies voluntarily retire their offensive trademarks, two questions tug at whatever passes for a conscience nowadays.  First, can these undesirable marks come back, revived by whomever sees a market niche for these symbols? This may seem like a ridiculous possibility, but on June 21, 2020, an Intent to Use Application was filed  on the word mark “Aunt Jemima” by Retrobrands, a Florida LLC, whose mission “is to revive ‘abandoned’ consumer iconic brands and to bring them back to the marketplace.” The second question is, do these intellectual property mea culpas do any good in the face of companies like Retrobrands and the entrenched nostalgia it represents?  After all, gallons of maple syrup were transformed into Benjamins, even more Tubmans, over the years. Should not there be some disgorgement in the form of reparations?

The proposed doctrine of vestigial use under federal trademark law can address both questions. As described below, vestigial use can prevent trademark abandonment, which would potentially allow some enterprising cultural chauvinist from appropriating the mark. Vestigial use, as applied, can also provide a new revenue source that can finance the necessary reparations.

A vestigial use is the use of a mark to maintain the memory of a brand. Instead of offensive symbols littering the shelves of your local grocery store, they can be relegated to a museum. The idea would be similar to that of Budapest’s Memento Park, where the brutalist statues  from the Soviet era have a fitting resting place, about a forty minute bus ride from the Budapest bus terminal in a rural outskirt more habitable than Siberia but just as overlooked. Memento Park is a reminder of ideas gone woefully wrong.

Vestigial use would allow a trademark owner to continue using a mark without completely abandoning it. A trademark owner can claim continued use of the mark as a curator with the once fully commercialized mark relegated to a virtual museum. Retired offensive marks would be hidden away, but still can serve as a reminder of what was once bought and sold freely in the United States.  History is neither erased nor glorified. Instead, these marks become objects of study, specimens of bigotry past and continuing. These vestigial marks would have a place on a pedestal much like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Huckleberry Finn. The Yellow Wallpaper, Native Son, and To Kill a Mockingbird have a protected place in public libraries. Like these books, vestigial marks benefit the public through their presence, serving as the occasional fodder for those who like to ban cultural relics and as a constant memento of a persistent ugliness.

I envision vestigial use as a judge-made doctrine, although with some imagination an appropriate statute could be drafted. It would allow trademark owners to defeat a claim of abandonment by someone who seeks to take up the mark. Under section 1127 of the Lanham Act, abandonment occurs when a mark’s “use has been discontinued with intent not to resume such use.”  The provision defines use as “the bona fide use of such mark made in the ordinary course of trade, and not made merely to reserve a right in a mark.” If vestigial use were adopted, a trademark owner’s showcasing the history of the mark would count as bona fide use. For offensive marks, owners like Quaker Oats, or its licensees, could create the equivalent of a Memento Park while blocking others from adopting the mark for full profit-making branding.

Vestigial use is necessary because failure to commercialize the mark may constitute abandonment under current doctrine. If Quaker Oats used the Aunt Jemima mark solely as a museum relic, that would most likely constitute a discontinuation of the mark “with an intent not to resume such use.”  Under the Lanham Act, use requires the goods labelled with the mark “are sold or transported in commerce.” Vestigial use of the mark would not require sales or transportation in commerce in the traditional sense. In fact, vestigial use presumes the mark is removed from the national mass market associated with the establishment of trademark rights. However, an archival use entails interested viewers going towards the trademarked product much like visitors to a museum. Instead of many products transported to purchasers, vestigial use entails many purchasers travelling to view the archived mark. The mapping is not from many marked goods to many purchasers but from many viewers to the one marked product.

As far as analogies go, this is admittedly a stretch. But if trademark law is about creating and protecting associations, it is not completely clear why the law’s protection should be limited to the many products going out to many buyers. First, there is nothing sacred about many to many; trademark law protects marks on niche products, even in markets with a few consumers. It is also not clear why the transportation has to be from product to buyers. Trademark law protects marks on websites which are unique objects which attract buyers.  The transportation requirement under the statute encapsulates the many consumers going to a single branded product. Vestigial use is a possible interpretation of the statute.

But possible does not mean highly probable. Courts may be hesitant in reinterpreting the use requirement to make it ostensibly easier to obtain rights. My proposal, however, is limited to applying vestigial use as a limitation on abandonment as opposed to lowering the use requirement for registration or demonstrating ownership. Potential evisceration of the public domain may also be the concern. Vestigial use sounds like warehousing of marks. But the proposal requires some affirmative act of the mark holder, namely a memorial or curated use. Furthermore, the public domain is a strange status under trademark law. An abandoned mark is not really in the public domain. As Professor Gerhardt argues in her blogpost, Quaker Oats would have rights under 1125(a) against companies like Retrobrands. Vestigial use is designed to prevent new users from fully recapturing supposedly abandoned marks.

Picking up on the public domain point, some policy makers may turn to genericide as the appropriate doctrine to put these offensive marks to rest. Arguably the racial stereotypes underlying “Aunt Jemima” or “Eskimo” are generic signifiers for outdated and commonly understood denigrating tropes. However, genericide means that the mark refers to the genus to which a product belongs, not about the signification of marks. Consequently, genericide is not practically suited to put to rest generically offensive marks.

Even if the proposed doctrine of vestigial use is unconvincing, analyzing it reveals the underlying problem. One reason for posts like this is that the Supreme Court’s decision in Tam rules out the possibility of denying registration or other trademark protections to offensive marks. According to the Court’s logic, “Aunt Jemima” is just another viewpoint under the First Amendment, and viewpoints do not ever really disappear. Their persistence is evinced by companies like Retrobrands and the recurring terms of the current public discourse. Vestigial use acknowledges the persistence of offensive discourse, despite all good intentions. Appropriating this persistence through trademark protection for memorial uses is a reminder of the terms of the cultural and political debate, Memory may at some date lead to the substantive economic and political reforms needed to combat inequality and bigotry.  Marks are never dead, and the past is never past, even if undistinguished.

Teaching Online, Copyright, and Queen Anne’s Revenge

Guest post by Kevin L. Smith, Dean of Libraries at the University of Kansas

On March 23, 2020, the Supreme Court announced a decision in one of the three copyright cases before it this term, Allen v. Cooper, a case that involves alleged copyright infringement by the state of North Carolina for using some video shot by a private videographer of the salvage operation for Blackbeard’s notorious pirate ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Predictably, the Justices cannot resist word play about piracy and copyright infringement. The truth is that the case is really about sovereign immunity, so the jokes might have more appropriately focused on Queen Anne. The question presented in the case was whether a state can be sued in federal court for copyright infringement, and, specifically, was the effort to allow such lawsuits through the Copyright Remedies Clarification Act a valid exercise of Congressional authority.

Both these questions received a resounding “no” in the unanimous opinion. The Court found that Congressed did not have authority, either under its Article 1 power to grant patents and copyrights or under section 5 of the 14th Amendment, to abrogate sovereign immunity to create state liability for copyright infringement. Patent practitioners will not be surprised that much of the discussion focused on the Court’s 1999 precedent in Florida Prepaid. Indeed, most of the debate in the case, which feature a majority opinion and two different concurrences, focused on the amount of deference due to established precedent, and it seems pretty clear that much of the background in this discussion are positions being established regarding Roe v. Wade.

To me the big question coming out of this case is how much it changes the landscape for teachers working in public schools or universities. Can we all breathe a sigh of relief and no longer worry about copyright infringement? I want to suggest that this decision doesn’t really change much, and that educators employed by states should pretty much continue to do what they are doing, relying on fair use but not throwing all caution to the wind. Two important points occur to me.

  1. There is still injunctive relief available against a state entity for continuous violations of federal law, under the Ex Parte Young doctrine. The long running lawsuit by three academic publishers against Georgia State University is premised on this doctrine, and, even though the publishers seem to have largely lost on fair use grounds, this case that is now as old as some fine Scotch is still costing GSU time and money. So simply relying on a “go ahead, try to sue me” attitude still seems unwise.
  2. Employees of non-profit educational institutions also have another protection from liability, in section 504(c)2 of the U.S. copyright law. This statutory defense remits all statutory damages – the biggest bite available to most copyright plaintiffs – for such employees who have a good faith belief that their actions were fair use. If this provision is to mean anything, it must mean that the revision applies even (indeed, only) when that belief was mistaken, so that a court has gotten to the issue of damages. In effect, this provision has already widened the scope for fair use decisions made by the very teachers and faculty who might think they could benefit from the ruling in Allen v. Cooper.

So maybe it is only the folks who represent state institutions who need to pay much attention to this case. It is an arrow in their quiver of defenses to raise if they get sued. But teachers and faculty at those institutions should go on as before, making smart fair use decisions, even as they recognize that both Congress and the Court have given them some extra breathing room.

Fair use is crafted for the benefit of educators and researcher. The examples of the kinds of activities that might be fair use makes this clear, since five of the six examples are education related: criticism, comment, teaching, scholarship, and research. These examples are not per se fair use; the factor analysis still must be applied. But they do indicate that Congress intended to give educators a great deal of latitude in making fair use decisions, as well as a reduced risk, based on the 504(c)2 provision discussed above.

As most educational institutions move to online teaching during this period of efforts to contain the outbreak of COVID-19, teachers and faculty should keep this latitude in mind. Our first priority should be providing the best education to students in the online environment, and doing it as expeditiously and efficiently as possible. Many publishers of academic materials are moving to make the resources they publish widely available. In my own copyright law class, I use an open casebook, but also asked my students to obtain and read a monograph from MIT Press, and at our request, the Press gave each student a link to download a no-cost copy of the book, in case they did not have the purchased copy with them when they were told to stay at home. I mention this to illustrate that publisher are thinking about these issues with us, and have tried to be helpful. It is also the case, however, that sometimes we will have to rely on fair use, and that is OK. With or without the Supreme Court’s ruling in Allen v. Cooper, fair use was made for us, and it was made flexible precisely so that we could respond to changing circumstances.

Recently, a group of copyright specialists in academic libraries, many, but not all of whom are lawyers, drafted a statement about fair use in a time of emergency, which can be found online with a list of signers and those who have endorsed it (full disclosure: I am one of the signers). This statement recognizes a long-acknowledged fact about fair use — it is extremely driven by circumstances – and makes an effort to assess how the extraordinary circumstances under which teachers and academics are now trying to deliver their courses might impact a fair use analysis. It really simply serves to remind us that fair use is flexible, adaptable, and designed to support teaching and research. Whether or not our state institutions can be liable for copyright infringement damages (and the Court has now told us that they cannot be), fair use remains our most useful and productive legal tool in this enterprise.

