Guest post by Josh Landau, Patent Counsel for CCIA
It seems like a truly simple question to answer: where is an act of infringement committed? And it’s one that became more important after TC Heartland’s decision that venue is proper “in the judicial district where the defendant resides, or where the defendant has committed acts of infringement and has a regular and established place of business.” There’s been a lot of discussion, here and elsewhere, of what “regular and established place of business” means, but less focus on where acts of infringement occur.
Fortunately, there is one place where the issue of where infringement happens has come up: extraterritorial infringement cases.
Methods Abroad in NTP
The Federal Circuit defined the location of infringement tautologically in NTP v. RIM, saying “[t]he situs of the infringement ‘is wherever an offending act [of infringement] is committed.’” And for simple machines or processes that operate entirely in one place, this provides a simple and workable definition. But what about more complex systems that have components or perform steps in disparate geographic locations, like the claims in NTP?
For system claims, NTP says that use occurs in “the place at which the system as a whole is put into service, i.e., the place where control of the system is exercised and beneficial use of the system obtained.”
But for method claims, we have to answer a different question. The NTP court said that a process cannot be used “within” the United States unless each and every one of the steps is performed in the United States. For a method claim, the place where infringement occurs is the place where each and every step is performed.
While NTP was decided in reference to 35 U.S.C. § 271(a) and TC Heartland dealt with 28 U.S.C. § 1400(b), both sections include the notion of the location where the act of infringement occurs. If the test for where use of a method claim occurs is a consistent test for both determining whether it’s within the United States and for whether it’s within a judicial district, then the NTP test would apply.
That would mean that the only place where venue may be proper for method claims with steps performed in multiple locations (e.g., cloud computing claims with both user and server limitations, or networking claims with client and server relationships) could be the district where the alleged infringer is incorporated. If there’s a server in the Northern District of California and a user’s smartphone is in the Eastern District of Texas, then the method isn’t performed in either place under the NTP test. That leaves a patent holder with the option of suing where the server is (assuming they can show a user within the same district as the server) or else suing where the company resides.
This is only for direct infringement, of course. I’m unaware of comparable cases to NTP v. RIM that provide a definition for where indirect infringement takes place. The limited set of extraterritoriality cases handling the issue don’t specifically address the location of the infringing act of indirect infringement; they focus more on whether a direct infringement has occurred within the United States in order to avoid raising concerns about extraterritorial applications of U.S. law.
So the question becomes: if I induce infringement by acts taken in the Northern District of California, but the direct infringement occurs elsewhere (or across multiple districts), did the act of inducing infringement occur in the place where I took the action that induced the infringement? Or did it occur somewhere else?
The extraterritoriality cases with respect to inducement suggest that as long as there’s a directly infringing act in the district, actions taken outside the district to induce infringement would be subject to venue in the district. However, as we saw above, there might not be a directly infringing act in the district, so inducement might not be available at all. Contributory infringement might prove a stronger avenue, as it explicitly conceives of sale or importation of an article practicing the patent as the infringing act.
But all of this has to be taken in view of the existing difficulties for a plaintiff trying to assert induced or contributory infringement, such as the requirement to show specific intent to infringe or to show a lack of any substantial non-infringing use. While a plaintiff might be able to use indirect infringement to manufacture venue for a method claim in order to choose a forum, it might not be a strong claim.
How much does this really matter?
It might not matter much. While patents that only have method claims could have a limited set of venues in which they can be asserted, most patents include both method and apparatus claims and both sets are asserted together. That could be enough to manufacture a “supplemental venue” over the method claims, even if there are method steps performed elsewhere.
The Federal Circuit doesn’t seem to have addressed this question, but other courts have. Prior to the creation of the Federal Circuit, the 7th Circuit determined that when a patent has both method and apparatus claims, venue is proper for both the method and apparatus claims even if only the apparatus claim is infringed within the judicial district. See General Foods Corporation v. Carnation Company, 411 F. 2d 528 (7th Cir. 1969). The Carnation court’s concern was that, otherwise, “an action for patent infringement in a situation such as we have here would be tried piecemeal, some claims in one jurisdiction and others in another.”
But the Carnation court didn’t address the fact that the statute allows using the district “where the defendant resides” as an alternative to the district where acts of infringement occur. In other words, the case wouldn’t have to be tried piecemeal at all, but could always be heard in one location—the place of incorporation of the defendant. If the only interest weighing against severing the venue-less method claims into their own case and transferring that case is the interest in hearing claims with similar scopes in the same court, then the proper remedy is a requirement to transfer all of the claims to a location where venue is proper, not to create a “supplemental venue” provision.