Supreme Court: In Copyright, Laches Cannot Preclude Actions Taken Within Three Year Statute of Limitations

By Dennis Crouch

Petrella v. MGM (Supreme Court 2014)

Frank Petrella wrote a screenplay back in 1963 based on the life of Jake LaMotta and assigned rights to UA/MGM who made the movie Raging Bull. Under the old renewal system, renewal rights went to Petrella’s heir, Paula Petrella, who renewed the copyright in 1991 in a fashion that (seemingly) eliminates the prior license. In 1998 she informed MGM that its continued exploitation of the Raging Bull movie violated her copyright. Finally, in 2009, she did sue – alleging copyright infringement.

Copyright infringement has a three-year statute of limitations indicating that “No civil action shall be maintained under the [Act] unless it is commenced within three years after the claim accrued.” 17 U.S.C. §507(b). However, as in patent law, copyright follows a “separate-accrual rule” that sees each successive violation of a copyright as a new infringing act with its own statute of limitations. Thus, under the statute of limitations, MGM could be liable for its post-2006 actions such as copying and distributing the work.

In the lawsuit, MGM separately asserted the equitable defense of laches based upon the long and unreasonable delay in bringing suit.

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court has sided with Petrella – finding that the statute of limitations does all the work on the question of liability – leaving latches only to potentially shape the remedy.

Laches, we hold, cannot be invoked to preclude adjudication of a claim for damages brought within the three-year window. As to equitable relief, in extraordinary circumstances, laches may bar at the very threshold the particular relief requested by the plaintiff. And a plaintiff’s delay can always be brought to bear at the remedial stage.

The court was clear that equitable estoppel may also apply, but that generally requires some affirmative act by the rights-holder (that leads to

In a footnote, the court draws some parallels with the six-year statute of limitations for collecting back-damages in patent law. 35 U.S.C. § 286. In a 1992 en banc decision, the Federal Circuit held that laches can be an additional bar to collecting back-damages even within the six-year limit. A. C. Aukerman Co. v. R. L. Chaides Constr. Co., 960 F. 2d 1020 (Fed. Cir. 1992) (en banc). Noting that decision, the Supreme Court here only remarked that “We have not had occasion to review the Federal Circuit’s position.”

One interesting aspect of the decision was the unusual split between the majority and dissent. Justice Ginsburg penned the majority opinion that was joined by Justices Scalia, Thomas, Alito, Sotomayor, and Kagen.  Justice Breyer dissented and was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy.

Supreme Court Reinstates $6.6 Million Attorney Fee Award

Kobe Properties v. Checkpoint Systems (Supreme Court 2014)

Today the Supreme Court issued a GVR decision in this case:

The petition for a writ of certiorari is granted. The judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit for further consideration in light of Octane Fitness, LLC v. ICON Health & Fitness, Inc., 572 U. S. ___ (2014) and Highmark Inc. v. Allcare Health Management System, Inc., 572 U. S. ___ (2014).

In that case, a jury found the asserted patent infringed, invalid, and unenforceable and the district court judge had awarded $6.6 million in attorney fees to the defendants. On appeal, however, the Federal Circuit reversed based upon a finding that “the requirements of § 285 were not met” because the patentee’s lawsuit was not ‘objectively baseless.’ [See Rantanen, Failing the Objectively Baseless Standard]. In Octane Fitness, however, the Supreme Court recently held that the objectively baseless standard is improper and too strict.

Following the Supreme Court GVR, the fee award is now reinstated. On remand, the panel will likely be asked now to determine whether the district court’s findings were an abuse of discretion – which they likely were not.

Fee Shifting: First the Supreme Court, Now Congress

By Dennis Crouch

In Octane Fitness, the Supreme Court gave discretion to district courts in determining whether to award attorney fees to the prevailing party. The court also lowered the bar for such a finding – both by removing the somewhat rigid limitations that had been imposed by the Federal Circuit and by rejecting the notion that clear and convincing evidence is a prerequisite foundation for such an award.

However, the decision will likely be seen as making an incremental change rather than being a watershed moment. The law remains that attorney fees should only be awarded in exceptional cases that involve misconduct or extreme behavior. Our long tradition in the US had avoided attorney fees except in rare cases and I do not see this court changing that tradition in any dramatic way. The point here is that even the new lower standards are a far cry from the presumptive award of attorney fees as have been proposed in Congress.

Enter Congress: Earlier this session, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 3309 (the Innovation Act) with broad bipartisan support. The bill includes a fee shifting provision that creates a presumption that fees will be awarded to the prevailing party unless the district court finds that the losing party’s position was “reasonably justified in law and fact or that special circumstances make an award unjust.” A parallel Senate proposal steps back slightly from the House version and would require a finding that the non-prevailing party’s conduct or position was objectively unreasonable.

The Senate version is intended to be a middle ground between the current law and what was passed in the House. As far as I know, Senator Leahy has not yet come-out in favor of either proposal but has stated his preference that discretion in the decision be given to district court in the decisionmaking process. One way to achieve Senator Leahy’s goals could be a simple modification of Section 285 – deleting “exceptional case” and adding “its discretion” as follows: “The court in exceptional cases
its discretion may award reasonable attorney fees to the prevailing party.”

The legislative proposals also have the creative element of helping ensure that the rule cannot be skirted by underfunding the patent enforcement entity. Rather, the proposal would allow for limited veil piercing in order to collect any attorney fees owed from investors and others with interests in the litigation.

One bottom line is that the proposed statutory changes would still push the law well beyond its (newly) current state. As such, I suspect that the push to include these provisions as key elements of patent reform will continue.

Supreme Court Takes-On Question of Joint Infringement

By Dennis Crouch

[Transcript of Oral Arguments]

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in Limelight Networks Inc. v. Akamai Technologies, Inc. Limelight is best seen as part of a series of cases considering what it means to be an infringer. In particular, the court has struggled to determine what to do when one party performs a portion of a patented invention and then another party performs the remaining portion. In this setup, the parties are able to collectively benefit from the invention without being labelled infringers under the Federal Circuit’s strict single-entity-infringer rule. See BMC v. Paymentech (Fed. Cir. 2007). The BMC line of cases creates an avenue for avoiding infringement by properly dividing the corporate structure. That pathway is further solidified by our current age of distributed computing that allows for servers and systems to closely interoperate even though controlled by different parties. In this case, the invention is focused on a mechanism for quickly delivering video streams to lots of people over the internet by distributing servers. The patent spells out the entire method and system for accomplishing this result, but the defendant here each only practice a portion of the whole invention but expressly encourages its customers to perform the rest. In an admittedly biased way, the patentee’s attorney Seth Waxman explained the setup as follows:

Mr. Waxman: This case is not complicated. This case involves a four­ or five­step method in which Limelight performs all but one or two of the steps and tells its customers, if you want to use our service, you have to perform the other step. Here’s exactly how you do it. We have somebody 24 hours a day, seven days a week assigned to you to help make sure you do it the right way.