Google v. Oracle and the Mixed Question of Law and Fact

by Dennis Crouch

In Google LLC v. Oracle Am., Inc., 593 U. S. ____  (2021), the Supreme Court spends a few pages walking through procedural aspects of the fair use defense.

Like many patent law doctrines, fair use is a mixed question of law and fact. The defendant’s use of the asserted copyrighted work and its impact on the plaintiff are typically factual issues that must be proven by evidence as weighed by the factfinder (often a jury). These are questions such as “how much of the copyrighted work was copied” and “whether there was harm to the actual or potential markets for the copyrighted work.” Google at 19.  However, the questions of law emerge when we are categorizing the importance of the factual findings as well as asking the ultimate question of whether the use was a fair use.

The fact-law divide comes up in various ways: Is there a Constitutional right to a jury trial on the issue; lacking that may a jury still decide the issue; does proof require evidence (as defined by the Federal Rules of Evidence) proven to a particular standard; or instead do we simply look for the ‘right’ answer; on appeal, what is the standard of review — deference or not?  Fact/Law also comes up in patent prosecution, but examiners are not charged with making the distinction and the rules of evidence don’t apply.

At the trial court this leads to the very practical question of how easily a judge can dispose of the issue pre-trial.  Questions of law are often easy to determine pre-trial; some mixed questions are also relatively easy to determine pre-trial if there is no right to a jury determination; mixed questions involving substantial factual disputes and a right to a jury trial are hard.  In patent cases, courts are regularly making pre-trial determinations on claim construction and eligibility, both of which are ultimately questions of law but that can involve underlying factual determinations.  Obviousness is another mixed question.  Although  the ultimate determination of obviousness is a question of law, it is treated differently from claim construction and eligibility.  Rather than being decided by a judge, obviousness is typically decided by a jury as fact-finder.  The difference is that obviousness typically requires detailed factual determinations that are hard to separate from the ultimate conclusion of obviousness and that are subject to a Constitutional right to a jury trial.

In deciding an issue, a district court will typically separate its analysis between findings-of-fact and conclusions-of-law. This separation is expressly required in FRCP 52(a)(1) when a judge determines the facts without a jury.  District courts also decide other substantive questions pre- and post-trial.  However, those determinations are typically purely questions-of-law.  (Failure to state a claim; Summary Judgment; Judgment as a Matter of Law).

Back to Google: Oracle sued Google for copyright infringement, and Google raised a defense of Fair Use.  The district court gave the question of fair use to the jury who sided with Google.  On appeal, though the Federal Circuit reversed and found no fair use.  Although the jury had decided the issue, the Federal Circuit gave no deference to the jury’s legal conclusions.  In its subsequent analysis, the Supreme Court agreed with the Federal Circuit’s  procedural approach of de novo review of the legal conclusions but ultimately disagreed on the substance. Rather, the Supreme Court concluded that Google’s use was a fair use as a matter of law.

One typical difficulty in the law-fact divide is that the questions are often not easily separable. In Markman, the Supreme Court called claim construction a “mongrel practice” because it is a mixed question that is hard to separate-out.  Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 517 U.S. 370 (1996).   In Google, the court determined that the big questions of fair use should be treated as questions-of-law because they “primarily involves legal work.”

The Google court went on to cite Markman in concluding that there is no 7th Amendment Right to a Jury Trial on the doctrine of fair use. “As far as contemporary fair use is concerned, we have described the doctrine as an ‘equitable,’ not a ‘legal,’ doctrine.” Google at 20.  See U.S. Const. 7th Amd. (“In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved.”).

The Court’s general approach to mixed questions of law is explained in some detail within its 2018 bankruptcy decision of U. S. Bank N. A. v. Village at Lakeridge, LLC, 583 U. S. ___, 138 S. Ct. 960 (2018). In that case, the mixed-question was whether a creditor qualified as a “non-statutory insider.”  In U.S. Bank, the court explained that “mixed questions are not all alike.”  Some mixed questions are more like questions of law requiring an “amplifying or elaborating on a broad legal standard.”  Those should be treated as questions of law.  Other mixed questions require analysis of narrow facts “that utterly resist generalization.”  Those should be treated as questions of fact.  “In short, the standard of review for a mixed question all depends—on whether answering it entails primarily legal or factual work.”

For the fair use analysis in Google, the court followed the U.S. Bank standard and determined that the fair use questions at issue in the case were primarily legal and thus should be reviewed de novo on appeal.

Bringing all this back to patent law, I don’t see anything in this analysis to disturb our current approaches to obviousness, claim construction and eligibility.  But, both Google and U.S. Bank are clear that they are focusing on the particular issues in the case at hand.  It may well be that the mixed question analysis will come out differently on a different set of facts.

The Vast Middle Ground of Hybrid Functional Claim Elements

FunctionalClaimsby Dennis Crouch

In Robert Bosch v. Snap-On (Fed. Cir. 2014), the Federal Circuit has held that two different claim elements “lack sufficiently definite structure” that must be interpreted under 35 U.S.C. 112(f) as means-plus-function elements and, because corresponding structures were not sufficiently disclosed in the patent document (as required by 112(f)), the associated claims were held invalid as indefinite.  Here the claim elements in question are a ‘program recognition device’ that plugs into a car motor to see if its control software is out of date and also a ‘program loading device’ that updates the control software if necessary.  U.S. Patent No. 6,782,313.

Functional claim limitations are in vogue.  Part of the reason is that the current generation of computer-focused engineers have been trained in an object oriented approach that discusses solutions more in terms of results than in detailed algorithmic steps.  That approach makes it easier to create new tools and devices by relying upon the building blocks created by others.  But, the carryover to patent law remains somewhat tenuous.

Functional claim terms also offer a mechanism for achieving broader claim coverage and claim coverage that is more aligned with the scope of potential competitor activities and follow-on innovation.  The use of functional language for that purpose has a century-long history in U.S. patent law and has been much debated at all levels, including the U.S. Supreme Court.

When the Supreme Court discussed the topic in its landmark 1946 decision of Halliburton v. Walker, the Court described functional claim terms as those that focus on results – “what it will do” – and not on the actual physical implementation.  In Halliburton, the court held:

A claim which describes the most crucial element in a “new” combination in terms of what it will do, rather than in terms of its own physical characteristics or its arrangement in the new combination, is invalid.

Id. The result in Halliburton was that the claim was found invalid under as indefinite because the functional language there (an “echo receiving means”) did not provide sufficient notice of the scope of patent rights.

The Patent Act of 1952 left intact a strong definiteness requirement but overturned Halliburton by enacting what is now known as 35 U.S.C. 112(f).  That provision expressly allows for an element to be claimed as a “means” for performing a “specified function” but without actually specifying the physical characteristics of how it works.  However, 112(f) has an important and significant limitation that cabins-in the scope of any such means limitation to only cover corresponding embodiments described in the patent document, and their equivalents.

(f) Element in Claim for a Combination.— An element in a claim for a combination may be expressed as a means or step for performing a specified function without the recital of structure, material, or acts in support thereof, and such claim shall be construed to cover the corresponding structure, material, or acts described in the specification and equivalents thereof.

A second limitation on 112(f) is the court interpretation that purely functional claim elements that are not physically described in the specification are deemed indefinite and the corresponding claim invalid.

US patent attorneys have taken notice of these legal limits on means-plus-function claiming and have largely abandoned the form. Twenty years ago, most patents included claim terms written in means-plus-function form. Today, that figure is under 5%.  But the strategy for many does not eschew functional claim elements, but rather to integrate functional limitations together with structural limitations with the result being broadly defined claim elements that avoids the limitations of 112(f).

The Big Middle Ground

Partially Functional Elements: The rules are clear for claim elements written in purely functional terms  such as a ‘means for communicating’ without any claimed physicality. However, there exists a vast middle-ground for claim limitations that include some functionality and some physicality.  These might include a ‘circuit for communicating’ or – as in the recent Bosch Case – a ‘program recognition device.’

In Robert Bosch v. Snap-On (Fed. Cir. 2014), the Federal Circuit has affirmed a lower court determination that two different functional claim elements are indefinite and thus that the associated claims are invalid.  The patents relate a motor vehicle software-update tool.  The claims include a ‘program recognition device’ that plugs into the motor control unit to see if the software is out of date and also a ‘program loading device’ that plugs into the motor control unit to upload new software. Easy enough.    But, the specification includes no diagrams and no real structural detail about these ‘devices.’

The Federal Circuit has a fairly straightforward algorithmic approach to functional claims elements. The first step it to determine whether the element qualifies as “functional” and, if so, interpret the limitation under the rubric of Section 112(f).  For the court, a functional claim element is one recites a functional limitation without “reciting sufficient structure for performing that function” or that fails to “recite sufficiently definite structure.” EnOcean GmbH v. Face Int’l Corp., 742 F.3d 955 (Fed. Cir. 2014). The court also uses a linguistic shortcut — claim elements drafted in the form “means for [performing a specified function]” are also presumed to be functional.   Similarly, elements that do not use the word “means” are presumed to be structural.  Importantly, Federal Circuit precedent indicate that these presumptions are “strong.” See Lighting World, Inc. v. Birchwood Lighting, Inc., 382 F.3d 1354 (Fed. Cir. 2004).

Here, although the terms were not claimed in “means” form, the court found that they lacked structure and therefore were functional.  In walking through its analysis, the court first looked at the claim words ‘program recognition device’ and ‘program loading device’ and found no structure other than the ‘nonce’ word device.  Then, looking at the specification, the court found:

[The] ‘313 patent’s specification does not contain a single reference to the structure of the “program recognition device” itself; all of the proffered citations from the specification merely explain its function. For example, the statement that the external diagnostic tester is “equipped” with the “program recognition device” that “querie[s] and recognize[s]” program versions in the control unit is nothing more than a functional description. This passage is devoid of structure. Likewise, the passage that explains how the external diagnostic tester uses the “program recognition device” to automatically check which program version is currently on the control unit only describes the connection of the external diagnostic tester to the control unit in the vehicle. The specification is, therefore, also silent about any interaction between the “program recognition device” and other components of the system, including the external diagnostic tester. Contrary to what Bosch contends, the specification does not teach how the “program recognition device” receives and processes signals, as the words “signal” and “process” are not even in the specification. . . .

Because the claim terms lack structure, the court determined that they fall under the rules of 112(f) [112p].

The claim terms, construed in light of the specification, fail to provide sufficiently definite structure to one of skill in the art. The claim terms “program recognition device” and “program loading device” invoke § 112, ¶ 6.

