Too Little Too Late: No Tenable Misappropriation Claim Based on 11-Year-Old Prototype

In a dispute between an employer and a former employee, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed a district court’s grant of summary judgment against an employer asserting trade secret misappropriation and breach of implied-in-fact contract claims relating to an 11-year-old prototype developed by a former employee. The Court also affirmed the district court’s finding of litigation misconduct by the former employer but vacated the lower court’s award of attorneys’ fees, remanding the case for a more detailed justification for the considerable award. REXA, Inc. v. Chester, Case Nos. 20-2953; -3213; -2033 (7th Cir. July 28, 2022) (Wood, Hamilton, Brennan, JJ.)

Mark Chester is a former employee of Koso America, a manufacturer of hydraulic actuators. Chester participated in a 2002 project at Koso that sought to develop a new flow matching valve for Koso’s actuators. While the project team failed to design a new flow matching valve, they did manage to develop an experimental prototype of an actuator with solenoid valves. Koso abandoned the new design because of the improbability of commercial success, and the prototype was disassembled. Chester—who had never signed a confidentiality or employment agreement with Koso—resigned from Koso in 2003 and later joined MEA Inc. in 2012. In 2013, 11 years after developing the Koso prototype, Chester helped MEA design a new actuator with solenoid valves and an improved motor. MEA filed a patent application in 2017 claiming the actuator, and the US Patent & Trademark Office issued a notice of allowance in 2018 based on the improved motor limitations.

REXA, a successor company to Koso, sued Chester and MEA for misappropriation under the Illinois Trade Secrets Act (ITSA) and for breach of an implied-in-fact contract. REXA alleged that MEA and Chester misappropriated the 2002 designs by filing the 2017 patent application and by incorporating the 2002 designs into MEA’s Hawk brand actuator, and that Chester breached an implied-in-fact obligation to assign any patent rights associated with the 2017 application to REXA. Chester and MEA accused REXA of improper conduct during discovery after REXA appended a confidentiality agreement that Chester had never received to Chester’s 2002 bonus letter and used the manipulated document during Chester’s deposition. The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment. The district court ruled for Chester and MEA and awarded them almost $2.4 million in attorneys’ fees for REXA’s litigation misconduct. REXA appealed.

Misappropriation of Trade Secrets

The Seventh Circuit first considered the trade secret misappropriation claim, specifically whether REXA had identified a trade secret with enough specificity. The ITSA requires that a plaintiff “present a specific element, or combination of elements, that is unknown to the trade and was allegedly misappropriated.” Applying this standard, the Court found that REXA had not identified any protectable trade secrets because it had broadly asserted that the “2002 designs” qualified as trade secrets without explicitly identifying an element that was not well known in the industry.

The Seventh Circuit further concluded that even if REXA had identified a specific and protectable trade secret, [...]

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Rage against the Machine: Inventors Must Be Human

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit found that an artificial intelligence (AI) software system cannot be listed as an inventor on a patent application because the Patent Act requires an “inventor” to be a natural person. Thaler v. Vidal, Case No. 21-2347 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 5, 2022) (Moore, Taranto, Stark, JJ.)

Stephen Thaler develops and runs AI systems that generate patentable inventions, including a system that he calls his “Device for the Autonomous Bootstrapping of Unified Science” (DABUS). In 2019, Thaler sought patent protection for two of DABUS’s putative inventions by filing patent applications with the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO). Thaler listed DABUS as the sole inventor on both applications. The PTO found that the patent applications lacked valid inventorship and sent a Notice of Missing Parts requesting that Thaler identify a valid inventor. Thaler petitioned the director to vacate the notices. The PTO denied the petitions, explaining that a machine does not qualify as an inventor and that inventors on patent applications must be natural persons. Thaler then pursued judicial review in the district court. The district court agreed with the PTO, concluding that an “inventor” under the Patent Act must be an “individual,” and that the plain meaning of “individual” is a natural person. Thaler appealed.