In Limelight, the Federal Circuit (sitting en banc) offered one outlet to limit avenues-of-infringement. Here, the appellate court held that an entity can be liable for inducing infringement if that party induces performance of the entire invention, even if no single party performed all of the elements. That holding is a shift in thinking – prior case law required evidence of underlying single-actor direct infringement as a pre-requisite to an inducement finding. The statute for inducement indicates simply that “whoever actively induces infringement of a patent shall be liable as an infringer.” 35 U.S.C. § 271(b). An interesting element of this case is that the Limelight originally indicated that it would reconsider the BMC doctrine regarding direct infringement. However, the en banc panel decided to limit its analysis only to the inducement theory. If Limelight is successful on appeal, the Federal Circuit may then have an opportunity to reconsider the single-actor rule for direct infringement under Section 271(a). More particularly, the Federal Circuit has applied a fairly strict agency doctrine rule, but other areas of law have allowed for a more liberal agency doctrine that would potentially capture the type of joint infringement alleged in this case.

The question presented is:

Whether the Federal Circuit erred in holding that a defendant may be held liable for inducing patent infringement under 35 U.S.C. § 271(b) even though no one has committed direct infringement under Section 271(a).

Aaron Panner argued on behalf of the petitioner Limelight (the accused infringer) and shared time with Assistant Solicitor Ginger Anders who filed a brief in support of the petitioner. Seth Waxman argued on behalf of the respondent-patentee Akamai. In the case, the US government took the middle-ground position that the patentee has the best policy argument but that the statute clearly supports reversal.

Focusing first on the policy issues, the court asked whether Limelight is asking for a rule that allows patentees to skirt infringement simply by altering its corporate structure:

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Your position makes it pretty easy to ­­ to get around patent protection, doesn’t it? All you’ve got to do is find one step in the process and essentially outsource it or make it attractive for someone else to perform that particular step and you’ve essentially invalidated the patent.

MR. PANNER: I don’t think so, Your Honor. In the two following senses.

First of all, empirically speaking, there have not been very many cases in which this has proven to be a problem. It has been a long understood principle of patent claim drafting that method claims should be drafted from the point of view of a potential infringer so that all of the steps can be carried out by that potential infringer. And prospectively, certainly ­­ and given that this rule has been clearly articulated by the Federal Circuit now for many years, or at least several years, prospectively, the patent applicant has every incentive to draft claims from the point of view of a single potential infringer.

This ­­ the claim that’s at issue here, there’s no dispute. It could have been written in such a way that the steps would have been carried out by a single infringer and, indeed, that may have been the intent. . . .

JUSTICE SCALIA: I’m just arguing about whether the safe haven you have given us for patentees really exists. It doesn’t seem to me you can avoid the problem by simply requiring all the steps to be conducted by one person.

MR. PANNER: Well, Your Honor, in ­­ in my experience in ­­ in terms of dealing with patents that are written to technologies that do involve interaction, for example, between cellular phones and networks and content providers who are sending content to a phone, for example, it is very common to draft claims from the point of view of someone who’s participating in that process so that all of the steps will be carried out in that ­­ by that person. . . .

JUSTICE KAGAN: [N]otwithstanding what you said about 10 of 11 judges, it was clear that the judges thought that there was a real problem here in terms of an end run, and that they looked at this and said, well we could do it under 271(a) or we could do it under 271(b), and 271(b) seems a lot more natural and better for various reasons. But your sense in reading the opinion that all those judges who did it under 271(b) are just going to go back and do the exact same thing under 271(a).

Panner’s argument here does not seem like one that the judges would truly support – that the patentee wins or loses here based upon whether it correctly followed the proper claim-drafting trick.

Responding to the same issues, the US Government lawyer (Anders) recognized the “end run” problem as legitimate.

MS. ANDERS: I think the Federal Circuit was understandably concerned about allowing inducers to perform some stops of a process themselves to escape liability, but this Court has twice held in both Microsoft v. AT&T and before that Deep South v. Laitram that judicial concerns about gaps in 271’s coverage should not drive the Court’s interpretation of that provision. That is because any time that you close a gap in 271, expanding patent rights, you are invariably implicating competing concerns and it’s for Congress to resolve those concerns.

When his turn to speak, Waxman hit home the policy concerns:

MR. WAXMAN: Please make no mistake about what Limelight is asking you to do. Under Limelight’s theory, two or more people can divide up and perform the steps of any method claim, however drafted, without liability. . . . Let’s assume that there is disclosure and patenting of a cure for cancer or a novel treatment for cancer that involves, as they often do, the administration of different drugs sequentially. And two parties get together and say, I’ll administer Drug 1, you administer Drug 2, and we can take advantage of this marvelous patented process without paying anything ­­ giving anything whatsoever to the company that spent a billion dollars and 25 years developing.

Several of the Justices rightly recognized the potential notice problems of joint liability in a strict liability scenario. However, those fears are greatly reduced in the inducement context because liability requires knowledge that the acts being induced would constitute infringement. Waxman attempted to also allay those fears by referencing a common law knowledge requirement implied into joint-concert liability.

When the Federal Circuit decided this case, it appeared to be a new rule regarding inducement liability. In his appealing way, Waxman argued that it is not really new but rather it is a return to the common law notions that were disrupted by the Federal Circuit’s unnatural limitations on 271(a) joint liability that began in 2008.

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: [Is] this is a new rule by the Federal Circuit?

MR. WAXMAN: The answer is no. What is new is the 2008 ­­ beginning in 2008 jurisprudence in the Federal Circuit on 271(a) that unnaturally limited the common law attribution rules.

Very little time was spent on statutory construction – what is meant by the term “infringement” in 271(b)? Waxman does lay out his textual argument that infringement in 271(b) is not limited to “direct infringement under 271(a).” but rather offers the following notion:

MR. WAXMAN: A patentholder has the exclusive right to make, 15 sell, use, or offer to sell his invention during the term of the patent. That’s what sets out the metes and bounds of the property right. And any encroachment on that property right is an infringement. . . .

JUSTICE GINSBURG: An infringement without an infringer?

MR. WAXMAN: You can certainly have infringement without an actionable infringer, absolutely. Under anybody’s rule you can do that. The whole debate we have with the other side on the (a) question is how ­­ what attribution rules do or don’t apply. . . . .

JUSTICE SCALIA: What does ­­ what does (b) require? Does it require inducing an infringement or inducing an infringer?

MR. WAXMAN: Inducing an infringement. And I’ll give you a concrete example. Let’s say that there’s a five­step patented method that I know about, and I convince ­ I induce Mr. Panner to do steps 1, 2, and 3 and Ms. Anders to do steps 4 and 5. If I’m doing that because I know about the patent and I want to take advantage of their otherwise innocent performance collectively of the steps, at common law and at patent law, it was uncontroversial that I was liable. I was responsible.

