Justia Intellectual Property Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in U.S. Supreme Court
Impression Products, Inc. v. Lexmark International, Inc.
Lexmark holds patents on the components of toner cartridges that it manufactures and sells. Lexmark allows consumers to buy a cartridge at full price, with no restrictions, or to buy a cartridge at a discount through Lexmark’s “Return Program,” by signing a contract agreeing to use the cartridge only once and to refrain from transferring the cartridge to anyone but Lexmark. Remanufacturers acquire empty Lexmark cartridges—including Return Program cartridges—from purchasers in the U.S. and overseas, refill them, and resell them in the U.S. Lexmark sued remanufacturers with respect to Return Program cartridges that Lexmark had sold within the U.S. and cartridges that Lexmark had sold abroad and that remanufacturers imported into the country. The Federal Circuit ruled for Lexmark with respect to both. The Supreme Court reversed. Lexmark exhausted its patent rights (35 U.S.C. 271(a)) in all of the cartridges. A patentee’s decision to sell a product exhausts all of its patent rights in that item, regardless of any restrictions the patentee purports to impose. If a patentee negotiates a contract restricting the purchaser’s right to use or resell an item, it may be able to enforce that restriction as a matter of contract law, but may not do so through a patent infringement lawsuit. The exhaustion doctrine is not a presumption about the authority that comes along with a sale; it is a limit on the scope of the patentee’s rights. The Patent Act just ensures that the patentee receives one reward—of whatever it considers satisfactory compensation—for every item that passes outside the scope of its patent monopoly. View "Impression Products, Inc. v. Lexmark International, Inc." on Justia Law
Star Athletica, L. L. C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc.
The “pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features” of a “design of a useful article” are eligible for copyright protection as artistic works if those features “can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article,” 17 U.S.C. 101. Plaintiffs have copyright registrations for two-dimensional designs, consisting of lines, chevrons, and colorful shapes, appearing on cheerleading uniforms that they design, make, and sell. They sued a competitor for infringement. The district court rejected the claims on summary judgment. The Sixth Circuit reversed. The Supreme Court affirmed. A feature incorporated into the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright protection only if the feature can be perceived as a two- or three-dimensional work of art separate from the useful article and would qualify as a protectable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work—either on its own or fixed in some other tangible medium of expression—if it were imagined separately from the useful article into which it is incorporated. That test is satisfied here. The feature cannot be a useful article or “[a]n article that is normally a part of a useful article,” nor the replica of a useful article in another medium. While plaintiffs have no right to prevent anyone from manufacturing a cheerleading uniform that is identical in shape, cut, or dimensions to the uniforms at issue here, an artistic feature that is eligible for copyright protection on its own does not lose that protection simply because it was first created as a feature of the design of a useful article, even if it makes that article more useful. View "Star Athletica, L. L. C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc." on Justia Law
Life Technologies Corp. v. Promega Corp.
Promega sublicensed a patent, which claims a toolkit for genetic testing, to Life Technologies for the manufacture and sale of kits for use in licensed law enforcement fields worldwide. One of the kit’s five components, an enzyme, was manufactured by Life Technologies in the U.S. and shipped to the United Kingdom, where the other components were made, for combination there. When Life Technologies began selling kits outside the licensed fields of use, Promega sued, citing section 271(f)(1) of the Patent Act, which prohibits the supply from the U.S. of “all or a substantial portion of the components of a patented invention” for combination abroad. The district court held that the section did not encompass the supply of a single component of a multicomponent invention. The Federal Circuit reversed, reasoning that a single important component could constitute a “substantial portion” of the components of an invention. The Supreme Court reversed. The supply of a single component of a multicomponent invention for manufacture abroad does not give rise to liability under section 271(f)(1), which refers to a quantitative measurement. The Court rejected Promega’s proffered “case-specific approach,” which would require a factfinder to decipher whether the components at issue are a “substantial portion” under either a qualitative or a quantitative test. When a product is made abroad and all components but a single commodity article are supplied from abroad, the activity is outside the statute’s scope. View "Life Technologies Corp. v. Promega Corp." on Justia Law
Samsung Electronics Co. v. Apple Inc.