The problem for Bosch in this case is that the same analysis of the specification above also supports the conclusion that the claimed function lacks structural description in the specification. And, as a result, the court found the claims invalid as indefinite.

Since we have concluded that both claim terms invoke § 112, ¶ 6, we now must attempt to construe the terms by identifying the “corresponding structure … described in the specification” to which the claim term will be limited. Welker Bearing Co., 550 F.3d at 1097. “If there is no structure in the specification corresponding to the means-plus-function limitation in the claims, the claim will be found invalid as indefinite.” Biomedino, LLC v. Waters Techs. Corp., 490 F.3d 946, 950 (Fed.Cir.2007). On this point, however, little needs to be said. Bosch did not argue to this court that, even if the claim language at issue is within § 112, ¶ 6, the language is definite because the specification sufficiently discloses corresponding structure. See Appellant’s Br. 51–52. And we also see no such disclosure.

Indeed, as already discussed in Part III.B, in the limited number of instances that the specification even mentions these claim terms, it offers no further guidance about their structures. Therefore, we conclude that “program recognition device” and “program loading device” are indefinite. Since these terms are found in the only independent claim of the ‘313 patent, we conclude that all claims in the ‘313 patent are invalid.

An important element of the court’s analysis here is that it is all seen as a question of law reviewed de novo on appeal. Thus, although the appellate panel largely agreed with the lower court’s original decision in this case, that decision was given no deference in the analysis. Further, the strong presumption of validity requiring clear and convincing evidence was also entirely ignored here because that evidentiary requirement is directed toward questions of fact not questions of law.

A second important and interesting element of the court’s decision here is that it does not cite the Supreme Court’s most recent foray into indefiniteness – Nautilus v. BioSig (2014) (requiring reasonable certainty).  Likewise, the court did not cite Halliburton. In fact, the court has not cited Halliburton for almost 20 years and it has never cited the case other than to criticize the decision or indicate that it has been legislatively overruled by 112(f).

The case here is also in tension with those cited above: EnOceanLighting World, and Inventio. however, the court here took steps to distinguish those cases based upon the ‘fact’ that Bosch’s patent application failed to provide structure in the specification to guide one skilled in the art in understanding the ‘device’ limitation.  In the other cited cases, the specification included examples and diagrams sufficient to transform the seeming ‘nonce’ words into ones with structural meaning.

What will be interesting here will be to see whether this case is the beginning of a movement in a new direction.  This case’s path to the Supreme Court is most likely if the Federal Circuit first grants an en banc rehearing request.

Thompson v. Haight, 23 F.Cas. 1040 (S.D.N.Y. 1826)

The Thompson decision was released on January 1, 1826 and penned by Judge Van Ness who died later that year.  Van Ness was perhaps most famous for being Aaron Burr’s second at Burr’s duel with Alexander Hamilton, but this opinion shows further sign of his character.  Van Ness argues that the U.S. patent system at the time was being overrun by large numbers of trivial inventions. Although it required invention in name, it was really just becoming a replacement to monopolies barred by the Statute of Monopolies (1624). 

Van Ness further explains that the plethora of low quality patents harms the genuine inventors, because all patents are suspect.

It is unnecessary to look farther than to see the fate of Whitney, Evans, and above all, Fulton, or those who represent him. Instead of deriving peace, honour, and affluence from their incessant labour and incomparable skill, they have sunk under vexation and the pressure of litigation. Patent upon patent and privilege upon privilege have been granted, infringing the original rights, until their hopes and anticipated rewards were converted into despair and poverty. In the degrading conflict, even the laurels they had fairly won withered amidst the wreck of their fame and their fortunes.

Id. Van Ness called for a rigorous examination system and, once examined, patents should then be deemed secured:

They should only be granted, as I conceive, upon due examination into the merits of the application, and then the rights granted should be well secured, and well protected.

Id.  (more…)

Patently-O Blog: Terms of Use

Patently-O Blog: Terms of Use

Updated December 1, 2016

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Google v. Oracle: Use of Oracle’s API is a Fair Use

Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc. (Supreme Court 2021)

In a 6-2 decision authored by Justice Breyer, the Supreme Court has held that Google’s copying of the JAVA API naming convention was a fair use as a matter of law.  The court did not decide the question of whether the API was copyrightable in the first place.

In his dissent, Justice Thomas (joined by Justice Alito) argues that the majority opinion “disregards half the relevant statutory text and distorts its fair-use analysis. . . . Oracle’s code at issue here is copyrightable, and Google’s use of that copyrighted code was anything but fair.”

The key lines from the case for patent attorneys:

Majority: [U]nlike patents, which protect novel and useful ideas, copyrights protect “expression” but not the “ideas” that lie behind it.

Dissent: Computer code occupies a unique space in intellectual property. Copyright law generally protects works of authorship. Patent law generally protects inventions or discoveries. A library of code straddles these two categories. It is highly functional like an invention; yet as a writing, it is also a work of authorship. Faced with something that could fit in either space, Congress chose copyright, and it included declaring code in that protection.

= = =

The case involves the software interface or Application Program Interface (API) for Oracle’s Java programming language.   What we’re really talking about here are the names of the various functions that a programmer might memorize such as “Math.max(a,b)” which returns the greater of two inputs.  Java is divided up into “packages” of function calls such as max.

Java is a popular language with many millions of skilled programmers.  As Google developed its Android platform, it wanted to simplify the adoption process for app developers. As such, it chose a language that the programmers know – Java.  The one problem is that Oracle wanted a substantial royalty and so Google instead recreated the entire language, including the functionality of thousands of function-calls.

What did Google copy?: It copied the naming convention of the functions (Math.max(a,b)) and their organization.  This is thousands of function names organized into 37 Packages.  Oracle claimed copyright to these names and their organization.  The Federal Circuit agreed with Oracle that (1) the API is protectable under copyright and (2) that Google’s use was not a fair use.

In its fair use analysis, the court placed substantial weight on the fact that the value of Java’s API is based upon the fact that “those who do not hold copyrights, namely, computer programmers, invest of their own time and effort to learn the API’s system” rather than in the inherent creativity of the expression.  Thus, the “‘nature of the copyrighted work’ points in the direction of fair use.”  Although the Supreme Court found Google “precisely” copied the JAVA API, it still found the use transformative — because it was being used on a handheld rather than a laptop.  For substantiality, Google only copied 11,000 lines of code.  The court found that insubstantial since it was less than 1% of Java as a whole.  Finally, regarding market impact, the court found that Sun was unlikely to be able to compete in the Android marketplace and that the copying by Google created a lots more market opportunity for others.

Obviously, there is lots more to this opinion.  Read it via the link above.

Claim Construction: A Structured Framework*

Guest post by Professor Peter S. Menell (UC-Berkeley School of Law); Matthew D. Powers (Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP); and Steven C. Carlson (Fish & Richardson PC) 

The construction of patent claims plays a critical role in nearly every patent case. It is central to evaluation of infringement and validity, and can affect or determine the outcome of other significant issues such as unenforceability, enablement, and remedies. Yet jurists and scholars have long lamented the challenges of construing patent claim terms. The Federal Circuit’s en banc decision in Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303 (Fed. Cir. 2005), stands as the most authoritative decision on claim construction doctrine. But while putting to rest various controversies, many core tensions in claim construction persist. Moreover, the decision itself does not provide a step-by-step approach to construing claims. This commentary provides a structured road map.

(more…)

Google v. Oracle: Amici Weigh in on Why the Supreme Court Should Reverse the Federal Circuit’s Rulings

Guest post by Professor Pamela Samuelson, Berkeley Law School

In the past week 28 amicus curiae briefs were filed in the Google v. Oracle case, including one written by me and Catherine Crump (of which more below). All but two support reversal of one or both of the Federal Circuit’s copyrightability and fair use rulings.[1]

Especially significant are IBM’s brief with Red Hat arguing against the copyrightability of computer interfaces and Microsoft’s brief criticizing the Federal Circuit’s unduly rigid fair use analysis and indifference to the need for flexible rules that promote interoperability in today’s highly connected world. The briefs are substantively excellent, and significant because these firms are such prominent developers of software.

For those interested in the case who are not computing professionals, I recommend the amicus briefs submitted by 83 computer scientists and by the Developers Alliance which explain the Java API technology and why reuse of Java declarations and interfaces generally is so important to enabling compatibility. Several other briefs, including one for the Center for Democracy and Technology et al., and another for R Street and Public Knowledge, offer numerous examples of compatible software systems that benefit consumers as well as software developers

By my count, more than half of the 28 amicus briefs focus only on the copyrightability issue and another 9 address both the copyrightability and fair use issues. Only 4—the Microsoft, Tushnet, Snow, and Rauschenberg Foundation briefs–address only fair use. This was a something of a surprise given that the fair use decision seems quite vulnerable to challenge. After all, a jury rendered a verdict in favor of Google’s fair use defense, and appellate courts are supposed to defer to jury verdicts. Several amicus briefs take the Federal Circuit to task for substituting its judgment on the merits for the jury’s as to issues about which there was conflicting evidence in the record. Also much criticized are the Federal Circuit’s analysis of the four fair use factors and the manner in which it weighed the factors together.

One very pragmatic reason why some amici would prefer that the Court rule on the copyrightability issue over the fair use issue is that fair use is a fact-intensive, complex, and much debated limitation on copyright. Google may be able to litigate software interface copyright cases for a decade or more, as it has done in this case, but startups and other small and medium-size companies as well as open source developers would prefer the certainty of a no-copyright-in-interfaces rule, as several amicus briefs pointed out. If the Court rules that interfaces are not protectable by copyright law, litigation over reuses of interfaces is much less likely. And if some developer does bring suit, chances are good that the case can be won on a motion to dismiss or for summary judgment

Software developer and industry association amici point to a longstanding consensus on the distinction between interfaces and implementations: interfaces should be free for reuse as long as developers reimplement the interfaces in independently created code. The Federal Circuit’s Oracle decisions have upset settled expectations in the industry, and if the Court upholds them, it would have, as Microsoft asserts, “potentially disastrous consequences for innovation.”

The American Antitrust Institute was among the amici that emphasized the potential for copyright in program interfaces to have anti-competitive effects by entrenching dominant firms and creating barriers for new entrants in the software business. This is particularly of concern in view of network effects which, even without interface copyright monopolies, make it difficult for users and developers to switch to new systems.

The Computer & Communications Industry Association and the Internet Association amicus brief provides a historical review of the evolution of software copyright caselaw. Although a few early decisions construed copyright as providing broad protection to program structures such as interfaces, landmark decisions by the Second and Ninth Circuits recognized that interfaces which constitute the functional requirements for achieving compatibility among programs should not be protectable by copyright law. Other courts followed these rulings. The Oracle decision deviates from this body of caselaw. Some amici regard interfaces as patent, not copyright, subject matter.