Overall the oral arguments here are difficult to follow and thus the outcome is difficult to predict. The justices are rightly concerned that the their decision on 271(b) is dependent upon the meaning of joint infringement 271(a), but that may only be decided on remand.

JUSTICE ALITO: It’s ­­ it’s a good reason to think that the question before us really has no significance that I can think of unless the ­­ the Court of Appeals ­­ unless the Federal Circuit is right about [the limited scope of 271](a). . . . So you’re asking us to decide a question ­­ to assume the answer to the question on (a) and then decide a question on (b) that is of no value ­­ no significant ­­ maybe I don’t understand some other ­­ I don’t see some other situations where it would apply, and no significance unless the ruling on (a) stands, unless Muniauction is correct?

Waxman expressly suggested that the court go ahead and rule on the 271(a) issue (as it had suggested in a cross petition for certiorari) or simply remand the case to the Federal Circuit to decide the underlying 271(a) issue.

Oral Arguments: Can the Supreme Court Force Clarity in Claim Scope?

By Dennis Crouch

Nautilus v. Biosig (Supreme Court 2014) [Transcript of Oral Arguments]

On April 28, 2014, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the important indefiniteness case concerning a fitness monitor patent. In my estimation, most issued patents have claim terms that are arguably indefinite. The usual litigation resolution of that problem is through the process of claim construction. The patent statute requires A patent can be held invalid as indefinite under 35 U.S.C. §112(b) for failing to “particularly point[] out and distinctly claim[]” the invention. However, the Federal Circuit has repeatedly found that the invalid-as-indefinite doctrine is quite narrow and only applies when a term is “insolubly ambiguous” and when “reasonable efforts at claim construction result in a definition that does not provide sufficient particularity and clarity to inform skilled artisans of the bounds of the claim.”

The result of this policy is that it provides patentees an incentive to seek a claimset that includes some “solubly” ambiguous terms that create colorable infringement argument and whose scope retains malleability. We only learn the true scope of a claim once it is interpreted in court – an often only after an appeal to the Federal Circuit. One approach to push against this downward spiral would be to follow the contract canon of construing claims against the drafter. Another approach is what Nautilus suggests – make it easier to invalidate claims on indefiniteness grounds. At the same time, lowering the standard could open the door to a new intensity of linguistic-noodling by accused infringers.

In this case, two questions are presented:

1. Does the Federal Circuit’s acceptance of ambiguous patent claims with multiple reasonable interpretations—so long as the ambiguity is not “insoluble” by a court—defeat the statutory requirement of particular and distinct patent claiming?

2. Does the presumption of validity dilute the requirement of particular and distinct patent claiming?

Claim construction is an issue in the vast majority of patent infringement lawsuits and, over the years, the Federal Circuit has altered a district court’s claim construction in hundreds of different cases. In many of those, the district court’s opinion was a reasonable interpretation of the claim scope even if not what the Federal Circuit saw as the very best interpretation. In that framework, it is easy to see how the Nautilus focus on “multiple reasonable interpretations” could have a dramatic impact on the validity since all of those claims would seemingly be invalidated based upon the existence of multiple reasonable interpretations.

Predicting Outcome: The oral arguments suggest that the Federal Circuit’s “insolubly ambiguous” test will be thrown out as too strict. However, none of the Justices appeared interested in the seemingly too loose rule that would invalidate claims that are open to multiple reasonable interpretations. The middle ground of requiring claim scope be of “reasonable certainty” seems to be the likely course.

The claim term at issue in this case involves two electrodes of a heart monitor being in a “spaced relationship” with each other. The district court held that term indefinite because the patent did not include any parameters as to the scope of that space. On appeal, the Federal Circuit reversed, determining that the term was amenable to construction since the purpose of the space was recited in a whereby clause (to help remove EMG signals coming from a single hand). In particular, the court held that the term had an upper and lower bound: each half must be held within a hand and it cannot physically be infinitesimally small. Now, one interesting aspect that relates to prior functional-claim cases is that on reexamination, the examiner found that the functional whereby clause to be the crucial limitation that made the claim patentable. Federal Circuit cited and discussed Halliburton. However, the court did not address the Taboo against functional element at the point of novelty but instead cited to a list of Federal Circuit decisions holding that functional claim limitations are just fine.

The arguments: Patent litigator John Vandenberg argued on behalf of the petitioner Nautilus while appellate specialist Mark Harris argued for the patentee Biosig. Harris shared time with US Assistant Solicitor Curtis Gannon as amicus. Overall, the oral arguments were not highly elucidating the one major area of new ground covered was an analogy to Chevron analysis whose first step is to determine whether a statute is ambiguous (or silent) as to a particular issue. In Chevron, statutory ambiguity allows government agencies more leeway in interpreting the law. In this context, the ambiguity would lead to a patent being held invalid. However, the court was clearly not comfortable with that test essentially because it is too loose for the resulting reaction (patent invalidity). Of course, invalidating a patent claim does not involve the same level of drama as invalidating a congressionally mandated statute. Apart from the constitutional-political issues, the patent claim being invalidated is typically one of many claims within the patent and that patent is one of many covering the accused activity. In addition, unlike statutes, the party benefiting most from the patent has full control of the language used in the patent grant.

In the oral arguments, Vandenberg makes two compelling points: (1) that ambiguity in the patents is intentional but not justified; and (2) that its requested rule is parallel to that already applied by the USPTO:

MR. VANDENBERG: I think it’s important to remember here that there is no legitimate need or excuse for ambiguity in patent claims. Once the applicant has satisfied paragraph one [of section 112] and its strict requirements for describing the invention, it is easy to claim the invention particularly and distinctly. The only reason that there are so many ambiguous claims out there today is that patent attorneys are trained to deliberately include ambiguous claims. Ambiguous claims make the patent monopoly more valuable. Every patent attorney knows that. . . .

There is no legitimate need for ambiguous claims. There is a strong economic incentive for patent attorneys to draft ambiguous claims, not to put all their eggs in that basket. They want some clear claims in case some copyist comes along, but they want ambiguous claims so they can ­­ their client can treat it as a nose of wax later, as happened here. That is well established in the patent bar, that there is this strong economic incentive. But patent attorneys have ample tools to avoid ambiguous claims if this Court tells them that it will no longer be permitted. That ­­that is the key here, is that there’s a strong economic incentive. The patent attorney and the inventor are in the best position to avoid the ambiguity that Congress prohibits and therefore, the problem is, the Federal Circuit has blessed ambiguity with its test. And in order to stop all of the problems that the amici have pointed out that are caused by ambiguous claims, we submit this Court needs to be clear and go back to United Carbon and General Electric and to the statutory text and be clear that ambiguity is simply not permitted.

After a bit of dancing, Vandenberg began to hit his stride in a discussion with Justice Kennedy:

JUSTICE KENNEDY: Do you agree that the standard at the PTO, and let’s say that it’s whether or not ­­ the claim is definite if a person skilled in the art would be reasonably certain of its scope. Is the standard used by the PTO the same standard that the CA Fed ought to use?

