Stanford v. Roche (Fed. Cir. 2009) 08-1509r.pdf
Using federal NIH funding, Stanford scientists developed and patented a method of using PCR to measure HIV virus concentration in blood plasma. The development was done in partnership with the PCR leader Cetus. The Cetus PCR business was later purchased by Roche, and Stanford subsequently offered to license the patent rights to Roche (for a substantial royalty). After negotiations stalled, Stanford sued Roche for patent infringement. Roche claims that it has ownership rights or – at least – shop rights to the patents based on its acquisition of Cetus’s PCR assets. The district court (Judge Patel, N.D. Cal.) rejected Roche’s claim of rights, but did find the patents invalid as obvious (on summary judgment).
Roche’s Ownership: Roche raised ownership rights both as a counterclaim and as a defense. The district court held those claims barred by California’s statute of limitations. On appeal, however, the Federal Circuit held that the general statute of limitations does not operate to block defenses in litigation. Rather, “[u]nder California law, a defense may be raised at any time, even if the matter alleged would be barred by a statute of limitations if asserted as the basis for affirmative relief.” (Quoting Styne v. Stevens, 26 Cal. 4th 42, 51 (2001)). Likewise, the statute of limitations to claiming rights does not apply when ownership is raised as a challenge to a plaintiff’s standing to sue. “It is well settled that questions of standing can be raised at any time and are not foreclosed by, or subject to, statutes of limitation.”
The law of patent ownership is somewhat complex because it involves a mixture of state law (or the law of the local jurisdiction) and federal law. State contract law serves as the baseline, but federal law (esp. Federal Circuit law) creeps into many situations. Here, for instance, the Federal Circuit has held that the “question of whether contractual language effects a present assignment of patent rights, or an agreement to assign rights in the future, is resolved by Federal Circuit law.”
One of the listed inventors first signed an agreement with Stanford – promising to assign any future inventions that emerged from his employment. Later, the inventor signed an agreement with Cetus agreeing “to hereby assign” his interests. Under Federal Circuit law, these two contracts are treated differently. And, although the Cetus agreement came later, the company could claim equitable title immediately at the moment of invention while Stanford needed to actually obtain an assignment. The company also automatically held legal title in the patent application at the moment it was filed. (The inventor did not sign an assignment to Stanford until after filing).
“[B]ecause Cetus’s legal title vested first, Holodniy no longer retained his rights, negating his subsequent assignment to Stanford during patent prosecution.”
Recordation of Rights: Patent ownership regularly transfers without the new owner recording the assignment with the USPTO. Recordation is not required, but it does offer some benefits. Notably, where two entities both claim ownership (as there are in this case), a second assignee can hold title if it records first.
A [prior] assignment . . . shall be void as against any subsequent purchaser or mortgagee for a valuable consideration, without notice, unless it is recorded in the Patent and Trademark Office within three months from its date or prior to the date of such subsequent purchase or mortgage. 35 U.S.C. 261
One caveat in the statute is that the subsequent assignee must be a bona fide purchaser – i.e., take “without notice” and pay “valuable consideration.” Here, the Federal Circuit found that Stanford was at least on inquiry notice of the relationship between the inventor and Cetus and the potential for a rights-transfer.
Stanford cannot establish ownership of Holodniy’s interest and lacks standing to assert its claims of infringement against Roche. Thus, the district court lacked jurisdiction over Stanford’s infringement claim and should not have addressed the validity of the patents. The district court’s grant of summary judgment of invalidity is therefore vacated, and the case is remanded with instructions to dismiss Stanford’s claim for lack of standing.
- Stanford would have won the case (at least the ownership issue) if it had written its employee agreement to automatically transfer rights upon creation of the invention. Best practices in patent law dictate that patent ownership (and right to sue) be always maintained in a single entity.
- In Gerber Scientific Int’l v. Satisloh AG, No. 3:07-CV-1382, (D. Conn., September 25, 2009, order) (P. Dorsey), the court held that the assignment of patent rights in the original case did not include later-filed continuations-in-part (CIPs). “Although courts have found variously worded assignments to include CIPs, Defendants are correct that there is no binding precedent holding that an assignment with the exact terms cited above includes CIPs.” The Court has certified that issue for interlocutory appeal to the Federal Circuit who will likely hear the case. [Zura]