WARF v. Apple (W.D. Wisconsin 2015)
Following a jury verdict on infringement and validity (October 10) and another verdict on damages awarding $230 million in reasonable royalty (October 19), Judge Conley (W.D.Wisc.) has now quickly disposed of the case by entering judgment in favor of the patentee (WARF) the amount awarded and denying Apple’s motion for judgment as a matter of law. The case is now set for appeal to the Federal Circuit.
During trial the Judge rejected WARF’s willfulness claim – finding that Apple had a pretty good – thought ultimately losing – obviousness argument:
Apple demonstrated at trial that the elements of the asserted claims of the ‘752 patent were all known in the prior art, and many were well-known for those skilled in the art. Indeed, WARF did not meaningfully dispute this. As a result, the only factual dispute as to Apple’s obviousness defense was whether a person of ordinary skill in the art would have combined those elements and had a reasonable chance of doing so successfully.
Under the current requirement of both objectively and subjectively willful behavior, the court found that WARF could not prove with clear and convincing evidence that Apple acted “despite an objectively high likelihood that its actions constituted infringement of a valid patent.”
It turns out that Apple had also presented its obviousness argument to the PTAB in an inter partes review challenge. In that case, the Board refused to grant the IPR petition – finding that Apple “has not shown, under 35 U.S.C. § 314(a), that there is a reasonable likelihood that it will prevail with respect to at least one of the challenged claims.” Back in the lawsuit, Judge Conley rejected WARF’s argument that the PTAB’s denial is relevant. Unfortunately, it appears that the Judge’s ruling is based upon a misunderstanding of PTAB procedure and burdens. In particular, the judge rested his decision upon the incorrect notions that IPR cancellation requires “clear and convincing evidence” and that granting an IPR petition requires proof that the challenger is “likely to prevail” on the merits. The Judge writes:
All PTAB found was that Apple was not likely to prevail on its defense by proving obviousness by clear and convincing evidence. PTAB did not consider whether this defense was objectively reasonable or raised a substantial question. As such, the PTAB finding — like the jury’s finding rejecting the invalidity challenge — does not settle the issue of whether Apple’s defense was objectively reckless.
Of course, the PTAB cancellation is based upon a substantially lower standard – a preponderance of the evidence – not clear and convincing evidence. In addition, the PTAB decision at the petition stage looks only for a “reasonable likelihood” of prevailing rather than simply being “likely” to prevail. (In most cases, the ‘reasonable’ modifier makes it easier to prove a conjecture: compare “certainty” with “reasonable certainty.”)
Although the PTAB decision is not identically written to the willfulness test, it is not clear to me which standard is higher. And, I think that the statistics would play out here to easily show that it is a rare case where a well-pled obviousness argument was rejected by the PTAB at the petition stage and then relied upon by a jury to invalidate a patent.
- In the Inter Partes Review, the Patent Office determined that Apple’s obviousness argument lacked a reasonable likelihood of winning on validity, keeping in mind that the patent is not presumed valid and that obviousness must be proven by only a preponderance of the evidence.
- For willfulness, the patentee must show that an objective observer would perceive a high likelihood that the patent would be found valid (really, not invalid). Since validity is presumed in court challenges, what happens here is that the willfulness burden shifts to the defense to present a obviousness argument strong enough to convince an objective observer that the patentee had less than a high likelihood of winning on validity, keeping in mind the presumption of validity and requirement of clear-and-convincing evidence of obviousness.
I will pause here to apologize for the complexity of the comparison. You can thank the Federal Circuit for creating these tricky rules to replace what has traditionally (and by statute) been a much more open doctrine. The Supreme Court is addressing these issues in Halo and Stryker.
The point here for me is that Apple was unable to pass the petition stage of an IPR – i.e., they did not have a reasonable chance of winning on the lowered standard for invalidity. At least we can say that they had even less of a shot of winning with the same challenge presented in court with the higher burden. In context, this seems to me that the PTAB decision is quite relevant to the question presented here.
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I’ll note here that the district court briefing on the issue was all filed under seal and not available. In addition, the district court has just agreed to seal a large set of trial evidence and demonstrative exhibits. It appears that WARF offered no objection – why would they? Here, at the least the court should order a redaction rather than complete sealing to support the strong public interest in patent cases and in an open court system. See also, Secret Patent Trials are OK; Access to Courts; A Call for Restraint in Sealing Court Records.