Justia Intellectual Property Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Supreme Court
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Truckai invented NovaSure to treat abnormal uterine bleeding using a moisture-permeable applicator head to destroy targeted cells. Truckai filed a patent application and assigned the application and future continuation applications, to his company, Novacept. Novacept and its patents and patent applications were acquired by Hologic. Truckai founded Minerva and developed a supposedly improved device to treat abnormal uterine bleeding, using a moisture-impermeable applicator head to remove cells. The Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) issued a patent; the FDA approved the device for sale. Hologic filed a continuation application, seeking to add claims to its NovaSure patent--one claim encompassed applicator heads generally, without regard to whether they are moisture permeable. The PTO issued the altered patent.Hologic sued Minerva for infringement. Minerva argued that Hologic’s patent was invalid because the new claim did not match the written description. Hologic invoked the assignor estoppel doctrine: Because Truckai had assigned the original application, he and Minerva could not impeach the patent’s validity. The Federal Circuit agreed.The Supreme Court vacated. Assignor estoppel is a valid defense, based on the need for consistency in business dealings, but applies only when the assignor’s claim of invalidity contradicts explicit or implicit representations made in assigning the patent. Concerns with the assignor taking contradictory positions do not arise when an assignment occurs before an inventor can make a warranty as to specific claims, such as when an employee assigns to his employer patent rights in future inventions; when a later legal development renders irrelevant the warranty given at the time of assignment; and when a post-assignment change in patent claims can remove the rationale for applying assignor estoppel. The Federal Circuit failed to recognize these boundaries, deeming “irrelevant” the question of whether Hologic had expanded the assigned claims. If Hologic’s new claim is materially broader than what Truckai assigned, Truckai could not have warranted its validity. View "Minerva Surgical, Inc. v. Hologic, Inc." on Justia Law

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Administrative Patent Judges (APJs) conduct adversarial proceedings for challenging the validity of an existing patent before the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB), 35 U.S.C. 6(a), (c). The Secretary of Commerce appoints PTAB members, including APJs, except the Director, who is nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. APJs concluded that Arthrex’s patent was invalid. The Federal Circuit concluded that the APJs were principal officers who must be appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate; their appointment was unconstitutional. To remedy this violation, the court invalidated the APJs’ tenure protections, making them removable at will by the Secretary.The Supreme Court vacated. The unreviewable authority wielded by APJs during patent review is incompatible with their appointment by the Secretary to an inferior office. Inferior officers must be “directed and supervised at some level by others who were appointed by Presidential nomination with the advice and consent of the Senate.” While the Director has administrative oversight, neither he nor any other superior executive officer can directly review APJ decisions. A decision by the APJs under his charge compels the Director to “issue and publish a certificate” canceling or confirming patent claims he previously allowed. Given the insulation of PTAB decisions from executive review, APJs exercise power that conflicts with the Appointments Clause’s purpose “to preserve political accountability.”Four justices concluded that section 6(c) cannot constitutionally be enforced to prevent the Director from reviewing final APJ decisions. The Director may review final PTAB decisions and may issue decisions on behalf of the Board. Section 6(c) otherwise remains operative. Because the source of the constitutional violation is the restraint on the Director’s review authority not the appointment of APJs, Arthrex is not entitled to a hearing before a new panel. View "United States v. Arthrex, Inc." on Justia Law

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Oracle owns a copyright in Java SE, a computer platform. Google acquired Android and sought to build a new software platform for mobile devices. To allow millions of programmers familiar with Java to work with its new platform, Google copied roughly 11,500 lines of code from Java SE. The copied lines allow programmers to call upon prewritten computing tasks for use in their own programs. The Federal Circuit held that the copied lines were copyrightable and reversed a jury’s finding of fair use.The Supreme Court reversed. Google’s copying of code lines needed to allow programmers to put their talents to work in a transformative program was fair use as a matter of law. Copyright protection cannot extend to “any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery,” 17 U.S.C. 102(b), and a copyright holder may not prevent another from making a “fair use” of a copyrighted work.Assuming that the copied lines can be copyrighted, the Court focused on “fair use.” The “right of trial by jury” does not include the right to have a jury resolve a fair use defense. Unlike other types of code, much of the copied material's value derives from the investment of users (computer programmers) who have learned the system; application of fair use here is unlikely to undermine the general copyright protection for computer programs. The “purpose and character” of this use is transformative. Google copied only about 0.4 percent of the entire program at issue and that was tethered to a valid, transformative, purpose. Google’s new smartphone platform is not a market substitute for Java SE; the copyright holder would benefit from the reimplementation of its interface into a different market. Enforcing the copyright on these facts risks causing creativity-related harms to the public. View "Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc." on Justia Law