The amicus brief Catherine Crump and I co-authored and submitted on behalf of 72 intellectual property scholars positioned the pro-compatibility decisions within the framework of the Supreme Court’s 19th-century rulings in Perris v. Hexamer and Baker v. Selden, which originated the exclusion of methods and systems and their constituent elements from the scope of copyright; dozens of decisions applying these exclusions; their codification in 17 U.S.C. § 102(b); and caselaw applying these exclusions to software interfaces that enable compatibility. Our brief also explains why the District Court’s alternative ruling in favor of Google’s merger defense was consistent with Baker and its progeny and that merger provides a sound basis for finding that program interfaces that enable compatibility, such as the Java SE declarations, are unprotectable by copyright law.

Oracle will obviously have a different take on these issues when it files its brief due February 12. Amici in support of its position must submit their briefs within the following week.

Google will have an opportunity to file a reply brief in mid-March. Oral argument before the Court may be scheduled in late March.

= = = = =

[1] Although the American Intellectual Property Law Association is one of the briefs in support of neither party, the substance of its arguments on both the copyrightability and fair use arguments are quite close to the positions of Google and pro-interoperability amici.  The other “neutral” amici were the Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol Foundations which expressed concern about a possible interpretation of fair use that would undermine artistic freedom to engage in creative reuses by artists.

Guest Post by Prof. Contreras: HTC v. Ericsson – Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fifth Circuit Doesn’t Know What FRAND Means Either

Guest Post by Prof. Jorge Contreras of the University of Utah S.J. Quinney School of Law.  Disclosure statement: in 2019, the author served as an expert for HTC in an unrelated, non-U.S. case.

In August 31, 2021, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled in HTC Corp. v. Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson, 2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 26250, __ F.4th __ (Fed. Cir. 2021), affirming the judgment of the District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 170087 (E.D. Tex. 2019).  The decision is significant as it is the first by the Fifth Circuit to address the licensing of standards-essential patents and the meaning of “fair, reasonable and nondiscriminatory” (FRAND) licensing terms, adding to the growing body of jurisprudence already issued by the Third, Ninth and Federal Circuits in this area.  It is also significant because the court addresses several issues that have become increasingly important in standards-related litigation including (1) the apportionment of value among components of a multi-component product, (2) the proper choice of law for FRAND disputes, and (3) the interpretation of the “nondiscrimination” prong of the FRAND commitment.  These issues all arose in connection with HTC’s challenge to District Judge Rodney Gilstrap’s jury instructions regarding FRAND. His vague charge appears to reflect the general uncertainty in this area, not only of the Texas district court, but of the entire judicial system. One can almost hear the weariness permeating the final sentence of Judge Gilstrap’s charge to an admittedly perplexed jury: “Ladies and gentlemen, there is no fixed or required methodology for setting or calculating the terms of a FRAND license rate.”

Background

Though it was never a household name in the U.S., HTC — founded in Taiwan in 1997 — was an early smartphone pioneer.  In 2005 HTC released the world’s first Windows 3G smartphone (the clamshell HTC Universal) and followed in 2008 with the first smartphone running Google’s Android operating system (branded as the T-Mobile G1).  Most significantly, HTC was the developer and manufacturer of Google’s Nexus One Android phone, which was released in 2010.

The 2/3/4/5G wireless communication standards published by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) are incorporated into almost all smartphones (and many other devices) that have been sold over the past two decades.  These standards are covered by tens of thousands of patents around the world (standards-essential patents or SEPs), a respectable number of which are held by Swedish equipment manufacturer Ericsson.  Most standards-development organizations (SDOs) today recognize the potential leverage that the holders of SEPs may hold over manufacturers of standardized products. FRAND licensing commitments are designed to alleviate the risk that SEP holders will prevent broad adoption of a standard by asserting their patents against manufacturers of standardized products. As explained by the Fifth Circuit, “To combat the potential for anticompetitive behavior, standard setting organizations require standard-essential patent holders to commit to licensing their patents on … FRAND terms” (slip op. p. 4). Thus, under ETSI’s intellectual property policy, which dates back to 1993, Ericsson and other holders of patents that cover ETSI’s standards agree to grant manufacturers licenses on FRAND terms.

Ericsson and HTC entered into three such licensing agreements in 2003, 2008 and 2014. Under the 2014 agreement, HTC paid Ericsson a lump sum of $75 million for a 2-year license to use Ericsson’s 2/3/4G SEPs. In 2016, HTC and Ericsson began negotiations to renew the license. Ericsson proposed a rate of $2.50 per 4G device, which was based on the lump sum paid by HTC in 2014 divided by the number of phones sold by HTC over the license period. HTC did not accept this offer and instead conducted an assessment of the value of Ericsson’s SEPs. It made a counteroffer of $0.10 per device in March 2017.  Negotiations stalled, and in April, HTC brought an action in the Eastern District of Texas seeking a declaration that Ericsson had breached its obligation to offer HTC a license on FRAND terms.

The trial focused largely on the proper method for determining a FRAND royalty for Ericsson’s SEPs.  Because the actual FRAND royalty or royalty range in a given case is generally viewed as a question of fact, the case was tried a jury, and each party submitted a set of draft jury instructions to the court. As summarized by the Fifth Circuit, “HTC proposed highly detailed instructions to help the jury interpret FRAND, but Ericsson objected to most of these instructions and proposed a more general FRAND instruction. The district court considered the two proposals, but ultimately gave the following instruction to the jury: ‘Whether or not a license is FRAND will depend upon the totality of the particular facts and circumstances existing during the negotiations and leading up to the license. Ladies and gentlemen, there is no fixed or required methodology for setting or calculating the terms of a FRAND license rate.’ (slip op. at 6). The jury returned a verdict “finding that HTC had not proven that Ericsson had breached its FRAND duties and that both parties had breached their obligations to negotiate in good faith.” (slip op. at 9]. On the basis of the jury verdict, Ericsson moved for declaratory judgment that, in its dealings with HTC, it complied with its FRAND obligations.  The court granted Ericsson’s motion.

HTC appealed the district court’s ruling on three grounds:  it failed to adopt three of HTC’s proposed jury instructions, it incorrectly concluded that Ericsson’s licensing offer complied with its FRAND commitment, and it improperly excluded expert testimony as hearsay.  The Fifth Circuit, in an opinion authored by Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod, affirmed the lower court’s ruling on all three grounds.  Judge Stephen A. Higginson entered a separate concurring opinion, arguing that the district court erred by omitting HTC’s apportionment jury instruction, but this omission did not rise to the level of reversible error.

Apportionment

In patent infringement cases, it is well-established that a patentee’s damages should reflect only the value of the patented features of an infringing product. Thus, in assessing damages, courts routinely “apportion” the infringer’s profits between the infringing and noninfringing features of its product. See Garretson v. Clark, 111 U.S. 120, 121 (1884).  Accordingly, HTC argued that the district court erred by failing to give the jury specific instructions on apportionment.

However, this case did not sound in patent infringement, but in breach of contract.  As my co-authors and I have previously observed (see p. 162), it is a peculiar coincidence of U.S. law that both the statutory measure for patent damages under 35 USC § 284 and the FRAND commitment call for the imposition of a “reasonable” royalty.  For this reason, several U.S. courts that have calculated FRAND royalty rates (see, e.g., Ericsson v. D-Link (Fed. Cir. 2014), Microsoft v. Motorola (9th Cir. 2015); and Commonwealth Sci. & Indus. Research Org. (CSIRO) v. Cisco (Fed. Cir. 2015)) have looked to traditional methodologies for determining reasonable royalty patent damages, including the 15-factor Georgia-Pacific framework.  But while this methodology may be useful by analogy, it is not strictly required, as the damages flowing from a breach of the contractual FRAND commitment must, by their nature, be determined under applicable principles of contract law.  As the Fifth Circuit explains, “while the Federal Circuit’s patent law methodology can serve as guidance in contract cases on questions of patent valuation … it does not explicitly govern the interpretation of contractual terms, even terms that are intertwined with patent law” (slip op. at *15).  As such, the Fifth Circuit in this case held that the district court’s omission of a specific jury instruction on apportionment – a patent law doctrine – was not error.

Judge Higginson disagreed.  Citing D-Link and CSIRO, he observed the Federal Circuit’s “unmistakable command that a jury assessing patent value must be instructed on apportionment” and that “the failure to instruct a jury on proper apportionment is error when the jury is asked to assess patent value” (slip op. at *29-30, Higginson, J., concurring). And while he acknowledges that the instant case concerns breach of contract rather than patent infringement, he argues that the Federal Circuit’s precedent regarding apportionment is instructive “because a jury assessing patent infringement damages undertakes the same task of assessing whether an offered rate is FRAND” (citing Realtek Semiconductor, Corp. v. LSI Corp. (N.D. Cal., 2014) (slip op. at *30).  Moreover, Judge Higginson points out that both HTC and Ericsson, as well as the United States as amicus curiae, requested jury instructions on apportionment.  For all of these reasons, he concludes that the district court erred by omitting an instruction on apportionment.

Whether or not the district court erred, none of the Fifth Circuit judges felt that the omission of a specific apportionment instruction constituted reversible error because HTC had the opportunity to, and did, discuss apportionment during its closing argument before the jury.  This observation raises interesting questions regarding the basis on which juries are expected to make decisions in complex cases.  During trials that often last for weeks, the members of the jury hear hours upon hours of conflicting expert testimony and argumentation.  Under Rule 51 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a trial judge must instruct the jury regarding the substantive law governing the verdict. Its instructions are intended to distill the legal standards that the jury must apply during its deliberations.  Given that members of the jury are not permitted to take notes or make recordings during trial, they must rely heavily on these court-sanctioned instructions.  And contrary to the Fifth Circuit’s holding, it does seem problematic for a court to omit instructions that are germane to the jury’s deliberations concerning an area of law as complex as FRAND royalty determinations.  In such cases, irrespective of what courts and commentators believe the law to be, the results of cases on the ground depend heavily on the instructions given to the jury (we discuss the importance of jury instructions, especially model jury instructions, in FRAND cases in Jorge L. Contreras & Michael A. Eixenberger, Model Jury Instructions for Reasonable Royalty Patent Damages, 57 Jurimetrics J. 1 (2016) (“if … increasingly complex damages calculations are to remain in the hands of the jury, it is now more essential than ever that the instructions given to jurors be as clear, accurate, and understandable as possible.”)