MR. VANDENBERG: Yes, it is, Your Honor.

JUSTICE KENNEDY: All right, that’s a sensible answer, I think. Now, how does the presumption of validity bear on the application of that same standard in the court of appeals?

MR. VANDENBERG: The presumption of validity certain applies to this defense. It requires the challenger to raise the defense, to preserve the defense, plead it as affirmative defense, to make the initial argument as to why the claim is ­­

JUSTICE KENNEDY: Doesn’t that imply some deference on findings of fact?

MR. VANDENBERG: Your Honor, it would be rare for there to be, in an indefiniteness case, to be any underlying finding of fact. The ­­ the issue of indefiniteness is really subsidiary.

JUSTICE KENNEDY: That is, the presumption of validity, does that accord some deference to the PTO? And how would that apply or not apply here?

MR. VANDENBERG: It would apply ­­ it does not apply in this case. There are no fact findings out of the Patent Office regarding indefiniteness. But if there was ­­ the same indefiniteness issue came up and the Patent Office found, for instance, that a term of art, let’s say nanotechnology, biotechnology term of art had a particular meaning, then that fact­finding may be entitled to deference by the trial court.

However, indefiniteness itself is a legal determination. The Federal Circuit said that.

JUSTICE KENNEDY: So there’s no deference to the PTO as to that legal interpretation.

MR. VANDENBERG: No, Your Honor, no more than there’d be deference to the Patent Office claim construction or any other legal decision.

Mr. Harris began his argument defending the Federal Circuit, but immediately ran from the insolubly ambiguous language of that decision.

MR. HARRIS: The decision of the Federal Circuit should be affirmed for two reasons: First, that court correctly held that the test for definiteness is whether a claim puts a skilled artisan on reasonable notice of the boundaries of the invention, and secondly, whatever

JUSTICE SCALIA: If that’s what it held we wouldn’t have taken this case. I thought we took it because [the Federal Circuit used] some really extravagant language.

I mean, it’s one thing to run away from that language, as your brief does. It’s another thing to deny that it exists.

MR. HARRIS: Justice Scalia, we are not denying that those words exist, “insolubly ambiguous,” but what I think this court below, the Federal Circuit, in this case explained, and it’s explained consistently, is that that ­­ those two words are not the test all by themselves.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: So it was fair, as I suggested earlier, nobody agrees with that formulation [of insolubly ambiguous]?

MR. HARRIS: Yes, I guess so, Your Honor. . . .

Beyond the particular quibble over language, Harris seems to provide a convincing case that, even under a lower standard, the Biosig claims are still definite because of the uncontroverted evidence provided that one skilled in the art at the time would have been able to understand the meaning of the claim.

The role of the US Government in this case is interesting because it is in some tension with President Obama’s ongoing initiatives to push for clarity in claim scope. However, Gannon (from USDOJ) did argue that the presumption of validity should not play a role in the claim construction process. And rather that the resulting validity of a claim should not impact which construction is chosen.

Supreme Court on Patent Law

Only four years in, the 2010s have seen more Supreme Court patent cases than any decade since the 1960s. And, by the end of 2015, I expect that 1960 mark will also be surpassed. The record actually stretches back to the 1880s when the Court decided 145 patent cases. It was in that golden era of patent law that the Supreme Court defined many of the fundamental patent law doctrines that were later codified by Congress and that still exist in the law today. Almost every patent law question that arises today has already been addressed, in some way, by a 19th-century court.

More here in my LinkedIn Influencer post: Crouch, Supreme Court versus Patent Law.


Supreme Court to Consider De Novo Review of Claim Construction

By Dennis Crouch

Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc. v. Sandoz, Inc. (Supreme Court 2014)

The Supreme Court has granted Teva’s petition for writ of certiorari on the issue of de novo review of district court claim construction. Rather than mounting a facial challenge to all de novo review, the petitioner here argues that, at minimum, a district court’s explicit factual conclusions should be given deference. The case will be heard next term.

The question presented is as follows:

Rule 52(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that in matters tried to a district court, the court’s “[f]indings of fact . . . must not be set aside unless clearly erroneous.”

The question presented is as follows: Whether a district court’s factual finding in support of its construction of a patent claim term may be reviewed de novo, as the Federal Circuit requires (and as the panel explicitly did in this case), or only for clear error, as Rule 52(a) requires.

In its responsive brief, Sandoz re-characterized the question as follows:

Whether Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a) requires an appellate court reviewing a district court’s construction of patent claims to defer to conclusions that are based on a litigation expert’s declaration that expressly contradicts the patent record.

The case involves Teva’s multi-billion-dollar drug Copaxone that is arguably covered by a set of nine different patents. The appellate decision by the Federal Circuit rejected the lower court’s claim construction and, as a consequence, found several of the patents invalid. The result is that the remaining patents expire in May 2014 rather than September 2015. Teva’s daily US sales of the drug are about $8 million.

I’ll speculate here that the result will be a unanimous rejection of the Federal Circuit’s no deference policy.

Supreme Court to Address Standard of Review for Claim Construction

This morning the Supreme Court granted Teva’s petition for certiorari in Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc. v. Sandoz, Inc.  Teva’s petition presents the following issue:

Whether a district court’s factual finding in support of its construction of a patent claim term may be reviewed de novo, as the Federal Circuit requires (and as the panel explicitly did in this case), or only for clear error, as Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a) requires.

This case will be heard next term.  You can find the briefs on Scotusblog:

Edit: See above for Dennis’s more thorough discussion of the parties’ positions!


Supreme Court Opens Door on Unfair Competition Lawsuits

By Dennis Crouch

Lexmark Int’l v. Static Control (Supreme Court 2014)

In a unanimous opinion penned by Justice Scalia, the Supreme Court has ruled that standing in §1125(a) false-advertising claims are not limited to competitors. Rather, it can be sufficient that a plaintiff have a commercial injury “flowing directly from the deception wrought by the defendant’s advertising.” The standing decision here is not testing the Constitutional limits of judicial power under Article III but rather is one of statutory interpretation. In particular, the statute provides that a cause of action is available to “any person who believes that he or she is or is likely to be damaged by such act [of false advertising].” Although expanding the scope of potential plaintiffs, the court seemingly continued to hold the line against giving the statute its plain English interpretation that would allow consumer class actions.

False Patent Infringement Claims: Of interest to patent attorneys, the alleged false advertising claims here involve public allegations of patent infringement. The court writes.

First, Static Control alleged that Lexmark disparaged its business and products by asserting that Static Control’s business was illegal. See 697 F.3d 387 (6th Cir. 2012) (noting allegation that Lexmark “directly target[ed] Static Control” when it “falsely advertised that Static Control infringed Lexmark’s patents”).

Under the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the law, those statements (with the requisite intent and resulting harm) can be sufficient to create a cause of action for false advertising.

