Hit the Brakes: Experimental Use, Enhanced Damages Determinations Require Redo

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed and remanded a district court decision regarding experimental use under 35 U.S.C. § 102(b) and the application of enhanced damages based on an allegedly flawed noninfringement and invalidity opinion. Sunoco Partners Mktg. & Terminals L.P. v. U.S. Venture, Inc., Case Nos. 20-1640; -1641. (Fed. Cir. Apr. 29, 2022) (Prost, Reyna, Stoll, JJ.)

Sunoco sued Venture for infringement of four patents related to blending butane into gasoline. Venture argued that certain patent claims were invalid because they were subject to the on-sale bar of 35 U.S.C. § 102(b). The district court found that the sale at issue was primarily for experimentation and that the on-sale bar did not apply. Venture also argued that certain claim terms required measuring the actual vapor pressure of the butane and gasoline, but the district court rejected this argument. The district court found infringement and awarded Sunoco $2 million in damages, which it trebled to $6 million after finding that Venture lacked a good faith belief of invalidity or noninfringement because the legal opinion Venture relied upon was flawed. Venture appealed.

On appeal, Venture challenged numerous issues, including the district court’s rejection of its on-sale bar defense, construction of two claim terms and decision to enhance damages.

The Federal Circuit first addressed the district court’s finding that the on-sale bar did not apply to certain claims of two of the asserted patents. Reviewing de novo, the Court applied the Supreme Court’s 2019 Helsinn v. Teva decision, which requires that the on-sale bar applies if the invention was the subject of a commercial sale and  ready for patenting. Analyzing the first prong, the Court looked to the contract language of the sale at issue. The inventor’s company offered to sell and install its butane blending technology at a customer’s fuel terminal more than one year before filing the patent application. The terms of the agreement required that the customer commit to purchasing at least 500,000 barrels of butane as consideration for the installation of the fuel mixing system. The Court noted that this agreement expressly described the transaction as a “sale” and did not reference any experimental purpose.

The Federal Circuit was not swayed by the lower court’s view that the contract did not require the customer to pay for the system directly, finding that a commitment to buy product in the future constituted a sale. The Court also gave little weight to the preinstallation testing terms of the agreement, finding that those tests were not experiments, but rather tests to confirm that the equipment was operating as contractually promised. Additional contract terms further cemented the Court’s view that this transaction was a sale, including language that the technology had already been “developed” and that title to the equipment transferred to the customer. The Court concluded that the sale of the system to the customer was not primarily for experimentation. The Court reversed the district court’s experimental-use determination and vacated its infringement determination, directing [...]

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Ninth Circuit Once Again Preserves Competitor’s Data-Scraping Rights

On remand from the Supreme Court of the United States, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reaffirmed its own 2019 opinion that preliminarily enjoined a professional networking platform from denying a data analytics company access to publicly available profiles. HiQ Labs, Inc. v. LinkedIn Corporation, Case No. 17-16783, (9th Cir., Apr. 18, 2022) (Wallace, Berzon, Berg (sitting by designation) JJ.).

Previously, the Supreme Court had granted certiorari in this case, but subsequently vacated the judgment and remanded back to the Ninth Circuit for further consideration in view of its  2021 decision in Van Buren v. United States. In Van Buren, the Supreme Court attempted to clarify the reach of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 (CFAA), holding that authorized computer access for arguably improper purposes likely does not constitute a violation of the CFAA. On remand, the Ninth Circuit concluded that Van Buren reinforced its determination that hiQ had raised “serious questions” about whether LinkedIn may invoke the CFAA to preempt hiQ’s claim of tortious interference.

HiQ is a data company that sells “people analytics” focused on predictive employee data. HiQ’s data is largely obtained by scraping public LinkedIn profiles with automated bots. In 2017, LinkedIn sent a demand letter to hiQ asserting that hiQ’s scraping activity was in violation of the CFAA, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the California penal code and common law. HiQ immediately filed suit seeking injunctive relief and a declaratory judgment that LinkedIn could not lawfully invoke the asserted claims. Granting hiQ’s motion for the preliminary injunction, the district court ordered LinkedIn to remove, and to refrain from implementing, any technical barriers to hiQ’s access to the LinkedIn public profiles.

The Ninth Circuit stated that a plaintiff seeking a preliminary injunction must establish the following:

  • It is likely to succeed on the merits.
  • It is likely to suffer irreparable harm absent the injunction.
  • The balance of equities tips in its favor.
  • The injunction is in the public interest.