 The French Connection

In considering HTC’s proposed jury instruction on apportionment, Judge Elrod also concluded that the proposed instruction was inaccurate because it summarized U.S. patent law with no reference to French contract law.  ETSI was formed in France in 1988 and approved its first patent policy in 1993.  That policy, and all subsequent ETSI policies, state that they are governed by the laws of France.  Judge Elrod observed that “HTC’s proposed jury instructions are based on United States patent law. HTC did not even attempt to justify its proposed instructions under French contract law or to argue that French contract law and United States patent law are equivalent” (slip op. *14).

This last point is particularly interesting.  In chastising HTC for failing to argue the equivalency of U.S. and French law, Judge Elrod refers to Apple v. Motorola, 886 F. Supp. 2d 1061, 1081 (W.D. Wis. 2012), in which a U.S. district court seemingly concluded, without any specific references, that there are no material differences between the laws of France and Wisconsin when it comes to interpreting a company’s FRAND commitment (discussed here at p.8).  In my experience that conclusion is widely ridiculed by European lawyers, and rightly so.  Yet Judge Elrod seems to imply that merely making a conclusory statement about the equivalency of French and U.S. law ought to suffice, or at least overcome one hurdle to the acceptance of a jury instruction grounded in principles of U.S. law.

 

Nondiscrimination

HTC also argued that the district court should have instructed the jury with respect to the nondiscrimination prong of Ericsson’s FRAND commitment.  HTC’s proposed jury instruction reads as follows (Appellant’s Opening Brief, p. 40):

The non-discrimination requirement of FRAND requires an SEP holder to provide similar licensing terms to licensees that are similarly situated. The financial terms do not have to be precisely identical, because the difference might be explained by other offsetting adjustments in other terms in the license. But, at a minimum, if the difference in terms creates a competitive disadvantage for a prospective licensee, then the offered royalty terms are discriminatory. Discrimination may exist even if preferential treatment is accorded to only one or a few companies.

The non-discrimination prong of FRAND serves to level the playing field among competitors, and to foster entry and innovation from new market participants, by prohibiting preferential treatment that imposes different costs to different competitors. Thus, for purposes of the non-discrimination prong of FRAND, licensees are “similarly situated” if they compete for the purchase or sale of a product or service. It would defeat the purpose of FRAND if a licensor could draw a distinction between entrenched and emerging firms.

To my eye, this is an accurate statement of the law and the general understanding of the nondiscrimination requirement under FRAND (see Jorge L. Contreras & Anne Layne-Farrar, Non-Discrimination and FRAND Commitments in Cambridge Handbook of Technical Standardization Law: Competition, Antitrust, and Patents, Ch. 12 (Jorge L. Contreras, ed., 2017)).  This formulation is also consistent with the most extensive analysis to-date of FRAND nondiscrimination by a U.S. district court (TCL v. Ericsson, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 214003 (C.D. Cal. 2017), rev’d on other grounds, 943 F.3d 1360 (Fed. Cir. 2019)).

Yet Judge Elrod writes that “HTC’s proposed instruction would transform the non-discrimination element of FRAND into a most-favored-licensee approach, which would require Ericsson to provide identical licensing terms to all prospective licensees” (slip op. *16). This statement is plainly incorrect.  The first sentence of HTC’s proposed jury instruction, which mirrors the model instruction published by the Federal Circuit Bar Association in 2020 and cited by the court (slip op. *17 n.3), refers to “similar licensing terms [for] licensees that are similarly situated”, not identical licensing terms for all prospective licensees.  HTC further clarifies that “The financial terms do not have to be precisely identical.” In explaining the meaning of “similarly situated”, HTC follows the reasoning of the district court in TCL, stating that a distinction should not be drawn between “entrenched and emerging firms”.  None of this suggests that all licensees should pay identical royalties.

Moreover, the parties clearly disputed at trial whether various “comparable” licensees identified by Ericsson were “similarly situated” to HTC (“HTC further argued that Ericsson’s licenses with companies like Apple, Samsung, and Huawei were much more favorable, but Ericsson presented additional evidence indicating that those companies were not similarly situated to HTC due to a variety of factors” (slip op. *22)). Thus, both parties appear to acknowledge the relevance of the “similarly situated” test for nondiscrimination, making it all the more puzzling why the district court and the Fifth Circuit found HTC’s proposed jury instruction on this point to be inaccurate.

Conclusion

Regrettably, the Fifth Circuit’s decision in HTC v. Ericsson does little to clarify the scope or nature of FRAND commitments for standards-essential patents.  Rather, by diverging from the guidance of the Federal Circuit in terms of the apportionment of value among patented and unpatented products, and misinterpreting the scope of the nondiscrimination prong of the FRAND commitment, the Fifth Circuit has substantially muddied the already turgid waters of this increasingly important area of law.  Unfortunately, Judge Gilstrap was right when he told the jury in Texas, “Ladies and gentlemen, there is no fixed or required methodology for setting or calculating the terms of a FRAND license rate.”  It might be helpful to the industry, however, if there were.

Prof Patterson: Teasing Through a Single FRAND Rate

Guest Post by Prof. Mark R. Patterson, Fordham Law

Last week Professor Jorge Contreras provided here an excellent summary of the April 5 decision of Mr. Justice Birss of the UK’s High Court of Justice in Unwired Planet International Ltd. v Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd., [2017] EWHC 711. The case addresses the problems that arise in determining FRAND (fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory) licensing terms. Professor Contreras highlighted several novel aspects of the decision.  In the paragraphs below I focus on two of them.

A Single FRAND Rate

Mr. Justice Birss determined that there is only a single set of FRAND terms “in a given set of circumstances” (¶ 164). This approach stands in contrast to the approach of, for example, U.S. District Judge James Robart in Microsoft Corp. v. Motorola, Inc., 963 F. Supp. 2d 1176 (W.D. Wash. 2013), who concluded there would a range of possible FRAND royalties. As Professor Contreras wrote, Justice Birss’s approach poses a number of “logical hurdles . . . with respect to the SEP holder’s initial offer to the implementer and how to assess the SEP holder’s compliance with competition law.”

For one thing, Justice Birss does not seem to contemplate that after the first decision regarding FRAND terms for a particular portfolio, other courts or arbitration tribunals will follow along by applying the same rate. Instead, he appears to anticipate that each judge or arbitrator will make his or her own decision about the “single” FRAND rate, independently assessing the reasoning of prior courts or tribunals: “Decisions of other courts may have persuasive value but that will largely depend on the reasoning that court has given to reach its conclusion” (¶ 411).

Justice Birss makes this comment with reference to an Ericsson license to Huawei, not a license of Unwired Planet’s portfolio to a different licensee. Perhaps he contemplates more deference by subsequent courts to earlier determinations regarding the same portfolio, but that is not clear. Perhaps also, as Dennis Crouch has pointed out to me, there might be preclusive effects, even internationally, as a result of a prior decision, though that would presumably only put a ceiling on a rate, not a floor. In the absence of such effects, one can anticipate a multitude of “single” FRAND rates for a given portfolio.

Another factor that might lead to inconsistency among different rate determinations is what appears to be some reluctance to rely on arbitral decisions:

The decisions of other courts, assuming they are not binding authorities, may be useful as persuasive precedents. A point arises in this case about a licence which was the product of an arbitration. A licence agreement settled in an arbitration is more like terms set by a court than it is like a licence produced by negotiation and agreement. Huawei submitted that such a licence would be evidence of what a party was actually paying and as such was relevant. Aside from certain aspects of nondiscrimination which I will address separately, I do not accept that evidence of what a party is paying as a result of a binding arbitration will carry much weight. (¶ 171).

This skepticism regarding arbitrations is important because international arbitrations are used in the FRAND context to avoid country-by-country litigation. The passage suggests that Justice Birss would not treat rates set in an arbitration involving one licensee as very persuasive in a proceeding involving another licensee. On the other hand, the arbitration to which he was referring was one for which Huawei had introduced only the rates determined in the arbitration, not the award itself (id.). Later in the decision, he writes that “[a]n arbitral award is at least capable of having a similar persuasive value” as a court decision if the reasoning is available (¶ 411). In the end, it is not clear whether Justice Birss’s concern is with arbitration per se—he says that “[t]erms which were settled by an arbitrator are not evidence of what willing, reasonable business people would agree in a negotiation” (id.)—or simply that Huawei did not provide a complete picture of the arbitration at issue.

In any event, the overall picture appears to be that every court and tribunal can determine its own “single” FRAND rate and other terms (even when each is interpreting the same FRAND commitment for the same SEP portfolio). As Justice Birss indicates, there will be some limitations based on the non-discrimination element of FRAND, but he also limits that non-discrimination principle, as described below.

Another problem with the single-rate approach arises in connection with the CJEU’s 2015 decision in Huawei v. ZTE. Under the rules for FRAND negotiations established in that case, which the CJEU established as a template for the avoidance of abuse under Article 102 TFEU, the patentee and potential licensees are required to make FRAND offers. If there is only one single FRAND rate, as Justice Birss says, then of course the chances that either party’s offer, let alone both, will match that FRAND rate are very slim.

Justice Birss acknowledges this problem, and purports to resolve it by saying that “[t]he fact that concrete proposals [i.e., the required FRAND offers] are also required does not mean it is relevant to ask if those proposals are actually FRAND or not” (¶ 744(ii)). But the CJEU is clear that the parties’ proposals must be a “written offer for a licence on FRAND terms” (Huawei v. ZTE, ¶ 63) and “a specific counter-offer that corresponds to FRAND terms” (Huawei v. ZTE, ¶ 66). Justice Birss argues that this means only “that each side must make clear they are willing to conclude a licence on FRAND terms, since that is what matters,” (¶ 738), not that the offers themselves must be on FRAND terms. This claim, though, that “[w]hether a particular concrete proposal is actually FRAND is not what the CJEU is focussing on” (id.) is not the most natural reading of the CJEU’s decision.

Justice Birss does allow that “[n]o doubt a prejudicial demand or a sham proposal may itself be abusive (that issue arises below) but that is another matter” (id.). He says further that “only an offer which is so far above FRAND as to act to disrupt or prejudice the negotiations themselves . . . will fall foul of Art 102(a)” (¶ 738). He then concludes that the Unwired Planet offers and Huawei counteroffers in their negotiations, which were in the range of around three to ten times higher or lower than the actual FRAND rate that he determines, were not abusive given the circumstances of the negotiation (¶¶ 756-784).