The Patent Act prohibits the manufacture or sale an “article of manufacture” to which a patented design or a colorable imitation thereof has been applied and makes an infringer liable “to the extent of his total profit,” 35 U.S.C. 289. A jury found that Samsung smartphones infringed Apple's design patents, which covered a rectangular front face with rounded edges and a grid of colorful icons on a black screen. Apple was awarded $399 million—Samsung’s entire profit from the sale of its infringing smartphones. The Federal Circuit affirmed the award. A unanimous Supreme Court reversed and remanded. In the case of a multicomponent product, the relevant “article of manufacture” for a section 289 damages award need not be the end product sold to the consumer but may be only a component of that product. The Court noted Patent Act section 171(a), which makes certain “design[s] for an article of manufacture” eligible for design patent protection and permits a design patent that extends to only a component of a multicomponent product. The term “article of manufacture” is broad enough to embrace both a product sold to a consumer and a component of that product, whether sold separately or not. The Court declined to resolve whether the relevant article of manufacture for each design patent at issue is the smartphone or a particular smartphone component. View "Samsung Electronics Co. v. Apple Inc." on Justia Law
Nautilus, Inc. v. Biosig Instruments, Inc
A patent specification must “conclude with one or more claims particularly pointing out and distinctly claiming the subject matter which the applicant regards as [the] invention,” 35 U.S.C. 112. The 753 patent involves a heart-rate monitor used with exercise equipment; it asserts that prior monitors were often inaccurate in measuring the electrical signals accompanying each heartbeat (ECG signals) because of the presence of other electrical signals generated by the user’s skeletal muscles that can impede ECG signal detection. The invention claims to improve on prior art by detecting and processing ECG signals in a way that filters out the interference. Claim 1 refers to a “heart rate monitor for use by a user in association with exercise apparatus and/or exercise procedures.” The claim comprises a cylindrical bar fitted with a display device; electronic circuitry including a difference amplifier; and, on each half of the bar, a “live” electrode and a “common” electrode “mounted ... in spaced relationship with each other.” The exclusive licensee alleged that Nautilus, without obtaining a license, sold exercise machines containing its patented technology. The district court granted Nautilus summary judgment on the ground that the claim term “in spaced relationship with each other” failed the definiteness requirement. The Federal Circuit reversed, concluding that a patent claim passes the threshold so long as the claim is “amenable to construction,” and, as construed, is not “insolubly ambiguous.” The Supreme Court vacated. A patent is invalid for indefiniteness if its claims, read in light of the patent’s specification and prosecution history, fail to inform, with reasonable certainty, those skilled in the art about the scope of the invention. Section 112’s definiteness requirement must take into account the inherent limitations of language. The standard mandates clarity, while recognizing that absolute precision is unattainable. The Federal Circuit inquired whether the claims were “amenable to construction” or “insolubly ambiguous,” but such formulations lack the precision section 112 demands. To tolerate imprecision just short of that rendering a claim “insolubly ambiguous” would diminish the definiteness requirement’s public-notice function and foster the innovation-discouraging “zone of uncertainty.” The Court remanded so that the Federal Circuit can reconsider, under the proper standard, whether the relevant claims in the 753 patent are sufficiently definite. View "Nautilus, Inc. v. Biosig Instruments, Inc" on Justia Law
Limelight Networks, Inc. v. Akamai Techs, Inc.
Akamai is the exclusive licensee of a patent that claims a method of delivering electronic data using a content delivery network (CDN). Limelight also operates a CDN and carries out several of the steps claimed in the patent, but its customers, rather than Limelight itself, perform a step of the patent known as “tagging.” Under Federal Circuit case law, liability for direct infringement under 35 U.S.C. 271(a) requires performance of all steps of a method patent to be attributable to a single party. The district court concluded that Limelight could not have directly infringed the patent at issue because performance of the tagging step could not be attributed to it. The en banc Federal Circuit reversed, holding that a defendant who performed some steps of a method patent and encouraged others to perform the rest could be liable for inducement of infringement even if no one was liable for direct infringement. The Supreme Court reversed. A defendant is not liable for inducing infringement under section 271(b) when no one has directly infringed. The Federal Circuit’s contrary view would deprive section 271(b) of ascertainable standards and require the courts to develop parallel bodies of infringement law. Citing section 271(f), the Court stated that Congress knows how to impose inducement liability predicated on noninfringing conduct when it wishes to do so. Though a would-be infringer could evade liability by dividing performance of a method patent’s steps with another whose conduct cannot be attributed to the defendant, a desire to avoid this consequence does not justify fundamentally altering the rules of inducement liability clearly required by the Patent Act’s text and structure. View "Limelight Networks, Inc. v. Akamai Techs, Inc." on Justia Law
Lexmark Int’l, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc.