The sole issue on appeal was whether an AI software system can be an “inventor” under the Patent Act. The Federal Circuit started with the statutory language of the Patent Act, finding that it expressly provides that inventors are “individuals.” The Court noted that while the Patent Act does not define “individual,” the Supreme Court has explained that the term “individual” refers to a human being unless there is some indication that Congress intended a different reading. The Federal Circuit also found that this result was consistent with its own precedent, which found that neither corporations nor sovereigns can be inventors; instead only natural persons can be inventors.

The Federal Circuit rejected Thaler’s policy argument that inventions generated by AI should be patentable to encourage innovation and public disclosure. The Court found that these policy arguments were speculative, lacked any basis in the text of the Patent Act, and were contrary to the unambiguous text of the Patent Act. The Court also rejected Thaler’s reliance on the fact that South Africa has granted a patent with DABUS as an inventor, explaining that the South African Patent Office was not interpreting the US Patent Act. The Court concluded that since Congress has determined that only a natural person can be an inventor, AI cannot be an inventor.

Practice Note: The Federal Circuit’s decision comes on the heels of a decision from the US Copyright Office Review Board finding that a work must be created by a human being to obtain a copyright. The Federal Circuit also noted that it was not confronted with the question of whether inventions made by human beings with the assistance of AI are eligible for patent protection.

Don’t Dew It: Second Circuit Cans Likelihood of Confusion Argument

The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed and vacated a district court’s preliminary injunction grant because the district court erred in assessing the strength of a trademark. RiseandShine Corporation v. PepsiCo, Inc., Case No. 21-2786 (2d Cir. July 22, 2022) (Leval, Chin, Menashi, JJ.)

Rise Brewing began selling canned coffee under the registered mark “RISE” in 2016. The registered mark consists of the word “rise” in large, red, regular capital letters with the words “Brewing Co.” below in a smaller, similar font on a horizontal line. The mark appears on every bottle of Rise Brewing’s canned coffee products.

In March 2021, PepsiCo launched a canned energy drink product under the mark “MTN DEW RISE ENERGY,” which contains the word “rise” on the top of each can, followed by the word “energy” running vertically up its side in a much smaller font and the MTN DEW house mark above the word “rise.”

Rise Brewing filed a complaint for trademark infringement and filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to enjoin PepsiCo from using or displaying the challenged in the market pending trial. The district court granted the motion, finding that Rise Brewing was likely to succeed on the merits regarding likelihood of confusion. PepsiCo appealed.

The Second Circuit explained that the party seeking a preliminary injunction over the use of a trademark can meet the likelihood of success prong of the preliminary injunction standard by showing that a significant number of consumers are likely to be misled or confused as to the source of the products in question. Here, the district court found that there would be a likelihood of reverse confusion—that consumers would mistake Rise Brewing’s coffee products (the prior user) as Mountain Dew products (the subsequent user). The Court disagreed and reversed, finding that the district court erred in the evaluation of the most important factor: strength of the mark.

The strength of a trademark is assessed based on either or both of two components:

  1. The degree to which it is inherently distinctive
  2. The degree to which it has achieved public recognition in the marketplace.

Although the Second Circuit agreed with the district court that the RISE trademark was a suggestive mark, it disagreed on the extent to which it was distinctive. The Court explained that “[t]he district court failed to note that the strong logical associations between ‘Rise’ and coffee represent weakness and place the mark at the low end of the spectrum of suggestive marks.” Because of the legal element in determination of the strength of a given mark, the district court’s mistake constituted a legal error.

The Second Circuit found that the lack of distinctiveness in using the term “rise” to describe coffee products can be demonstrated by the [...]

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PTO Issues Notice on Duties of Disclosure and Reasonable Inquiry

The US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) issued a notice on July 29, 2022, titled “Duties of Disclosure and Reasonable Inquiry During Examination, Reexamination, and Reissue, and for Proceedings Before the Patent Trial and Appeal Board.” The notice comes in response to US President Joe Biden’s July 9, 2021, executive order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy, and to a September 9, 2021, letter from Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Thom Tillis (R-NC), who requested that the PTO “take steps to reduce patent applicants’ making inappropriate conflicting statements in submissions to the [PTO] and other federal agencies.”

PTO Director Vidal explained in the notice that parties involved in proceedings before the PTO should not take a position about the patentability of the claims that is inconsistent with positions taken in submissions to other government agencies regarding the same subject matter. If a party to a PTO proceeding discovers that an earlier position taken in a submission to the PTO or another government agency was incorrect or inconsistent with other statements made by the party, the party must promptly correct the record.