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A generic name—the name of a class of products or services—is ineligible for federal trademark registration. Booking.com, a travel-reservation website, sought federal registration of marks including the term “Booking.com.” Concluding that “Booking.com” was a generic name for online hotel-reservation services, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) refused registration. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court decision that “Booking.com”—unlike the term “booking” standing alone—is not generic.The Supreme Court affirmed. A term styled “generic.com” is a generic name for a class of goods or services only if the term has that meaning to consumers. Whether a compound term is generic turns on whether that term, taken as a whole, signifies to consumers a class of goods or services. Consumers do not perceive the term “Booking.com” that way. Only one entity can occupy a particular Internet domain name at a time, so a “generic.com” term could convey to consumers an association with a particular website. An unyielding legal rule disregarding consumer perception would be incompatible with a bedrock principle of the Lanham Act. The PTO’s policy concerns do not support a categorical rule against the registration of “generic.com” terms. Several doctrines ensure that registration of “Booking.com” would not yield its holder a monopoly on the term “booking.” View "Patent and Trademark Office v. Booking.com B.V." on Justia Law

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Lucky Brand and Marcel market clothing. Marcel registered the trademark “Get Lucky.” Lucky Brand registered the trademark “Lucky Brand” and other marks with the word “Lucky.” In a 2003 settlement agreement, Lucky Brand agreed to stop using the phrase “Get Lucky.” Marcel released its claims regarding Lucky Brand’s use of its other trademarks.In 2005, Lucky Brand sued Marcel for violating its trademarks. Marcel filed counterclaims turning on Lucky Brand’s continued use of “Get Lucky,” but did not claim that Lucky Brand’s use of its other marks alone infringed that mark. The court enjoined Lucky Brand from copying or imitating Marcel’s “Get Lucky” mark.In 2011, Marcel sued Lucky Brand, arguing only that Lucky Brand’s post-2010 use of Lucky Brand’s other marks infringed Marcel’s “Get Lucky” mark. Marcel did not allege that Lucky Brand continued to use "Get Lucky." Lucky Brand argued, for the first time since early in the 2005 Action, that Marcel had released those claims in the settlement agreement. The Second Circuit vacated the dismissal of the action, concluding that “defense preclusion” prohibited Lucky Brand from raising that unlitigated defense.A unanimous Supreme Court reversed. Any preclusion of defenses must, at a minimum, satisfy the strictures of issue preclusion or claim preclusion. Here, issue preclusion does not apply, so the causes of action must share a “common nucleus of operative fact[s]” for claim preclusion to apply. The 2005 claims depended on Lucky Brand’s alleged use of “Get Lucky.” In the 2011 suit, Marcel alleged that the infringement was Lucky Brand’s use of its other marks containing the word “Lucky,” not any use of “Get Lucky” itself. The conduct in the 2011 suit occurred after the conclusion of the 2005 suit. View "Lucky Brand Dungarees, Inc. v. Marcel Fashions Group, Inc." on Justia Law

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The Official Code of Georgia Annotated (OCGA) includes the text of every Georgia statute currently in force. Non-binding annotations appear beneath each statutory provision, typically including summaries of judicial opinions construing each provision, summaries of pertinent attorney general opinions, and a list of related law review articles and other reference materials. The OCGA is assembled by the Code Revision Commission, a state entity composed mostly of legislators, funded through legislative branch appropriations, and staffed by the Office of Legislative Counsel. The current OCGA annotations were produced by a private publisher, pursuant to a work-for-hire agreement, which states that any copyright in the OCGA vests in the state, acting through the Commission. A nonprofit, dedicated to facilitating public access to government records and legal materials, posted the OCGA online and distributed copies. The Commission sued for infringement under the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. 102(a).The Eleventh Circuit and the Supreme Court held that OCGA annotations are ineligible for copyright protection. Under the government edicts doctrine, officials empowered to speak with the force of law cannot be the authors of the works they create in the course of their official duties. The Court noted long-standing precedent that an official reporter cannot hold a copyright interest in opinions created by judges; no one can own the law. The doctrine applies to whatever work legislators perform in their capacity as legislators, including explanatory and procedural materials they create in the discharge of their legislative duties. The sole “author” of the annotations is the Commission, which functions as an arm of the Georgia Legislature and creates the annotations in the discharge of its legislative duties. The Court focused on authorship, stating that Georgia’s characterization of the OCGA annotations as non-binding and non-authoritative undersells the practical significance of the annotations to litigants and citizens. View "Georgia v. Public Resource.Org, Inc." on Justia Law