In the end it is not clear just what are the implications of Justice Birss’s single FRAND rate. The determined rate does not necessarily constrain other courts or arbitral tribunals to impose the same rate, nor with Justice Birss’s interpretation do offers that deviate from the FRAND rate constitute abuse under Huawei v. ZTE. His approach can be contrasted, as Professor Contreras points out, with that of other courts that have interpreted FRAND as describing a range of rates, and although Justice Birss rejects that approach, his own approach seems likely to produce similar results. (It is possible that he chose the single-rate approach because he seems to have had some misgivings about the task of choosing between the parties’ two rate proposals if they were both FRAND, though in the end he concluded that “the court’s jurisdiction is not restricted to the binary question of assessing a given set of terms but extends to deciding between rival proposals and coming to a conclusion different from either side’s case on such a proposal” (¶ 169).)

The Non-Discrimination Principle

Mr. Justice Birss also addresses the non-discrimination element of FRAND. Here he distinguishes what he calls “general non-discrimination” and “hard-edged non-discrimination” obligations. The former requires that rates do not differ based on the licensee but only based “primarily” on the value of the portfolio licensed (¶ 175). Hard-edged discrimination, on the other hand, “to the extent it exists, is a distinct factor capable of applying to reduce a royalty rate (or adjust any licence term in any way) which would otherwise have been regarded as FRAND” (¶ 177).

Justice Birss rejects any hard-edged non-discrimination requirement beyond that which would be required by competition law. Although one might think that the ETSI FRAND policy imposes obligations independent of competition law, especially given Justice Birss’s conclusion that it creates contracts under French law, Justice Birss takes a different view regarding agreed-to licenses: “If parties agree licence terms then their rights and obligations under the ETSI FRAND undertaking will be discharged and replaced by their contractual rights under the licence” (¶ 155).

Justice Birss does not really explain the basis for this statement, though in other respects he is quite careful in his discussion of French law. First, ETSI is not a party to a license between a patentee and technology implementer/licensee. Hence, it is not clear how the agreement between patentee and licensee on the license could discharge ETSI’s rights under the FRAND contract. Furthermore, even if entry into a license could in principle discharge ETSI’s rights, it is not clear why discharge would result from entry into a license that turns out not to be FRAND when ETSI’s own right is to ensure the patentee’s obligation to license on FRAND terms. Moreover, as Professor Contreras says, it seems unlikely that the ETSI participants (or, I would add, the parties to the license) intend this result. It is likely that we will now see licensees seeking to include license provisions that preserve their rights to seek a remedy for hard-edged discrimination.

Beyond the contract question, Justice Birss turns to competition law: “If . . . the FRAND undertaking also includes a specific non-discrimination obligation whereby a licensee has the right to demand the very same rate as has been granted to another licensee which is lower than the benchmark rate, then that obligation only applies if the difference would distort competition between the two licensees” (¶ 503). That is, ETSI’s FRAND policy does no more than serve to restate competition law.

This surprising conclusion is made more surprising by the way in which Justice Birss applied competition law. Huawei argued that under EU competition law it did not have to show actual harm to competition so long as it provided evidence from which such harm could be inferred, and the court agreed (¶¶ 504-510). But Justice Birss then addressed Huawei’s discrimination claim, which was based on lower rates in an earlier Unwired Planet license to Samsung, by pointing out that the difference in royalty payments would be much smaller than Huawei’s profit margin (¶ 517).

A problem here is that Unwired Planet’s proportion of the total number of relevant SEPs was argued by Huawei to be 0.04% and by Unwired Planet to be 1.25% (¶ 261). Therefore, the aggregate effect over all SEPs of the difference between the Samsung and Huawei rates would be about 100 times greater than the effect the court considers. The judge does not provide the actual Samsung-Huawei royalty difference in the public decision, but the aggregate royalty burden for all SEPs, he wrote, would be about 10% given the FRAND rate he determines (id.). He also noted that Huawei’s profit margin was between $6 and $19 per device on prices between $164 to $185 (¶ 517), which produces profit percentages between 3.2% and 11.6%. Thus, it appears that if Samsung’s rate were half of Huawei’s, the difference would be about one-half or more of Huawei’s profits. Surely one could infer competitive harm from that difference.

Obviously Justice Birss’s decision applies only to Unwired Planet and Huawei, but it seems to be putting on blinders not to consider the overall effect that would result from similar decisions across all holders of SEPs. Would only holders of larger portfolios than Unwired Planet’s be subject to non-discrimination claims, or could such claims only be brought by licensees that have entered into licenses for significant proportions of all SEPs? If the latter, could the non-discrimination claims only be brought against the later-licensing patentees, when the competitive effect became more significant? As long as there is any role for hard-edged discrimination, and Justice Birss does allow it such a role, if only one coincident with competition law, these questions will have to be answered by subsequent decisions.

Lower Court MUST Construe All Disputed Terms

Patent.Law073O2 Micro v. Beyond Innovation, et. al (Fed. Cir. 2008)

A jury found O2 Micro’s DC/AC converter patents willfully infringed and not invalid. The Eastern District of Texas court (Judge Ward) then issued a permanent injunction.

Waiver of Claim Construction Appeal: During a Markman hearing, the parties sparred over the definition of the term “ONLY IF”. Rather than issuing a claim construction decision, the district court decided that the common phrase needed no explanatory construction. After having lost to the jury, the defendants appealed the lower court’s failure to construe the ONLY IF phrase.  However, because the defendants did not specifically object to the jury instructions, O2 Micro argued that the the defendants has waived their right to appeal. 

The issue of waiver of claim construction has been raised before, and the CAFC dismissed it again — this time by quoting the CAFC’s own 2004 Cardiac Pacemakers opinion:

“When the claim construction is resolved pre-trial, and the patentee presented the same position in the Markman proceeding as is now pressed, a further objection to the district court’s pre-trial ruling may indeed have been not only futile but unnecessary.”

Thus, if disputed at a Markman hearing, claim construction appeal issues are not waived by failure to object to jury instructions. Furthermore, the CAFC will also allow new arguments to be presented on appeal justifying the previously proposed construction.

Construing all the terms: Although the meaning of the phrase “ONLY IF” was disputed by the parties, the district court failed to construe the term. In its decision, the CAFC vacated — finding that the disputed phrase should have been construed. By failing to define the term, the court essentially passed the construction dispute to the jury.

“When the parties raise an actual dispute regarding the proper scope of these claims, the court, not the jury, must resolve that dispute. . . . When the parties present a fundamental dispute regarding the scope of a claim term, it is the court’s duty to resolve it.”

In deciding this issue, the CAFC indicated that claim construction requires determining both the meaning of the words in the claim and the scope encompassed by the claim. Further, even ordinary terms need construed when they are susceptible to multiple interpretations.

Overburdening: Over the past decade, the number of terms being construed (and appealed) has risen dramatically. In its decision, the CAFC at least waived its hands at the problem — recognizing “that district courts are not (and should not be) required to construe every limitation present in a patent’s asserted claims.” (Emphasis in original). No, the court only needs to construe those claim terms that are disputed, subject to alternative theories, that could be helped by clarification, and when otherwise necessary to describe the claim coverage.

Meaning and Scope: This case is quite important because it shifts even more power and importance onto the issue of claim construction and away from a jury’s factual determination of infringement and novelty. 

 

Using Claim Terms and their Synonyms

Edwards Lifesciences v. Cook, Inc. (Fed. Cir. 2009)

The four Edwards patents all relate to internal blood-vessel grafts for treating aneurisms. The grafts are designed to be inserted endovascularly without the need for open surgery. After construing the claims, N.D. Cal. District Court Judge Jeffrey White granted summary judgment of non-infringement to the two defendants, Cook and Gore. On appeal, the Federal Circuit affirmed.

Lumpy Claim Construction: Patent claim construction serves as a prime example of how litigators can take a simple issue and make it quite complicated. For their part, judges are keen to limit the issues. A common approach in claim construction is to group similar claim terms together and give them identical meaning. In this case, the patent used the terms “graft,” “graft body,” graft structure”, “bifurcated base structure,” and “bifurcated base graft structure.” Examining these terms, the appellate panel agreed that these terms could properly be analyzed together because the applicant had used them “interchangeably in the specification,” at least with respect to the disputed differences.

This risk of synonymous meaning is not necessarily bad. Using various terms to describe the same idea helps to flesh out the detail and scope of the idea. However, in most cases, applicants would probably be better off emphasizing distinctions between similar terms. The distinctions may well be useful for ensuring varied claim coverage.

The point from this case is that the distinctions between similar terms must be explicitly emphasized if the applicant wants to have confidence that it can later rely on the differences.

Broadening Claims:During prosecution, Edwards seemingly broadened some of its claims by amending the “intraluminar graft” elements to simply “graft” elements. Despite that change, the court found that the specification’s written description still required that all grafts be intraluminal.

Guest Post: The Open Source Hardware Association’s Perspective on GSK v. Teva

Guest Post by Michael Weinberg, Executive Director of the Engelberg Center on Innovation Law & Policy at NYU Law and the Board President of the Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA) and David Wechsler, a 3L at NYU Law.

To the Open Source Hardware (OSHW) community, the Federal Circuit’s October opinion in the ongoing appeal of GlaxoSmithKline LLC v. Teva (“GSK”), No. 2018-1976 (Fed. Cir.) was a wolf in wolf’s clothing. Some language in the panel majority’s opinion suggested an expansion of induced infringement liability to transform mere statements of equivalence made on promotional materials into triggers for liability. This language came dangerously close to swallowing an industry extolled for democratizing science and helping the United States overcome its PPE shortage in the heart of the COVID-19 outbreak. The Federal Circuit’s subsequent choice to vacate its initial opinion and re-hear the case signals that crisis may have been averted, but the close call was a reminder of the uphill battle open design faces despite the significant public benefits it creates. We cannot predict exactly what the Federal Circuit’s new opinion will look like, but as advocates for the OSHW community, we hope the panel treads carefully.

I. The Importance of Open-Source Hardware to Innovation

Open source hardware is a physical item whose source files have been shared with the world and can be freely copied or modified. By enabling anyone to study, modify, distribute, make, and sell the design or hardware, open source hardware allows the sharing of knowledge and encourages innovation through the open exchange of designs. In contrast to proprietary hardware, any relevant documentation related to open source hardware is licensed for individuals to openly participate in the design and development of the hardware, or to replicate and manufacture the hardware devices. By making it easier to begin engineering from a prior design, open source design quickens invention and commercialization of new technologies.