Lexmark sells the only type of toner cartridges that work with its laser printers; remanufacturers acquire and refurbish used Lexmark cartridges to sell in competition with Lexmark’s new and refurbished cartridges. Lexmark’s “Prebate” program gives customers a discount on new cartridges if they agree to return empty cartridges to the company. Every Prebate cartridge has a microchip that disables the empty cartridge unless Lexmark replaces the chip. Static Control makes and sells components for cartridge remanufacture and developed a microchip that mimicked Lexmark’s. Lexmark sued for copyright infringement. Static Control counterclaimed that Lexmark engaged in false or misleading advertising under the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. 1125(a), and caused Static Control lost sales and damage to its business reputation. The district court held that Static Control lacked “prudential standing,” applying a multifactor balancing test. The Sixth Circuit reversed, applying a “reasonable interest” test. A unanimous Supreme Court affirmed. The Court stated that the issue was not “prudential standing.” Whether a plaintiff comes within a statute’s zone of interests requires traditional statutory interpretation. The Lanham Act includes in its statement of purposes, “protect[ing] persons engaged in [commerce within the control of Congress] against unfair competition.” “Unfair competition” is concerned with injuries to business reputation and sales. A section 1125(a) plaintiff must show that its injury flows directly from the deception caused by the defendant’s advertising; that occurs when deception causes consumers to withhold trade from the plaintiff. The zone-of-interests test and the proximate-cause requirement identify who may sue under section 1125(a) and provide better guidance than the multi-factor balancing test, the direct-competitor test, or the reasonable-interest test. Static Control comes within the class of plaintiffs authorized to sue under section 1125(a). Its alleged injuries fall within the zone of interests protected by the Act, and it sufficiently alleged that its injuries were proximately caused by Lexmark’s misrepresentations. View "Lexmark Int'l, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc." on Justia Law
Medtronic, Inc. v. Mirowski Family Ventures, LLC
Medtronic designs, makes, and sells medical devices. Mirowski owns patents relating to implantable heart stimulators. Under a licensing agreement, Medtronic practices certain Mirowski patents in exchange for royalty payments. Mirowski notified Medtronic of its belief that several Medtronic products infringed the licensed patents. Medtronic challenged that assertion in a declaratory judgment action, while accumulating disputed royalties in escrow for distribution to the prevailing party. The district court concluded that Mirowski had not met its burden of proving infringement. The Federal Circuit reversed, reasoning that where the patentee is a declaratory judgment defendant and, like Mirowski, is foreclosed from asserting an infringement counterclaim by the continued existence of a licensing agreement, the party seeking the declaratory judgment (Medtronic) bears the burden of persuasion. The Supreme Court reversed, first holding that the Federal Circuit did not lack subject-matter jurisdiction. Citing 28 U. S. C. 1338(a) and 1295(a)(1), the Court stated that if Medtronic had acted consistent with the understanding of its rights that it sought to establish in the declaratory judgment suit (by ceasing to pay royalties), Mirowski could have terminated the license and sued for infringement. The declaratory judgment action, which avoided that hypothetical threatened action, also “arises under” federal patent law. Operation of the Declaratory Judgment Act is only procedural, leaving substantive rights unchanged, and the burden of proof is a substantive aspect of a claim. When a licensee seeks a declaratory judgment against a patentee that its products do not infringe the licensed patent, the patentee bears the burden of persuasion. Mirowski set this dispute in motion by accusing Medtronic of infringement. There is no convincing reason why burden of proof law should favor the patentee. View "Medtronic, Inc. v. Mirowski Family Ventures, LLC" on Justia Law
Gunn v. Minton
In an infringement suit, the district court declared Minton’s patent invalid under the “on sale” bar since he had leased his interactive securities trading system to a brokerage more than one year before the patent application, 35 U. S. C. 102(b). Seeking reconsideration, Minton argued for the first time that the lease was part of testing and fell within the “experimental use” exception to the bar. The Federal Circuit affirmed denial of the motion, concluding that the argument was waived. Minton sued for legal malpractice in Texas state court. His former attorneys argued that Minton’s claims would have failed even if the experimental-use argument had been timely raised. The trial court agreed. Minton then claimed that the court lacked jurisdiction under 28 U. S. C. 1338(a), which provides for exclusive federal jurisdiction over any case “arising under any Act of Congress relating to patents.” The Texas Court of Appeals rejected Minton’s argument and determined that Minton failed to establish experimental use. The state’s highest court reversed. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that Section 338(a) does not deprive state courts of subject matter jurisdiction over Minton’s malpractice claim. Federal law does not create that claim, so it can arise under federal patent law only if it necessarily raises a stated federal issue, actually disputed and substantial, which may be entertained without disturbing an approved balance of federal and state judicial responsibilities. Resolution of a federal patent question is “necessary” to Minton’s case and the issue is “actually disputed,” but it does not carry the necessary significance. No matter the resolution of the hypothetical “case within a case,” the result of the prior patent litigation will not change. Nor will allowing state courts to resolve these cases undermine development of a uniform body of patent law. View "Gunn v. Minton" on Justia Law
Kappos v. Hyatt
In 1995, respondent filed a patent application covering 117 claims under the Patent Act of 1952, 35 U.S.C. 112. The patent examiner denied all of the claims for lack of an adequate written description. Respondent appealed to the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences, pursuant to section 134 of the Act, which approved some claims but denied others. Pursuant to section 145 of the Act, respondent filed a civil action against the Director, but the district court declined to consider respondent's newly proffered written declaration in support of the adequacy of his description, thus limiting its review to the administrative record. On appeal, the Federal Circuit vacated the judgment. The Court held that there are no limitations on a patent applicant's ability to introduce new evidence in a section 145 proceeding beyond those already present in the Federal Rules of Evidence and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. If new evidence was presented on a disputed question of fact, the district court must make de novo factual findings that take account of both the new evidence and the administrative record before the Patent and Trade Office. Therefore, the Court affirmed the judgment of the Federal Circuit. View "Kappos v. Hyatt" on Justia Law