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Romag and Fossil signed an agreement to use Romag’s fasteners in Fossil’s leather goods. Romag eventually discovered that factories in China making Fossil products were using counterfeit Romag fasteners. Romag sued Fossil and certain Fossil retailers for trademark infringement, 15 U.S.C. 1125(a). Citing Second Circuit precedent, the district court rejected Romag’s request for an award of profits, because the jury, while finding that Fossil had acted callously, rejected Romag’s accusation that Fossil had acted willfully.The Supreme Court vacated. A plaintiff in a trademark infringement suit is not required to show that a defendant willfully infringed the plaintiff’s trademark as a precondition to a profits award. The Lanham Act provision governing remedies for trademark violations, section 1117(a), makes a showing of willfulness a precondition to a profits award in a suit under section 1125(c) for trademark dilution, but section 1125(a) has never required such a showing. The Act speaks often, expressly, and with considerable care about mental states, indicating that Congress did not intend to incorporate a willfulness requirement here obliquely. View "Romag Fasteners, Inc. v. Fossil, Inc." on Justia Law

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Inter partes review (IPR) permits a patent challenger to ask the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to reconsider the validity of earlier granted patent claims. If a request comes more than a year after a patent infringement lawsuit against the requesting party, IPR “may not be instituted,” 35 U.S.C. 315(b). The agency’s determination of whether to institute IPR is “final and nonappealable” under section 314(d).Thryv sought IPR of Click-to-Call’s patent. The Patent Trial and Appeal Board rejected Click-to-Call’s argument that the suit was untimely, instituted review, and canceled 13 of the patent’s claims as obvious or lacking novelty. Treating the Board’s application of section 315(b) as judicially reviewable, the Federal Circuit concluded that the petition was untimely and vacated the Board’s decision.The Supreme Court vacated. Section 314(d) precludes judicial review of the agency’s application of section 315(b)’s time prescription. A challenge based on section 315(b) constitutes an appeal of the agency’s decision “to institute” an IPR. Allowing section 315(b) appeals would unwind agency proceedings determining patentability and leave bad patents enforceable. Section 314(d)’s text does not limit the review bar to section 314(a)’s question of whether the petitioner has a reasonable likelihood of prevailing. Click-to-Call’s contention is, essentially, that the agency should have refused to institute IPR. View "Thryv, Inc. v. Click-To-Call Technologies, LP" on Justia Law

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In 1996, Intersal, a marine salvage company, discovered the shipwreck of the Queen Anne’s Revenge off the North Carolina coast. North Carolina, the shipwreck’s legal owner, contracted with Intersal to conduct recovery. Intersal hired videographer Allen to document the efforts. Allen recorded the recovery for years. He registered copyrights in all of his works. When North Carolina published some of Allen’s videos and photos online, Allen sued for copyright infringement, arguing that the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act of 1990 (CRCA, 17 U.S.C. 511(a)) removed the states’ sovereign immunity in copyright infringement cases.The Supreme Court affirmed the Fourth Circuit, ruling in favor of North Carolina. Congress lacked the authority to abrogate the states’ immunity from copyright infringement suits in the CRCA. A federal court may not hear a suit brought by any person against a nonconsenting state unless Congress has enacted “unequivocal statutory language” abrogating the states’ immunity from suit and some constitutional provision allows Congress to have thus encroached on the states’ sovereignty. Under existing precedent, neither the Intellectual Property Clause, Art. I, section 8, cl. 8, nor Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which authorizes Congress to “enforce” the commands of the Due Process Clause, provides that authority. View "Allen v. Cooper" on Justia Law

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The Patent Act provides two methods for challenging an adverse decision by the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO): direct appeal to the Federal Circuit, 35 U.S.C. 141, or a new civil action against the PTO Director in the Eastern District of Virginia, section 145. Under section 145, the applicant must pay “[a]ll the expenses of the proceedings.” NantKwest filed a section 145 civil action after its patent application was denied. The Federal Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the PTO, which moved for reimbursement of expenses, including the pro-rata salaries of PTO attorneys and a paralegal who worked on the case. The Federal Circuit and the Supreme Court affirmed the denial of the motion, concluding that the statutory language referencing expenses was not sufficient to rebut the “American Rule” presumption that parties are responsible for their own attorney’s fees. Reading section 145 to permit an unsuccessful government agency to recover attorney’s fees from a prevailing party “would be a radical departure from longstanding fee-shifting principles adhered to in a wide range of contexts.” The phrase “expenses of the proceeding” would not have been commonly understood to include attorney’s fees at the time section 145 was enacted. The appearance of “expenses” and “attorney’s fees” together across various statutes indicates that Congress understands the terms as distinct and not inclusive of each other. View "Peter v. NantKwest, Inc." on Justia Law