by Dennis Crouch
The Wi-LAN decision focuses on a litigation discovery dispute. In 2009, Wi-LAN had its attorneys at Kilpatrick Townsend (then Townsend) analyze the scope of LG's infringement. After LG refused to pay, Wi-LAN forwarded the results of the Townsend inquiry (the Townsend Letter) to LG. Once litigation started, LG requested that Kilpatrick disclose documents and testimony relating to the Townsend Letter. Kilpatrick refused based upon its argument that the requested information was protected by attorney-client privilege. On the other side, LG argued that any privilege was waived by Wi-LAN's voluntary disclosure of the results. The district court sided with LG and held Kilpatrick in contempt-of-court.
On appeal, the Federal Circuit has vacated the decision – holding that the district court applied the wrong standard in determining the scope of waiver. Hefe, the court focused on Ninth-Circuit law to determine the scope of privilege waiver and held that – if faced with this case – would require a fairness balancing before requiring disclosure of otherwise privileged information.
The most inwardly interesting aspect of the decision stems from the short opinion dubiante by Judge Reyna. A dubiante opinion is typically seen as the weakest form of concurrence. Here, Judge Reyna writes:
The majority embarks on a winding course as it explores Ninth and other regional circuit case law, and evidentiary rules. At the start of its journey, the majority recognizes, “The parties do agree that the Ninth Circuit has not spoken squarely on this issue, i.e., whether fair-ness balancing is either required or proscribed in this case.”
Still, the majority discerns a trend in the law and on that basis takes a guess that the Ninth Circuit, if its hand were at the helm, would hold that there must be a fair-ness balancing in the context of express extrajudicial waivers.
I examine the trend and find in it no gates that lead to secure blue water. Indeed, I find that even a route that lies opposite the route charted by the majority is as good a route as any.
Thus, while instinct tells me the majority could be correct, I am concerned that our heading is not based on an accurate bearing. As I cannot prove or disprove our result, I go along with the majority—but with doubt.
Certifying Questions of Non-Federal-Circuit-Law: The decision here could well be contrasted with the court's recent opinion in Preston v. Marathon Oil (Fed. Cir. 2012). That case involved a patent ownership dispute between Mr. Preston and his former employer Marathon. At oral arguments, the court discovered a disputed question of Wyoming law as to whether particular additional consideration is necessary to support an IP assignment agreement signed by an at will employee. The Wyoming supreme court took-up that case and held that the continuation of the at-will employment is sufficient consideration. Preston v. Marathon Oil Co., 277 P.3d 81, 82 (Wyo. 2012). Based on the state court decision, the Federal Circuit then quite easily held that the assignment agreement was valid and that the disputed patents were owned by Marathon.
Perhaps Judge Reyna would have been more satisfied with certifying the Wi-LAN case to the Ninth Circuit for determination of the privilege question in that case.
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Employment agreements are generally covered by local law – thus, this result may vary state-to-state. One catch is that the court has federalized some bits of the law of IP assignments. Probably most importantly, the Federal Circuit has held that a prospective assignment agreement works to automatically transfer ownership rights at the moment of invention – so long as the previously-signed agreement includes the correct magic words.
Made or Conceived: As an aside – but critical to Preston's case – the IP assignment agreement included an assignment of any “invention … made or conceived” while at Marathon. Preston argued that he had the idea for the invention before starting work. The Federal Circuit found Preston's argument lacking, even if factually correct since the invention was made (i.e., reduced to practice) after Preston joined Marathon. The Court did not indicate whether this aspect of its decision was decided under state law or federal law.