Today’s Supreme Court [Land] Patent Decision

by Dennis Crouch

Today the Supreme Court decided an interesting patent case in Brandt v. U.S. The patent at stake was a land patent that the Supreme Court here defined as “an official document reflecting a grant by a sovereign that is made public, or ‘patent.'”

The case involved an 83-acre plot in Wyoming owned by Marvin Brandt. The U.S. government originally owned the land as part of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.  In order to expand rail-road coverage in the US, the Government offered a free right-of-way to RR builders. General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875.  In 1911, the Laramie Hahn’s Peak & Pacific Railway Company (LHPP) took advantage of that offer and build a RR across the land that was later patented to Brandt’s.  Thus, in 1976, when the Brandt’s took fee simple ownership, that ownership was “subject to those rights for railroad purposes as have been granted to [LHPP], its successors or assigns.”  Finally, in 2004, LHPP (now part of Union Pacific) removed its tracks and expressly abandoned its right of way.  (more…)

285 at the Supreme Court

Dennis has a great summary on the main page. We had a debate here a while back where my view was the First Amendment was irrelevant.  I think the Supremes agree:


MR. PHILLIPS: Well, I have no doubt that Congress could well, I’m not sure about in all cases.

JUSTICE SCALIA: I mean, if it can do that, there’s certainly no First Amendment problem.

MR. PHILLIPS: Well, I’m not sure I concede that in all cases. I do think in the run of the mill cases, but when you’re talking about a situation where the assertion is that the conduct of the litigation, the bringing of the litigation itself is inappropriate

JUSTICE SCALIA: That’s an English rule. It used to be our rule. I don’t see how you can possibly say that it’s unconstitutional to make the loser pay.

JUSTICE KENNEDY: This is not your best argument. (Laughter.)

MR. PHILLIPS: It is not my best argument, I appreciate that.

Supreme Court on Fee Shifting – A review of Oral Arguments in Octane Fitness and Highmark

By Dennis Crouch

Octane Fitness v. Icon Health & Fitness (SCOTUS 2014); Highmark v. Allcare Health Mgmt. (SCOTUS 2014) (Transcripts: HighmarkTranscriptOctaneTranscript)

Today, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the paired fee-shifting cases of Octane Fitness and Highmark that focus on the proper standard for an exceptional case finding by a district court under 35 U.S.C. § 285 and the proper standard of review on appeal. In Octane Fitness, petitioner asks the Court to lower the standard for proving an exceptional case. In Highmark, petitioner asks for deference to lower court exceptional case findings. In both cases, the Federal Circuit sided with the patentees who lost their infringement actions. In Octane Fitness, the Federal Circuit confirmed that the case was not “exceptional” while in Highmark, a divided Federal Circuit reversed an exceptional case finding based upon a de novo appellate review that gave no deference to the district court’s finding that the lawsuit was objectively baseless.

In the U.S., each party to litigation ordinarily pays its own attorney fees regardless of the case outcome. In the patent litigation context, this changes as 35 U.S.C. § 285 provides an avenue for awarding “reasonable attorney fees to the prevailing party” in “exceptional cases” at the discretion of the lower court. However, discretion only goes so far, and the Federal Circuit’s standard for classifying an “exceptional case” has been critiqued as too rigid, tough, and pro-patentee.

The first case heard today was Octane Fitness. Arguing on behalf of Octane, Rudy Telscher’s main focus was on moving the away from the “objectively baseless” standard to something that is easier for a successful defendant to prove. However, the debate quickly descended into a theoretical discussion of the proper adjective – moving between whether the case was “meritless;” “objectively meritless;” “without substantial merit;” “low likelihood of success;” “unreasonable;” “unreasonably weak;” “a little bit lower than [the Rule 11] standard” and “something more than frivolous.”

Justice Scalia helped cut through the problem somewhat by noting that really what Octane is seeking is a totality of the circumstances test:

JUSTICE SCALIA: Mr. Telscher, it occurs to me that you really cannot answer the question of what adjectives should be attached to “meritless.” And the reason you can’t is, since it is a totality of the circumstances test, that is only one factor and it doesn’t have to be an absolute degree of meritlessness. Even in a I assume you would say that even in a very close case, if there has been outrageous litigation abuse by the other side, the court would be able to say: My goodness, I’ve never seen lawyers behave like this. You’re going to pay the attorneys’ fees for the other side. Couldn’t the court do that?

MR. TELSCHER: That’s absolutely correct, your Honor.

JUSTICE SCALIA: So then how can we possibly define “meritless”? We can’t, because it goes up and down, even in a case where it’s a close case. It could still be exceptional.

MR. TELSCHER: It’s the degree of the unreasonable nature of the case as one factor.

And, in this sense, Octane agrees with the US Government that fees should be awardable whenever the totality of the circumstances indicates that fees are “necessary to prevent gross injustice.”

In a colloquy with Justice Kagan, Octane identified what it sees as a non-exhaustive list of factors to be considered, including (1) whether the case is meritless; (2) bad faith; (3) litigation misconduct; (4) other equitable considerations; (5) anything else that “bears on the gross injustice and uncommon nature of the case.” In addition, Octane argued that the fact that the patentee “never made a product under [the] patent” should be considered as well. Arguing for the U.S. Government, Roman Martinez added that advancement of “objectively unreasonable legal arguments” should also be considered as a factor and, in its own, sufficient for a finding of exceptional case. In his summary, Mr. Telscher did a nice job of summing this up as saying that the exceptional case question is really about “how extreme” the conduct needs to be before it is considered exceptional.

One difficulty is that the Justices had difficulty squaring this laundry list of potentially sufficient factors with the legislative history that the statute is designed to prevent “gross injustice.” In the eyes of the justices (or at least in their questions), gross injustice seems to suggest something more serious than these more mundane factors.  Although both parties and the US Government agree that the “exceptional case” standard should follow a gross injustice standard, Justice Scalia offered a predictable negative outlook on that standard since its establishment is largely based upon legislative history.

Ordinarily, the Supreme Court gives no deference to appellate court decisions. However, here Chief Justice Roberts jumped into the debate to consider the role of deference to the appellate panel in this case based upon the congressionally mandated role of the Federal Circuit in unifying patent law.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: [W]hy shouldn’t we give some deference to the decision of the Court that was set up to develop patent law in a uniform way? They have a much better idea than we do about the consequences of these fee awards in particular cases. And since we’re just as Justice Kennedy pointed out dealing with adjectives, you know meritless, frivolous, exceptional why don’t give some deference to their judgment?

MR. TELSCHER: Well, I think we need to look at the basis of the judgment.

On that point, the Government responded favorably to the idea that the Federal Circuit could be given deference on some issues, but the internal inconsistencies on this particular issue mean that deference doesn’t make sense here:

MR. MARTINEZ: I think if the Federal Circuit had had a consistent view over its history or if the Federal Circuit were not internally divided on this issue, that may be a consideration. Deference might be more appropriate. But here there is no consistent history and the Federal Circuit, as we’ve seen in Kilopass, is divided.