When an examiner has a reasonable basis to conclude that an individual identified under 37 CFR 1.56(c) or any assignee has information that would aid in the examination of the application or treatment of some matter, the examiner may require submission of information that is not necessarily material to patentability. This requirement could include statements made or information submitted to other government agencies, such as the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA).

Any party presenting a paper to the PTO has a duty to perform an inquiry that is reasonable under the circumstances. This reasonable inquiry may comprise a review of documents that are submitted to or received from other government agencies, including the FDA. If any reviewed document is material to the patentability of a pending matter before the PTO, the party has a duty to submit the information to the PTO.

Each individual with a duty to disclose, or each party with a duty of reasonable inquiry, should ensure that statements made to the PTO and other government agencies, or any statements made on their behalf to other government agencies regarding the claimed subject matter, are consistent. Providing material information to other government agencies, including the FDA, while simultaneously withholding the same information from the PTO violates those duties.

Further, any individual with a duty to disclose, or any party with a duty of reasonable inquiry, should review documents it receives from other government agencies to determine whether the information should be submitted to the PTO. For example, a party receiving a paragraph IV certification related to a generic drug application (e.g., an Abbreviated New Drug Application (ANDA)) should review such documents to determine whether they are material to the patentability of any pending matters before the PTO. If any information that is part of the ANDA process is deemed material to patentability in a pending PTO matter, then such [...]

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In the Weeds? Humira “Patent Thicket” Isn’t an Antitrust Violation

The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed that welfare benefit plans that bought the drug Humira did not have valid antitrust claims against the patent owner. The Court found that amassing patents by itself is not enough to give rise to an antitrust claim, and that the welfare benefit plans would need to prove that the patents were invalid. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, et al. v. AbbVie Inc., et al., Case No. 20-2402 (7th Cir. Aug. 1, 2022) (Easterbrook, Wood, Kirsch, JJ.)

AbbVie owns a patent covering Humira, which is a drug used to treat arthritic and inflammatory diseases. Humira is not covered by the Hatch-Waxman Act because it is a biologic drug, rather than a synthetic drug. Biologics are covered by the Biologics Price Competition and Innovation Act (BPCIA), under which a competitor must ask the US Food and Drug Administration for permission to sell a “biosimilar” drug based on certain guidelines. From the first sale of the original drug, the competitor must wait 12 years to enter the market. If the original drug seller believes that a patent blocks competition and initiates litigation, the competitor is still free to sell its biosimilar drug. The competitor sells at risk of an adverse outcome in the litigation.

The original Humira patent expired in 2016, but AbbVie obtained 132 additional patents related to the drug. After the 12-year BPCIA requirement passed, none of AbbVie’s competitors chose to launch a biosimilar. Instead, competitors settled with AbbVie on terms to enter the US market in 2023. In exchange, AbbVie agreed that enforcement of all 132 of its patents would end in 2023 even if they were not set to expire.

Welfare benefit plans that pay for Humira on behalf of covered beneficiaries accused AbbVie of violating Sections 1 and 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act. The payors argued that AbbVie’s settlements with potential competitors established a conspiracy that restrained competition in violation of Section 1, and that AbbVie’s “patent thicket” allowed AbbVie to reap unlawful monopoly profits from Humira after expiration of the original patent in violation of Section 2. The district court dismissed the complaint. The payors appealed.

The issue on appeal with respect to Section 2 was whether the payors had to prove that all of AbbVie’s Humira-related patents were invalid. Under the Walker Process antitrust doctrine, a party may be liable for an antitrust violation if it knowingly asserts a fraudulently procured patent in an attempt to monopolize a market. The payors did not argue that all 132 of AbbVie’s patents were fraudulent. The Seventh Circuit reasoned that because the patent laws do not set a cap on the number of patents a person (or company) can hold, the payors would need to prove that each of AbbVie’s 132 Humira-related patents were invalid to succeed in showing a violation under Section 2. Not only did the payors fail to prove that all 132 patents were invalid, but they did not even offer to do so. [...]

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