This analysis required the Ninth Circuit to focus only on whether hiQ had raised serious questions on the merits of the factual and legal issues presented. The Ninth Circuit’s re-examination of these factors was nearly identical to its 2019 holding.

Starting with irreparable harm, the Ninth Circuit found that the survival of hiQ’s business was threatened since it depends on being able to access public LinkedIn member profiles. The Court also agreed, once again, with the district court’s determination that the balance of the equities tipped in hiQ’s favor. The Court found that the privacy interests of individuals who have opted to maintain a public LinkedIn profile did not outweigh hiQ’s interests in continuing its business. On this factor, the Court noted that “little evidence” suggested that LinkedIn users who choose to make their profiles public actually maintain an expectation of privacy with respect to publicly posted information. The Court also noted that LinkedIn does not own its users’ data, since users retain [...]

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Robotic Skepticism May Not Trump Motivation to Combine

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit vacated and remanded a Patent Trial & Appeal Board (Board) decision finding the challenged claims patentable because the Board impermissibly rested its motivation-to-combine analysis on evidence of general skepticism in the field of invention. Auris Health, Inc. v. Intuitive Surgical Operations, Case No. 21-1732 (Fed. Cir. Apr. 29, 2022) (Dyk, Prost, JJ.) (Reyna, J., dissenting).

Intuitive owns a patent that describes an improvement over earlier robotic surgery systems that allows surgeons to remotely manipulate surgical tools using a controller. The patent focuses on solving the problem of swapping surgical tools by implementing a pulley system that allows tools to be swapped in and out more quickly. Auris petitioned for inter partes review (IPR) of the patent, arguing that a combination of two references disclosed every limitation of the challenged claims. Auris further argued that a skilled artisan would be motivated to combine the references to decrease the number of assistants needed during surgery. While the Board agreed that the combination of the two references disclosed every limitation of the challenged claims, it found that a person of ordinary skill in the art would not be motivated to combine the references because of general skepticism from surgeons “about performing robotic surgery in the first place.” Auris appealed.

The Federal Circuit began by explaining that the motivation-to-combine inquiry asks whether a skilled artisan “not only could have made but would have been motivated to make the combinations . . . of prior art to arrive at the claimed invention.” The Court also explained that as to the “‘would have’ question, ‘any need or problem known in the field of endeavor at the time of invention and addressed by the patent can provide a reason for combining the elements in the manner claimed.’”

The Federal Circuit concluded that generic industry skepticism about robotic surgery cannot, on its own, preclude a finding of a motivation to combine. The Court explained that although industry skepticism can play a role as a secondary consideration in an obviousness finding, such evidence must be specific to the invention and not simply the field as a whole. The Court concluded that the Board’s motivation-to-combine determination was based almost exclusively on evidence of general skepticism. Thus, the Court vacated the decision and remanded the case, directing the Board to examine the evidence using the correct obviousness criteria.

Judge Reyna issued a dissenting opinion in which he disagreed as to whether  the Federal Circuit should implement a rule that general skepticism cannot  support a finding of no motivation to combine. Judge Reyna expressed concern that the majority opinion could be understood to create an inflexible, rigid rule that the Board cannot consider evidence of skepticism toward the invention , including whether that skepticism would have dissuaded a skilled artisan from making the proposed combination. Judge Reyna also argued that notwithstanding the majority opinion, the Board did not rely solely on general skepticism, but rather provided additional explanation as to why the “no [...]

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The Perils of Falling in Love

The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a lawsuit that sought a declaratory judgment on the basis that a notice of termination of copyright assignment under 17 U.S.C. § 203 did not validly terminate a 1983 grant of rights in the copyright. Valentina M. Peretti Acuti, et al. v. Authentic Brands Group, LLC, et al., Case No. 21-2174 (2d Cir. May 4, 2022) (Livingston, C.J.; Lynch, Lohier, JJ.)

Hugo Peretti co-wrote “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” a ballad popularized by Elvis Presley in 1961, and registered the composition with the US Copyright Office the same year. In 1983, Peretti, his wife and his daughters transferred their contingent rights and interest in the renewal term of the copyright to Julian and Jean Aberbach, predecessors-in-interest to Authentic Brands. Under the Copyright Act of 1976 (1976 Act), the renewal rights would not vest until the original term of the copyright expired in 1989 (28 years after the copyright was registered, under the Copyright Act of 1909, which applied to the initial term of the copyright because of its registration in 1961). Peretti died in 1986, before the renewal rights vested. His family registered the renewal of the copyright in 1989.