Here, Chief Justice Roberts may be considering whether the Federal Circuit should be thought of more like an expert agency who would receive some amount of deference for its rulemaking (i.e., precedential decisions).

In the oral arguments, Justice Alito attempted to focus in on exceptionality and noted that, for most district court judges, all patent cases are unusual and – as such – may have no basis for determining whether a particular case is exceptional as compared with the ordinary patent case.

An important issue in the Octane fitness case that was only subtly discussed is also whether clear-and-convincing evidence is required to prove an exceptional case or is a preponderance of the evidence sufficient.

Carter Phillips argued on behalf of the respondent here; arguing that – absent other misconduct – that the case must have been “objectively baseless” in order to be deemed exceptional under Section 285.

One interesting aspect of the decision focused on the applicability of the Supreme Court’s decision in Prof’l Real Estate Investors v. Columbia Pictures Indus.,508 U.S. 49 (1993) and Noerr immunity.

MR. PHILLIPS: Well, I think you could argue that there is at least a First Amendment concern that’s in here;

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: First Amendment concern, what, to bring a patent case?

MR. PHILLIPS: Well, access to the courts, access to the courts. Any time you talk about imposing multimillion dollar fee awards at the end of the litigation, particularly if you do it on a fairly arbitrary basis.

JUSTICE SCALIA: Do you think Congress could not require the loser to pay in all cases?

MR. PHILLIPS: Well, I have no doubt that Congress could well, I’m not sure about in all cases.

JUSTICE SCALIA: I mean, if it can do that, there’s certainly no First Amendment problem.

MR. PHILLIPS: Well, I’m not sure I concede that in all cases. I do think in the run of the mill cases, but when you’re talking about a situation where the assertion is that the conduct of the litigation, the bringing of the litigation itself is inappropriate

JUSTICE SCALIA: That’s an English rule. It used to be our rule. I don’t see how you can possibly say that it’s unconstitutional to make the loser pay.

JUSTICE KENNEDY: This is not your best argument. (Laughter.)

MR. PHILLIPS: It is not my best argument, I appreciate that.

On the other hand, if you if you go back and look at Christiansburg. In that case the Court also didn’t treat it as a First Amendment issue, but it still recognizes an important policy of trying not to have too much interference with access to

When Justice Breyer entered the argument, he implicitly pushed Mr. Phillips to recognize that the USPTO has issued many bad patents but that the associated presumption of validity of the patents is a setup that makes it very hard to show a case is objectively baseless even when it is pretty clear that a patent is invalid. Philips responded simply that the filing of a frivolous claim should be seen as objectively baseless and that the present case was not such a case.

Phillips also gave his talk on how the “patent troll” debate is really nonsense and that there is nothing to see here:

MR. PHILLIPS: First of all, as I say, the plaintiff this you know, there’s a reason why you don’t see advertisements on television when Saiontz & Kirk says, If you think your patent has been infringed, call us. Why? Because there’s not a long line of people who can bring plaintiffs’ patent cases. They are expensive to litigate, and the ultimate effect and you have to get an expert, and at the end, you put your patent into validity [risk].

Apart from that, however, the court did not appear to focus on the “troll” issue in any depth.

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The Highmark argument came immediately following that of Octane Fitness. The second cases focuses on the standard of appellate review for the objectively baseless question and so, obviously depends upon the outcome in Octane Fitness. Certainly, if the court moves toward a “totality of the circumstances test” then more deference would be given to district court judges in their determination. That makes Highmark the trailing decision here and likely less important.

Neal Katyal argued on behalf of petitioner Highmark who is asking the court to give deference. Katyal is a former Acting Solicitor General of the US and also brother to Fordham Law School IP Professor Sonya Katyal. The basic argument that whether or not the party’s position is reasonable is a question of fact that, once decided, should be given deference on appeal. The US Solicitor’s office also supported Highmark here arguing for deference. Don Dunner argued on behalf of the respondent here

Upcoming Supreme Court Arguments

By Dennis Crouch

  1. Exceptional Case Awards: The Supreme Court will be hearing oral arguments on February 26, 2014 in two patent infringement cases that both concern shifting of attorney fees under the “exceptional case” standard of 35 U.S.C. § 285. The Federal Circuit has traditionally been resistant to fee shifting awards – especially in cases where an accused infringer is the prevailing party. In Octane Fitness, petitioner asks the Court to lower the standard for proving an exceptional case. In Highmark, petitioner asks for deference to lower court exceptional case findings. We can expect that the Supreme Court will eliminate the Brooks Furniture test – at least as it is strictly applied.
  2. Patentable Subject Matter: On March 31, 2014, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the software patent case of Alice v. CLS Bank. The case has the potential of drawing dividing line between what types of software are patentable and what types of software are not patentable. I am quite pessimistic that the result proposed by the Supreme Court will be fairly implementable by the US Patent Office.
  3. Indefiniteness: On April 28, 2014, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Nautilus v. Biosig. That case questions the standard for challenging issued patents on indefiniteness grounds. We can expect that the Supreme Court will lower the standard for proving indefiniteness – down from “insolubly ambiguous” to a more “reasonable” standard. This has the potential of impacting a substantial number of patents that have issued with claim terms that intentionally flirt with ambiguity. Indefiniteness is regularly confused with over-breadth. Patent attorneys role moving forward will be in finding ways to draft broad but well defined claims
  4. Divided Infringement: On April 30, 2014, the Supreme Court will hear the joint infringement case of Limelight v. Akamai that posits the question whether the elements of infringement-by-inducement require a single entity who, based upon the inducement, performs all elements of the claimed invention. The Federal Circuit ruled that the single-entity rule of direct infringement should be relaxed for inducement and instead that the relevant question is whether the alleged inducer did indeed induce performance of all elements of the patented claim. Although the Supreme Court may prove some tweaks, I believe that the Federal Circuit approach here should carry the day.

Attorney Hal Wegner follows upcoming cases and regularly post various notices here:

Heightened Pleading Requirements: Patent Reform through the Supreme Court and Judicial Conference

By Dennis Crouch

In the cases of Twombly (2007) and Iqbal (2009) (Twiqbal), the Supreme Court substantially raised the pleading standard for federal cases by requiring that the pleadings allege sufficient detail to demonstrate that their claims are “plausible.” These cases have had a dramatic impact on civil litigation in Federal courts. This is evidenced by the fact that these cases have been cited in over 10,000 decisions over the past few years.

Patentees filing infringement actions have not been directly affected by the modified precedent because of a quirk of federal civil procedure. The FRCP appendix includes a form patent infringement complaint and FRCP Rule 84 indicates that the “forms in the Appendix suffice under these rules.” The patent infringement complaint form (Form 18) is incredibly bare-bones and basically only requires an allegation that the plaintiff has rights in the patent and that the defendant is infringing the patent. Based upon the scheme set up by the Rules Enabling Act (1934), the Judicial Conference proposes any amendments to the rules of civil procedure; those proposals are then approved by the Supreme Court and then reviewed by Congress before becoming law.

