by Dennis Crouch
The decision in Cheetah Omni is an important reminder regarding implied licenses. The holding solidifies the presumption that a license to a particular patent impliedly includes a license to all parents and continuations that “disclose the same inventions as the licensed patent.” This extends the court’s prior decision in General Protecht Group Inc. v. Leviton Manufacturing Co., 651 F.3d 1355 (Fed. Cir. 2011) and builds upon the parallel doctrine of legal estoppel discussed in AMP Inc. v. US, 389 F.2d 448 (Ct. Cl. 1968) and TransCore, LP v. Elec. Transaction Consultants Corp., 563 F.3d 1271 (Fed. Cir. 2009).
Cheetah Omni LLC v. AT&T Services, Inc. & Ciena Corp. (Fed. Cir. 2020), began when Cheetah sued AT&T for infringing its U.S. Patent 7,522,836 (optical communication networks).
In a prior lawsuit, Cheetah had asserted the ‘714 patent against Ciena and Fujitsu (See family tree above). That lawsuit settled with a license agreement and covenant not to sue — relevant here because Ciena and Fujitsu supply AT&T with the accused infringing devices. The question on appeal: whether the license agreement includes an implied license to the ‘836 patent.
The Ciena/Fujitsu lawsuit centered on the ‘714 patent. The resulting license agreement was directed toward the patent-in suit and also expressly called out certain family patents that were also included in the license:
all parents, provisionals, substitutes, renewals, continuations, continuations-in-part, divisionals, foreign counterparts, reissues, oppositions, continued examinations, reexaminations, and extensions of the Patents-in-Suit … whether filed before, on or after the [License] Effective Date.”
Ciena License Agreement (emphasis added). Although the list of family-members is extensive, it does not include continuations-of-parents or the specific relationship here: a continuation of a continuation of a parent-in-part (or nephew).
The Federal Circuit asks the question as follows:
In personal terms, because the uncle and grandparent of the ’836 patent, are licensed, is the ’836 patent also licensed?
I’ll pause here to note how the Federal Circuit’s question shifts the focus from the way I presented the case above. Although the license agreement discusses everything in relation to the patent-in-suit (the uncle ‘714 patent), the Federal Circuit concludes that an important relationship is the “grandparent” relationship between the ‘836 patent and the ”925 patent, neither of which were the patent in-suit. That shift to the ‘925 patent is important for two reasons (1) we have prior precedent implying a license to grandchildren patents but not to ‘uncles.’ General Protecht; and (2) the linkage between the ‘836 and the uncle ‘714 patent is tenuous because of the continuation-in-part status, whereas the grandchild lineage is straight continuation all the way down. The conclusion here is easy once the focus shifts to the grandparent-grandchild setup.
In General Protecht, the Federal Circuit found that a license to particular patent impliedly licensed the grandchild as well (continuation-of-a-continuation) – “because those continuations disclose the same inventions as the licensed patent.” On appeal, the Federal Circuit ruled that the General Protecht reasoning worked here as well:
Applying the presumption established in General Protecht provides a simple and clear resolution in this case. Because the ’925 patent is an expressly licensed patent in the licenses, the licenses also include an implied license to a continuation of its continuation, the ’836 patent. . . . If Cheetah did not intend its license “to extend to claims presented in continuation patents, it had an obligation to make that clear.” General Protecht.
Slip Op. License agreements are contracts typically interpreted under state-law (or foreign law). This particular style implied license appears to fall under federal law in finding that a patentee is legally estopped from claiming no-implied-license. “Legal estoppel prevents licensors from derogating or detracting from definable license rights granted to licensees for valuable consideration.”
Cheetah makes a couple of extra arguments here.
- The ‘836 patent covers a different/narrower invention — Doesn’t matter since “the same inventive subject matter was disclosed in the expressly licensed patents.”
- The parties all knew about the ‘836 patent but didn’t include it — Doesn’t matter because presumption goes against patentee. Further the license included a list of excluded patents and the ‘836 was not on the list.
I’ll note the 2018 decision in Cascades AV LLC v. Evertz Microsystems Ltd., 335 F. Supp. 3d 1088, 1097 (N.D. Ill. 2018) where the district court refused to find an implied license for a divisional. The court noted differences in the claims — however the Federal Circuit here holds (again) that the focus should be on the disclosure. That case was settled though so we don’t know how the Federal Circuit would react.