The benefits of open source hardware were on vivid display last year, as the demand for PPE skyrocketed amid the COVID-19 outbreak and caused a “chronic shortage” of supply. Relying on open-source hardware and design, thousands of individuals met this moment of need with ingenuity. To name a few inspiring examples

Open source hardware facilitated this process by disseminating the designs for novel reusable PPE publicly, which not only enabled DIY enthusiasts to collaboratively iterate and manufacture designs for safe equipment at a low cost, but also solved local shortages in equipment. The response to COVID has exposed manufacturing and distribution as primary logistical challenges to disaster response, yet the use of open design to create PPE highlights how distributed manufacturing and supply chains—enabled by openness—can overcome logistical hurdles. Harnessing the power of open design to respond to global crises didn’t begin with the pandemic. Glia Project, for example, has responded to a need for stethoscopes and tourniquets among doctors in the Gaza Strip by sharing 3-D printable open source designs for these devices since 2018.

Beyond providing society with useful tools in responding to crises, open source hardware also has the higher order capacity to democratize science. Research equipment made with open source design is cheaper for scientists to acquire or build on their own, as well as modify to match local conditions, thus lowering the cost barrier to scientific research across the globe. The OSHW community believes that technological capacity should not depend on where one is born; open source hardware therefore offers a promising vision of the future by allowing scientific education in the poorest parts of the world to move past theoretical discussions and into practical applications.

II. GSK v. Teva: The Original Decision

Contrary to popular belief, legal education does not begin with learning the concepts of offer and acceptance in contracts, negligence in torts, or even well-pleaded complaints in Civil Procedure. No, legal education begins during recess period, when one friend (Charlie) encourages another friend (Skyler) to throw the only kickball over the school fence. When caught in the act, Skyler points the finger at Charlie’s encouragement, and the teacher must engage in a fact-finding mission to determine Charlie’s culpability. Depending on how actively Charlie encouraged Skyler, Charlie too may be spending Saturday morning in detention.

The doctrine of inducement infringement in intellectual property law is no different. 35 U.S.C. § 271(b) states “whoever actively induces infringement of a patent shall be liable as an infringer.” Traditionally, § 271(b) has been interpreted as requiring more than mere knowledge: plaintiffs must show active steps taken by the defendant that encouraged direct infringement. See, e.g., Takeda Pharm. U.S.A., Inc. v. West-Ward Pharm. Corp., 785 F.3d 625, 631 (Fed Cir. 2015) (“Merely describing an infringing mode is not the same as recommending, encouraging, or promoting an infringing use, or suggesting that an infringing use ‘should’ be performed.”) (cleaned up). To further the recess analogy, Charlie might be in trouble for imploring Skyler to throw the ball over the fence, but probably avoids culpability by merely explaining how to throw a ball so high as to clear the fence.

The ongoing pharma case GSK v. Teva—chronicled by PatentlyO here and here—has the potential to expand inducement liability to encompass far more than just “active encouragement.” But doing so would threaten the OSHW community, which would have deleterious downstream effects on innovation, crisis response, and the democratization of science.

The panel majority’s original opinion found Teva liable for inducing infringement of GSK’s patent on Coreg to treat congestive heart failure (“CHF”). Relevant to the OSHW community, GSK’s patents on Coreg and its non-CHF-related uses had already expired. Nevertheless, relying heavily (as Judge Prost points out in dissent) on evidence that Teva’s promotional materials referred to its generic tablets as “AB rated” equivalents of the Coreg tablets, Teva was found liable for inducing infringement despite only instructing patients and doctors to use its product for off-patent (i.e., non-CHF) uses.

The panel majority seemed to assume that doctors and pateints would combine the “AB rating” with instructions GSK (not Teva!) provided on how to use Coreg to treat CHF in finding Teva liable for inducement infringement. The panel majority’s reasoning indicates that a distributor of an unpatented product used for unpatented uses A and B could still be held liable if the product was also capable of being used for patented use C.  This would be true even if the distributor of the product made no mention of use C in advertising or educational materials. This broad language lessens patent holders’ burden of proving inducement and could create liability for wholly innocent OSHW developers whose statements of equivalence relate to off-patented uses entirely sepearate from and uninterested in the patented uses.

Statements of equivalence are a far cry from the traditional active encouragement test, spelling bad news for Charlie, our fearless recess ringleader, and potentially worse for designers of open source hardware. Would an open source hardware developer be subject to liability by simply promoting their product as structurally equivalent to a brand-name product, despite not encouraging, mentioning, or even being aware of a specific infringing use? The original panel majority’s focus on Teva’s AB rating suggests that it might be. But then how would the public benefit from the innovation and utility that flow from these cheaper and more accessible alternatives?

Further, the OSHW community would be burdened with administrative costs associated with monitoring which unpatented designs have patented uses. The OSHW community might also fall victim to an avalanche of new patent infringement claims from patent trolls.

The original GSK opinion was not only unduly broad, but also worryingly vague. What type of knowledge and marketing, for example, is sufficient to trigger liability under the panel majority’s rubric (“the provider of an identical product knows of and markets the same product for intended direct infringing activity”)? Without a clear statement on what type of promotional activity triggers inducement liability, open source developers, many of which are too small to afford sophisticated legal departments, will either have their activities chilled or expose themselves to liability. The confused expansion of inducement doctrine contained in the Federal Circuit’s October opinion could have been the death knell of a highly useful emerging industry.

Part III: GSK v. Teva: The Future

 Thankfully, the panel rehearing (which took place on February 23rd) may signal that the panel will decide the GSK case on clearer and—we hope—narrower grounds that do not inhibit the progress of the OSHW community. One way a new opinion could do so is by clarifying that mere statements of structural, chemical, or therapeutic equivalence are insufficient to create inducement liability. The panel can and should reaffirm that inducement can only be established through evidence of active steps taken by the defendant that encouraged direct infringement. Doing so would properly protect incentives to innovate without prohibiting the public from off-patent uses of the same: a win-win for innovators everywhere.

As we hope to have made clear, the open source hardware community spurs innovation and supports the public interest by reducing the cost of scientific research and increasing manufacturing capabilities. Any good intellectual property regime means to serve these interests.

 

Disclosure Statement: Michael Weinberg is the Executive Director of the Engelberg Center on Innovation Law & Policy at NYU Law and the Board President of the Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA). David Wechsler is a 3L at NYU Law and a participant in NYU’s Technology Law & Policy Clinic, which represents OSHWA.

 

Terms of Use

Patently-O Blog: Terms of Use

Updated October 2, 2008

Although I hope you are finding this blog useful and enjoyable, I want to make sure that our respective rights and responsibilities related to the blog are clear.  The following is intended to be a legally enforceable contract. You should be careful to note that you are assenting to the contract by accessing the blog more than once. Each subsequent intentional access of the blog likewise will serve as assent to the contract.

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GSK v. Teva: Skinny Label Approval is not a Patent Safe Harbor

In an important pharma decision, the Federal Circuit has doubled-down on its prior ruling that Teva’s sales of the drug carvedilol induced infringement of a GSK method-of-treatment patent, even though Teva’s product is approved and labeled only for non-infringing uses (as required by statute).  In the new decision, however, the court makes clear that the inducement liability is due to Teva’s additional marketing activity that encouraged others to infringe.

GlaxoSmithKline v. Teva Pharm (Fed. Cir. 2021) (GSK v. Teva 2021)

The GSK Patent covers the use of carvedilol to “decrease a risk of mortality caused by congestive heart failure.” RE40,000 (original US Pat 5,760,069). The FDA approved Teva’s sales of the same drug, but only under a “skinny label” that carves-out the patented use.  Teva only labeled its version for treatment of hypertension and left ventricular dysfunction following a heart attack (“post-MI LVD”).  Despite the label differences, the drugs are otherwise therapeutic equivalents indicated by the FDA’s “AB rating.” Thus, many people (insurance companies,  pharmacies, doctors, patients, etc) began using the cheaper generic for the patented purposes and Teva profited.

GSK sued for inducing infringement and the jury sided with GSK and awarded $200 million in damages.  The district court rejected the jury verdict and instead found insufficient evidence to show causation — that insufficient evidence Teva’s actions caused the underlying infringement.  Then on appeal the Federal Circuit flipped again and reinstated the jury verdict in its October 2020 decision.

The problem with the Oct 2020 decision is that it included an indication that a Generic could be held liable for inducement by simply selling a generic version of a drug and noting the therapeutic equivalence with the branded drug — without ever mentioning the patented use.  The Federal Circuit has now released a new decision clarifying that such a straight use of the Skinny-Label could not justify inducement liability.  In this case, however, the court found sufficient evidence that Teva went further — labelling its drug in a way that encouraged the patented use.

An important element of this decision: the FDA’s Skinny-Label Carveout approval process does not create a genuine safe-harbor for the generic launch.

The new opinion is listed as per curiam, signed by Chief Judge Moore and Judge Newman.  Judge Prost wrote in dissent.

If a brand drug company (here, GSK) has a patent on one of a drug’s uses, it tells the FDA which use is patented. In fact, it tells the FDA exactly what language from its label is covered by its patents. The FDA will then permit a generic version of that drug to come to market if the manufacturer “carves out” such use from its drug label by omitting the language that the brand drug company identified. That’s what happened here. GSK’s sworn FDA filings identified just one use as patented. So Teva carved out that use and came to market with its “skinny” label. It played by the rules, exactly as Congress intended. It sold its generic for years without controversy.

Dissent.

= = = =

The opinion raises the doctrine of equitable estoppel.  The argument is premised on the idea that GSK’s statements to the FDA led Teva to believe that its skinny-label would not induce infringement.  Since Teva relied upon those statements to its detriment, GSK should now be estopped from suing Teva for inducement.  This issue was not yet decided by the district court and so will be raised on remand.

= = = =

Note on the damages: $200 million was GSK’s lost profits; Teva only profited $13 million from the infringement because of its generic pricing.

= = = =

I expect that we’ll see a congressional fix following this decision.

Joint Ownership and Trademark Registration

Bibiji Inderjit Kaur Puri v. Yogi Bhajan Administrative Trust (Fed. Cir. 2021)

I practice a form kundalini yoga that is somewhat in the tradition of Yogi Bhajan.  Bhajan died in 2004 leaving his widow (Puri) as well as an Administrative Trust (YBAT). In recent years, Bhajan’s history of sexual abuse has come to light as well.

Puri and YBAT have a fairly long history of litigation over ownership and control of Bhajan’s estate.  The most valuable aspect today is probably YOGI TEA that is sold by a third party, the East West Tea Company, but with Puri and YBAT each having a 50% undivided ownership of intellectual property rights.

The dispute at issue here started when Puri, acting alone, filed a trademark registration application for the mark YOGI for bath and beauty products. YBAT opposed, and the PTAB sided with YBAT — holding that:

[Puri] did not have a bona fide intent to use the mark in commerce solely in her individual capacity at the time she filed her involved because, at such time, [Puri] was aware that both [YBAT] and [Puri] each had an undivided and equal interest in the applied-for mark for the identified goods. Accordingly, we find that the involved application is void ab initio.