Within the next couple of years, this form complaint rule is likely to change, either by action to change the rules proposed the Judicial Conference or else by Congressional legislation.

In fact, in the Judicial Conference Advisory Committee has already proposed elimination of FRCP Rule 84 and the form complaints. [Link] The result would be that Twiqbal would apply to patent infringement complaints. Although this change would not raise complaint pleading standards to that of the Goodlatte proposal, it still represents a major heightening of that initial pleading hurdle.

In its proposed rule change, the Judicial Conference Advisory Committee explains its proposal with reference to patent law:

A further reason to abrogate Rule 84 is the tension between the pleading forms and emerging pleading standards. The pleading forms were adopted in 1938 as an important means of educating bench and bar on the dramatic change in pleading standards effected by Rule 8(a)(2). They — and all the other forms — were elevated in 1948 from illustrations to a status that “suffice[s] under these rules.” Whatever else may be said, the ranges of topics covered by the pleading forms omit many of the categories of actions that comprise the bulk of today’s federal docket. And some of the forms have come to seem inadequate, particularly the Form 18 complaint for patent infringement. Attempting to modernize the existing forms, and perhaps to create new forms to address such claims as those arising under the antitrust laws (Twombly v. Bell Atlantic, 550 U.S. 544 (2007)) or implicating official immunity (Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009)), would be an imposing and precarious undertaking. Such an undertaking might be worthwhile if in recent years the pleading forms had provided meaningful guidance to the bar in formulating complaints, but they have not.

The point here is that the pleading standards are outdated and today offer a loophole for certain plaintiffs without any justification for such a loophole.

The committee goes on to make a clear misstatement that “few if any lawyers consult the forms when drafting complaints.” Rather, in the patent infringement world, it is knowledge of that form that serves as the basis for many patent complaints. However, that misstatement does not sink the proposal in any way.

The proposal here is at an early stage and is open for comments until February 15, 2014. Once the comments have been received, the Judicial Conference Advisory Committee will then reconsider its proposal and then potentially move forward with a set of final rules that would then need approval from the Judicial Conference Standing Committee, the Judicial Conference, the Supreme Court, and Congress (implicitly). For any rule change to take effect this calendar year, the Supreme Court’s promulgation of the rules would need to be effective by May 1, 2014.

SmartGene v. ABL: Foreshadow of the Supreme Court in CLS Bank?

By Dennis Crouch

SmartGene v. ABL (Fed. Cir. 2014) (nonprecedential)

35 U.S.C. 101 is a foundational patent law statute that defines the scope of patent eligibility. The statute states that:

Whoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefor, subject to the conditions and requirements of this title.

Section 101 is written in broad and open terms and has been seen as providing notice that patent law is not intended to be limited to any particular forms of technology.

In interpreting the statute, the Supreme Court has added an additional set of subject matter eligibility restrictions only nominally grounded in the statute. Most notable, these include proscriptions against the patenting of abstract ideas, natural phenomenon, and products of nature. Also excluded from eligibility are “mental processes.” It is somewhat unclear from precedent whether these mental processes are whole included within the abstract idea construct or whether instead there are some mental processes that would be excluded even though not considered abstract ideas.

Here, ABL’s patents cover a diagnostic method that basically pulls information from three separate knowledge bases, ranks the results and provides advisory information related to those results. As claimed these steps use a “computing device” to generate and provide the results. The patents also include computerized “system” claims; computer program claims; and sorage-medium claims that are all designed to facilitate the practice of the method. See U.S. Patent Nos. 6,081,786 and 6,188,988.

In 2008, SmartGene filed for declaratory judgment of invalidity and also filed a reexamination request with the USPTO. The PTO considered the prior art and confirmed patentability. However, the District Court ruled that all of the patented claims were invalid as ineligible under Section 101. Rather than walking through each claim of each patent, the District Court (1) first held that, for eligibility purposes, Claim 1 of the ‘786 patent (the method claim) was representative of all claims in the patents and (2) then found that claim ineligible under § 101. The district court wrote that the claim does “no more than describe . . . an abstract mental process engaged in routinely, either entirely within a physician’s mind, or potentially aided by other resources in the treatment of patients.”

On appeal, the Federal Circuit has affirmed in a non-precedential decision written by Judge Taranto and joined by Judges Lourie and Dyk. Famed eligibility defender Robert Sachs of Fenwick represented the Patentee whkle Fred Samuels (Cahn & Samuels) represented the DJ Plaintiff.

The Federal Circuit first considered the district court’s process in holding all claims from both patents ineligible based only upon consideration of one claim from one patent. The court affirmed the district court finding based upon a waiver principle.

On to the meat of the 101 analysis, the Federal Circuit began with a citation to CyberSource:

This conclusion [of ineligibility] follows from CyberSource Corp. v. Retail Decisions, Inc., where, based on earlier precedents, this court held that section 101 did not embrace a process defined simply as using a computer to perform a series of mental steps that people, aware of each step, can and regularly do perform in their heads.

The court went on to write that mental processes are not eligible nor are processes that use basic computer functionality to implement mental processes unless the invention specifies “new physical components” or other steps “defined other than by the mentally performable steps.”

For these princples, the court relied heavily on Supreme Court precedent of Benson, Flook, and Mayo as well as the appellate decisions of CyberSource as well as In re Grams, 888 F.2d 835, 840-41 (Fed. Cir. 1989) and In re Meyer, 688 F.2d 789, 794-95 (C.C.P.A. 1982).

The discussion of Mayo in the decision is interesting in the way that the court draws close parallels between the way laws of nature and abstract ideas should be interpreted:

Mayo demanded that, when a claim involves an abstract idea (or, in Mayo itself, a law of nature), eligibility under section 101 requires that the claim involve “enough” else—applying the idea in the realm of tangible physical objects (for product claims) or physical actions (for process claims)—that is beyond “well-understood, routine, conventional activity.” 132 S. Ct. at 1294, 1298, 1299. The claim here does not do so. It calls on a computer to do nothing that is even arguably an advance in physical implementations of routine mental information-comparison and rule-application processes. In this context, the concern about preempting public use of certain kinds of knowledge, emphasized in Mayo, is a grave one.

It appears from Myriad, that the process for determining the product-of-nature exclusion is somewhat different since there, the court allowed the patentee to obtain protection for a DNA sequence whose physical differences from the naturally occurring sequence were due to well-understood, routine, and then conventional laboratory processes.

Is a mental step an abstract idea?: The court punts on this question and instead writing that:

[M]ental processes and abstract ideas (whatever may be the precise definition and relation of those concepts) are excluded from section 101. Whatever the boundaries of the abstract ideas category, the claim at issue here involves a mental process excluded from section 101: the mental steps of comparing new and stored information and using rules to identify medical options.

The analysis here pessimistically fits the approach leading abstract idea jurisprudence that traditionally fails to explain the scope and bounds of the abstract idea category but finds that the particular invention in question fits within the category.