In 2014, Peretti’s widow and his daughter Valentina served a notice on Authentic Brands to terminate the 1983 assignment under 17 U.S.C. § 203. Section 203 provides for the right to terminate a grant executed by the author at any time during a five-year period beginning at the end of 35 years from the date of execution of the grant. Authentic Brands contested the effectiveness of the termination, and Valentina filed a lawsuit seeking a declaratory judgment that the termination was properly effectuated. The district court dismissed the claim, holding that Valentina had no right to terminate the assignment because the rights to the renewal term that were transferred were those of Valentina and her mother, which had vested upon expiration of the original copyright term. The district court held that § 203 provides termination rights only to post-1978 grants executed by an author and, therefore, Peretti’s widow and daughter’s rights to the renewal were not subject to termination under that provision. Valentina appealed.

The Second Circuit began with a discussion of § 203 of the Copyright Act, which applies only to grants executed by the author on or after January 1, 1978. The Court noted that the appeal hinged on the meaning of “executed by the author.” The 1976 Act provides that execution of a transfer of a copyright is not valid unless an instrument of conveyance is in writing and signed by the owner of the rights conveyed. Thus, as the Second Circuit explained, a grant “executed by the author” is a grant that is documented in writing, is signed by the author and conveys rights owned by the author.

Turning to the Peretti 1983 assignment, the Second Circuit explained that at the time the assignment was executed, ownership of the copyright in the composition [...]

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Over My Dead Body: Defendant Can’t “Wait Until He Dies” to Pay Arbitration Award

The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed the district court’s interpretation of an arbitration award, finding that the defendant could not “wait until he dies” to pay a portion of the damages award. Nano Gas Techs., Inc. v. Roe, Case Nos. 21-1809; -1822 (7th Cir. Apr. 25, 2022) (Rovner, St. Eve, Jackson-Akiwumi, JJ.)

Clifton Roe invented a nozzle that disperses gases into liquids. Roe assigned the invention to Nano Gas as part of a collaboration agreement under which Roe received 20% equity and a board seat. The agreement also provided for a salary that was subject to Nano Gas’s ability to raise capital and Roe’s success in developing the invention at Nano Gas’s facility. The parties’ relationship deteriorated after the collaboration failed to produce the desired results. Roe ultimately took the machine and related intellectual property created by another Nano Gas employee and continued developing the product on his own. Arbitration ensued.

The arbitrator concluded that Roe did not have the right to remove the machine and related intellectual property from Nano Gas’s facility. The arbitrator determined that Roe should pay Nano Gas for the financial harm it suffered but also found that Roe deserved compensation for his work on the technology. In his award, the arbitrator indicated that he had initially considered giving Roe a royalty on future profits but declined to do so because Roe was a shareholder in Nano Gas and could benefit financially from the invention’s future success. The arbitrator offset Nano Gas’s $1.5 million damages award with an award to Roe of $1 million and ordered Roe to pay the $500,000 offset “in such manner as Roe chooses.” Roe was also required to return the related intellectual property or pay Nano Gas $150,000.

Nano Gas sued to enforce the award, and the district court entered judgment for $650,000 ($500,000 for the offset and $150,000 for the intellectual property). Nano Gas then filed a turnover motion for Roe’s Nano Gas stock, valued at $117,000. Roe argued that the arbitration award protected his status as a shareholder and allowed him to pay the damages “in such manner as [he] chooses.” Roe planned to pay the award with dividends from his stock and maintained that he could “wait until he die[s]” to satisfy the debt. The district court denied Nano Gas’s turnover motion, finding that Roe was entitled to remain a shareholder and could pay both awards “in such a manner as Roe chooses.” Nano Gas filed a motion to reconsider, and the court amended its order to require Roe to either turn over the stock or identify other assets to satisfy the $150,000 award. As to the remaining $500,000, the district court found that Roe could still choose how and when to pay that portion of the award. Both parties appealed.

The Seventh Circuit first addressed Roe’s argument that the arbitration award entitled him to remain a shareholder. The Court observed that the award did not stipulate that Roe would remain a shareholder indefinitely [...]

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