[TTAB Decision – OPP_47].  On appeal, the Federal Circuit has affirmed, finding the Board’s legal conclusions “without error” and its factual findings supported by substantial evidence.

The basic legal rule here is that all owners of a trademark must at least consent to the filing of a use-based trademark application.  Without consent, “the application
is void ab initio.”  For this point, the TTAB cites to Kristin Marie Conolty d/b/a Fairway Fox Golf v. Conolty O’Connor NYC LLC, 111 USPQ2d 1302, 1310 (TTAB 2014) (“the involved application is void ab initio because applicant is not the sole owner of the mark”).

This basic rule is derived from the statute 15 U.S.C. § 1051(a), which requires the trademark owner be the one who files for registration. The statute goes on to require a statement from the owner that “no other person has the right to use such mark..” 15 U.S.C. § 1051(a)(3)(D).   Here, although Puri as an owner of the mark, YBAT is also an owner with its own rights.  

Affirmed.

Federal Circuit Enforces Agreed-To but Unsigned Settlement Terms

MedPointe Healthcare v. Walter Kozachuk (Fed. Cir. 2010)(nonprecedential)

Kozachuk is a former employee of MedPointe’s predecessor company and as part of his employment agreement, Kozachuk had agreed to assign “any and all inventions, discoveries, or improvements made, discovered, or conceived by him during his employment.” About 18-months after leaving his job, Kozachuk began filing patent applications on clinical uses of the drug Felbamate for the treatment of neurological problems. In 2004, MedPointe sued – claiming ownership rights and breach of the employment agreement.

Settlement: In May 2008, the parties reached an agreement on the material terms of a settlement. The terms (including the transfer of patent rights to MedPoint and a small payment ($60k) to Kozachuk) were put “on the record” by the magistrate judge who was mediating the settlement negotiations. Kozachuk, however, refused to sign the final settlement agreement and instead argued that he had been inadequately represented in the negotiations. Despite the lack of a signed document, the district court agreed to enforce the settlement, ordered Kozachuk to sign the documents and hit Kozachuk with $30k in sanctions.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit affirmed. Applying New Jersey law, the court found that a settlement agreement “is a binding contract enforceable regardless whether it has been reduced to writing” and that a contract is created once the parties agree upon the “essential terms of the settlement.” The kicker here was that Kozachuk had agreed to the terms on the record.

Kozachuk’s complaints of inadequate assistance of counsel went nowhere: “In light of Kozachuk’s high level of education, his obvious familiarity with the litigation process, and his failure to express any lack of understanding except after the fact, the court did not clearly err in finding that a binding settlement agreement had been formed.”

Appellate Jurisdiction: One issue not addressed by this case is why the Federal Circuit is hearing the appeal of an employment dispute. I looked up the original complaint to find the answer: The complaint seeks to correct inventorship of the patents under 35 U.S.C. § 256. As such, the case arises under the US patent laws and therefore provides the Federal Circuit with appellate jurisdiction over the final judgment. Hunter Douglas, Inc. v. Harmonic Design, 153 F.3d 1318, 1330 (Fed. Cir. 1998).

Copyrighting Your Patent?

by Dennis Crouch

Although it sounds of a malformed naive question, at times patent applicants do want to copyright their patent.  The patent application may, for instance, include software code, prose, or particular schematics that would seemingly be amenable to copyright protection.

In 1987, the USPTO created an official policy allowing patentees to include a “Copyright or Mask Work Notice in Patents” in order to “protect the various intellectual property rights of the author or inventor.”  Those instructions were then codified in 37 C.F.R. 1.71(d)-(e)(1988).  The rule requires that a copyright notice be accompanied with with a grant of permission to make certain copies:

A portion of the disclosure of this patent document contains material which is subject to (copyright or mask work) protection. The (copyright or mask work) owner has no objection to the facsimile reproduction by anyone of the patent document or the patent disclosure, as it appears in the Patent and Trademark Office patent file or records, but otherwise reserves all (copyright or mask work) rights whatsoever.

See also, MPEP 608(w).

Unfortunately, neither the rule nor statute provide any indication of the impact of a notice failure.

Published works are no longer required to include any copyright notice, and the PTO has never indicated (AFAIK) that submission without the copyright notice constitutes a waiver or abandonment of copyright protections.  However, the failure to include a (c) notice could potentially be relevant to fair-use analysis.

Santa Clara Copyright Law Professor Tyler Ochoa pointed me to Korzybski v. Underwood & Underwood, 36 F.2d 727 (2d Cir. 1929).  In that 75 year old case, the appellate panel held that a patent filing served as a dedication of all rights in the disclosure to the public domain.

When Korzybski filed his application and received his patent, he . . . dedicated it to the public, save for the right to make, use, and vend it during the period for which the patent gave him that monopoly. The public had the right to the information disclosed in his patent and the right to use and copy the text and diagrams. . . . Everything disclosed in the patent became a part of the public domain.

. . . The defendant has done no more than photograph the [patented] anthropometer. This we hold it had a right to do, because the anthropometer was an embodiment of the drawings of the patent. The copyright was invalid, because the subject-matter had become a part of the public domain when complainant filed the prior application which resulted in the grant of his patent.

An inventor who has applied for and obtained a patent cannot extend his monopoly by taking out a copyright.

The Korzybski decision is based two distinct doctrines: (1) failure of formalities (no longer the law) and (2) the traditional judge-made public policy that copyrights should not be used to extent patent rights (likely still the law).

I wanted to look at the number of patents that actually include the copyright notice and how that number has changed over time.  The first chart shows the number of patents issued each year containing the copyright notice and the second chart provides charts the numbers as a percentage relative to the total patents issued each year.

PatentsClaimingCopyright

PatentsClaimingCopyrightPercent
Although the relative percentage has changed over time, it has always remained under 1%.  My basic explanation for the percentage being so low is that the copyright notice requires an express waiver of certain rights – why do that without some justifiable gains?

Ring & Pinion v. ARB: No Foreseeability Limitation on DOE

Ring & Pinion Service Inc. v. ARB Corporation Ltd. (Fed. Cir. 2014) Opinion
Panel: Moore (author), Clevenger, Reyna

One of the main justifications for the doctrine of equivalents is that it prevents patents from becoming worthless as a result of unforeseeable changes in technology.  As Judge Rader observed in his concurrence in Festo:

A primary justification for the doctrine of equivalents is to accommodate after-arising technology. Without a doctrine of equivalents, any claim drafted in current technological terms could be easily circumvented after the advent of an advance in technology. A claim using the terms “anode” and “cathode” from tube technology would lack the “collectors” and “emitters” of transistor technology that emerged in 1948. Thus, without a doctrine of equivalents, infringers in 1949 would have unfettered license to appropriate all patented technology using the out-dated terms “cathode” and “anode”. 

This case deals with the inverse: whether the doctrine of equivalents can apply when a technology was foreseeable at the time of patenting.

R&P sought a declaratory judgment that its product did not infringe ARB’s patent.  The parties agreed that R&P’s product literally met all of the limitations of claim 1 of the patent except for one, which they agreed was present as an equivalent in R&P’s product.  However, they disagreed over whether the doctrine of equivalents could apply since the equivalent would have been foreseeable to a person having ordinary skill in the art at the time the application was filed.  The parties thus stipulated that infringement in this case turned on the legal question of whether “foreseeability of an equivalent at the time of application prevents use of the doctrine of equivalents.”  The district court ruled that foreseeability did not preclude application of the doctrine of equivalents, but granted summary judgment to R&P on a vitiation theory.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit agreed with the district court that forseeability is not a limitation on the DOE:

There is not, nor has there ever been, a foreseeability limitation on the application of the doctrine of equivalents. It has long been clear that known interchangeability weighs in favor of finding infringement under the doctrine of equivalents.  [the CAFC cites a number of cases discussing interchangeability, including Warner-Jenkinson and Graver Tank]. Excluding equivalents that were foreseeable at the time of patenting would directly conflict with these holdings that “known interchangeability” supports infringement under the doctrine of equivalents. We conclude that the foreseeability of an equivalent at the time of patenting is not a bar to a finding of infringement under the doctrine of equivalents.

Slip Op. at 4-5.

Nor did it matter that the claim element involved was drafted in means-plus-function terms.  The doctrine of equivalents applies equally to these types of claim terms, and there is no “partial” foreseeability limitation here.  “Nothing in Chiuminatta or in any other case cited by R&P supports its assertion that there exists a foreseeability exception to the doctrine of equivalents that applies to means-plus-function or any other claim terms.”  Slip Op. at 7.

The defendant here thus lost on infringement because there is no foreseeability limitation on the use of the doctrine of equivalents.  Furthermore, the stipulation that the parties entered into precluded consideration of other potential issues: the district court erred by not enforcing that stipulation.

Policy rationale: Given that a primary rationale for the doctrine of equivalents is to address the problem of after-arising technology, what is the basis for concluding that the DOE also extends to foreseeable technologies, i.e.: those that the patent drafter could have included in the patent.  While Ring & Pinion v. ARB does not offer an explanation, the Supreme Court’s opinion in Festo does:

“The language in the patent claims may not capture every nuance of the invention or describe with complete precision the range of its novelty. If patents were always interpreted by their literal terms, their value would be greatly diminished. Unimportant and insubstantial substitutes for certain elements could defeat the patent, and its value to inventors could be destroyed by simple acts of copying. For this reason, the clearest rule of patent interpretation, literalism, may conserve judicial resources but is not necessarily the most efficient rule. The scope of a patent is not limited to its literal terms but instead embraces all equivalents to the claims described.”
Festo Corp. v. Shoketsu Kinzoku Kogyo Kabushiki Co., Ltd., 535 U.S. 722, 731-32 (2002).

In other words, patent drafters are not omniscient; they are human beings who are using an imperfect tool (language) to describe an intangible concept.  In addition, patent drafters are only one person or a few people, whereas competitors seeking to design around the patent may be numerous (the game show 1 vs. 100 was premised on a concept like this).  Under this view, the doctrine of equivalents tries to level the playing field.

Furthermore, although not discussed by the court, foreseeability remains an important component of the prosecution history estoppel analysis.  Under Festo, the presumption arising from a narrowing amendment can be rebutted if the patentee can show that the equivalent was unforeseeable at the time of amendment.  535 U.S. at 741.  But Ring & Pinion did not assert that there was a narrowing amendment, so this application of foreseeability was irrelevant.