Judge Taranto: This decision is important because it was written by Judge Taranto. Although there was not tremendous doubt in his position, Judge Taranto did not participate in the CLS Bank en banc fiasco that resulted in no majority opinion. Judge Taranto’s participation would have likely shifted the balance in favor of a majority opinion ruling strongly against subject matter eligibility of software claims that do not add new “technology.”

Judge Taranto is also important because, of all the Federal Circuit judges, he likely best understands the pulse of the Supreme Court and I will not be surprised when the Supreme Court decision in CLS Bank parallels this one.


Supreme Court Reverses Federal Circuit: Holds that Patentees Always have Burden of Proving Infringement

By Dennis Crouch

Medtronic v. Mirowski, ___ U.S. ___ (2014) [CaseText]

In a unanimous opinion, the US Supreme Court has reversed the Federal Circuit – holding that the patentee has the burden of proving infringement even in declaratory judgment actions by a licensee in good standing. I had previously noted that the Federal Circuit decision here was “odd” and likely to be rejected by the Supreme Court. The case should generally be seen as further emboldening licensees to challenge their licensed patents.

Medtronic has licensed a number of implantable heart stimulator patents from Mirowski. While still paying royalties (into an escrow account) and remaining in good-standing as a licensee, Medtronic filed a declaratory judgment action asserting that its products were not covered by the patent and that it therefore owed no contract damages. Prior to 2007, the Federal Circuit had ruled that a licensee in good standing had no declaratory judgment standing. However, in MedImmune, Inc. v. Genentech, Inc., 549 U. S. 118 (2007), the Supreme Court held that Article III’s case-or-controversy requirement can be satisfied by the fact that a licensee faced the threat of suit if it ceased making payments).

The district court sided with Medtronic – finding that Mirowski failed to prove infringement. However on appeal, the Federal Circuit vacated – holding instead the ordinary burden of proving infringement shifted in declaratory judgment cases a licensee in good standing. On writ of certiorari the Supreme Court has decided that the district court’s analysis is the better course of action and now holds that:

[W]hen a licensee seeks a declaratory judgment against a patentee to establish that there is no infringement, the burden of proving infringement remains with the patentee.

The Supreme Court based its decision on three notions: (1) the Patentee ordinarily bears the burden of proving infringement; (2) the Declaratory Judgment Act is only procedural; and (3) the burden of proof is a substantive aspect of the claim. Following this triple premise, the court concluded that the filing of a declaratory judgment action could not shift the burden of proof.

= = = =

The decision is fairly short, but has a few interesting aspects.

First, the court provided a policy-based analysis that calls-to-mind the problems faced by many accused infringers who receive a demand letter or broadly written complaint alleging infringement:

[The Federal Circuit rule can] create unnecessary complexity by making it difficult for the licensee to understand upon just what theory the patentee’s infringement claim rests. A complex patent can contain many pages of claims and limitations. A patent holder is in a better position than an alleged infringer to know, and to be able to point out, just where, how, and why a product (or process) infringes a claim of that patent. Until he does so, however, the alleged infringer may have to work in the dark, seeking, in his declaratory judgment complaint, to negate every conceivable infringement theory.

It is this same sentiment that has been driving a movement to increase the pleading standards in patent cases.

Second, the court re-iterated its historic position that patent rights should be open to challenge as a mechanism for maintaining a well-balanced patent system.

The public interest, of course, favors the maintenance of a well-functioning patent system. But the “public” also has a “paramount interest in seeing that patent monopolies . . . are kept within their legitimate scope.” Precision Instrument Mfg. Co. v. Automotive Maintenance Machinery Co., 324 U. S. 806 (1945). A patentee “should not be . . . allowed to exact royalties for the use of an idea . . . that is beyond the scope of the patent monopoly granted.” Blonder-Tongue Laboratories, Inc. v. University of Ill. Foundation, 402 U. S. 313 (1971). And “[l]icensees may often be the only individuals with enough economic incentive” to litigate questions of a patent’s scope. Lear, Inc. v. Adkins, 395 U. S. 653, 670 (1969). The general public interest considerations are, at most, in balance. They do not favor a change in the ordinary rule imposing the burden of proving infringement upon the patentee.

Read the decision here:

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Can License Terms Privately Change The Baseline Rules Set Here?: An ongoing and open question is whether the rules regarding licensee standing and burdens are hard-and-fast or instead whether they should are to be treated as default rules that can be altered by contracting parties. As an example, a licensee could agree (as part of a license agreement) not to file a declaratory judgment action challenging patent rights while in good standing or could agree that in a DJ action the licensee had the burden of proving non-infringement. The open question is whether these private contractual provisions would be deemed unenforceable on public policy grounds. Although open, the implicit suggestion from the decision is that those provisions would be unenforceable. I draw that conclusion from the court’s positive citation of Lear, Precision, and Blonder-Tongue.

= = = =

Standing: The Supreme Court began the opinion with a discussion of jurisdiction that seems to step-back somewhat from its recent decision in Minton v. Gunn. The particular question raised was whether the case was a patent lawsuit or instead merely a contract dispute. If the former, then the case is heard in Federal Court and by the Federal Circuit. If the latter, then the case would be in state court unless there the parties exhibit diversity jurisdiction and, a diversity case would have been appealed through a regional circuit court of appeals rather than to the Federal Circuit.

Subject matter jurisdiction over a declaratory judgment action is ordinarily based upon whether the complementary coercive action brought by the DJ defendant would necessarily present a federal question. Franchise Tax Bd. of Cal. v. Construction Laborers Vacation Trust for Southern Cal., 463 U. S. 1 (1983).

Here, the Supreme Court determined that the potential coercive action was patent infringement. The court based its conclusions upon its reading of the license that gave power to Mirowski to terminate the contract and sue for patent infringement if Medtronic stopped paying royalties. According to the Supreme Court, it is of no matter that Mirowski could instead sue for contract damages – a result that would have been much more likely. In its Amicus Brief, Tessera wrote:

Because there was simply no chance that the licensee suddenly would abandon the contractual dispute resolution procedure after nearly twenty years when it could resolve the very same patent issues within the contractual framework, and when both licensed patents were, in any event, set to expire within a year, a coercive patent infringement action by the licensor cannot reasonably be said to have been anticipated or threatened at the time of the initial filing.

The Supreme Court here rejected Tessera’s argument:

The relevant question concerns the nature of the threatened action in the absence of the declaratory judgment suit. Medtronic believes—and seeks to establish in this declaratory judgment suit—that it does not owe royalties because its products are noninfringing. If Medtronic were to act on that belief (by not paying royalties and not bringing a declaratory judgment action), Mirowski could terminate the license and bring an ordinary federal patent law action for infringement. Consequently this declaratory judgment action, which avoids that threatened action, also “arises under” federal patent law.

With this ruling, the Supreme Court has thrown another wrench in federal patent jurisdiction doctrine.