Discretion to Authorize Hague Alternative Service on Foreign Defendant—it’s All About Time and Cost

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit denied a petition for a writ of mandamus, directing the US District Court for the Western District of Texas to dismiss multiple infringement actions for insufficient service of process and lack of personal jurisdiction where the plaintiff used alternative methods to effect service of process on a foreign defendant instead of the more conventional Hague Convention. Although the Court expressed reservations about the district court’s authorization of alternative service methods solely because of the Hague Convention’s slower and more expensive procedures, it found the decision to be within the district court’s discretion. In re: OnePlus Tech. (Shenzhen) Co., Ltd., Case No. 21-165 (Fed. Cir. Sept. 10, 2021) (non-precedential) (per curiam).

OnePlus is a Chinese consumer electronics manufacturing company. WSOU Investments d/b/a Brazos Licensing and Development is a non-practicing entity headquartered in Texas. Brazos filed five patent infringement actions against OnePlus and alleged that OnePlus had no place of business or employees in the United States. Although the People’s Republic of China is a signatory to the Hague Convention, Brazos decided not to attempt service on OnePlus by invoking the Hague Convention because of the burdens involved. Instead, Brazos requested that the district court grant leave under Fed. R. of Civ. Pro. 4(f)(3) to use alternative methods to effect service. Brazos made no showing that service under the Hague Convention had been tried and failed, would have been unlikely to succeed or was otherwise impracticable. The district court regarded the Hague Convention procedure as slow and expensive and granted the motion. Brazos served the complaint and summons on lawyers who represented OnePlus in the past and on OnePlus’s authorized agent for service in California.

OnePlus made a special appearance to challenge the sufficiency of the service and the district court’s jurisdiction over OnePlus. The district court rejected the challenge on the basis that Rule 4(f)(3) gave it discretion to order service on a foreign defendant by means other than those prescribed by the Hague Convention, and that the service was effective to grant the district court personal jurisdiction over OnePlus. OnePlus sought mandamus.

OnePlus’s mandamus petition requested that the Federal Circuit compel the district court to vacate its order authorizing alternative service and require that Brazos effect service pursuant to Hague Convention procedures. OnePlus argued that:

  • Brazos’s service was ineffective because it did not satisfy Texas state law.
  • As a result of the ineffective service, the district court lacked personal jurisdiction over OnePlus.
  • It was an abuse of discretion for the district court to authorize alternative service absent showing of a need to forego Hague Convention procedures.

OnePlus argued that the district court had jurisdiction over it only if OnePlus was subject to jurisdiction in Texas under the Texas long-arm statute. Because valid service under Texas law required the transmittal of documents abroad and triggered the Hague Convention (which Brazos did not use), OnePlus contended that there was no valid service and the district court therefore lacked personal jurisdiction over [...]

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Not on My Watch: Disclosure of Restored Goods’ Source Obviates Consumer Confusion

The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a ruling that a defendant’s use of a mark in connection with the sale of used goods did not create consumer confusion, finding that the district court adequately analyzed the relevant Polaroid factors and did not erroneously apply the 1947 Champion Spark Plug case. Hamilton Int’l Ltd. v. Vortic, LLC, Case No. 20-3369 (2d Cir. Sept. 14. 2021) (Cronan, J.)

Vortic is a watchmaker that specializes in the restoration and conversion of antique pocket watches into wristwatches. Hamilton International brought a trademark infringement suit against Vortic based on a watch that Vortic sold called the “The Lancaster.” The Lancaster name pays homage to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which is where the Hamilton Watch Company was originally located. The watch was made with restored “Railroad-Era” movements (the internal mechanism of the watch with the hands and face attached) that were originally produced by Hamilton. The Hamilton mark could be seen both on the antique face of the watch and through the see-through back on the internal workings. Vortic’s mark, as well as “The Lancaster” and a serial number, were located on a ring on the rear of the watch.

The district court focused on the Polaroid factors in its likelihood of consumer confusion analysis and on the issue of disclosure under Champion. The district court found that Vortic’s labeling and disclosure were compliant with Champion, that there was no evidence of actual confusion or bad faith and that the buyers of these antique watches were sophisticated purchasers. The district court found no likelihood of confusion and entered judgment for Vortic on all claims. Hamilton appealed.

The main issue on appeal was whether the district court erred in finding no likelihood of consumer confusion. To show a likelihood of consumer confusion, “[a] plaintiff must show ‘a probability of confusion, not a mere possibility’ affecting ‘numerous ordinary prudent purchasers.’”

The Second Circuit considered the district court’s application of Champion. In that case, the Supreme Court determined that keeping the “Champion” logo on refurbished spark plugs would not mislead consumers as the plugs were originally Champion plugs and had the terms “Repaired” or “Used” stamped on them, which provided full disclosure. The Court explained that the lesson from Champion is that when a refurbished “genuine product” is resold, “the seller’s disclosures and the extent of a product’s modifications are significant factors to consider” in any infringement analysis.

Hamilton argued that the repair of the Hamilton parts that went into The Lancaster was so extensive that Champion should not have been applied. The Second Circuit disagreed, noting that the only modification to the original movement was a replacement lever, and that it was clear to consumers that The Lancaster was an “antique pocket watch modified into a wristwatch rather than an entirely new product.”

Hamilton also unsuccessfully argued that the district court erred by not first using the Polaroid factors before turning to the Champion analysis. The Second Circuit explained that since the plaintiff bears the burden [...]

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De Minimis Defense Doesn’t Protect Minimal Use of Concededly Infringing Material

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant in a copyright case based on a “minimal usage” or de minimis use defense. Richard N. Bell v. Wilmott Storage Services, LLC, et al., Case Nos. 19-55882, -56181 (9th Cir. July 26, 2021) (Wardlaw, J.) (Clifton, J., and Choe-Groves, J., concurring).

Richard Bell took a photo of the Indianapolis skyline and published it on various websites. Eleven years later, he registered the photo with the US Copyright Office. Bell later conducted an online reverse image search of his photo to identify potential infringers and subsequently filed more than 100 copyright infringement lawsuits. One of the sites on which Bell found the photo was VisitUSA.com. The image was only available to those who had conducted a reverse image search or knew the precise web address to the photo. Wilmott Storage Services purchased VisitUSA.com in 2012. In 2018, Bell notified Wilmott that it was displaying the photo without his permission. Wilmott removed the photo in response to Bell’s request. In 2019, Wilmott continued to display a copy of the photo, but at a slightly different address than before. Wilmott explained that its webmaster was supposed to remove the photo but instead only changed the file name. Wilmott subsequently removed the photo.

Bell sued Wilmott for copyright infringement in 2018, asserting that Wilmott infringed his right to “display the copyrighted work publicly” by making it accessible to the public on Wilmott’s server. Assuming infringement, Wilmott filed for summary judgment based on the affirmative defenses of de minimis use, fair use and the statute of limitations. The district court granted summary judgment to Wilmott on the de minimis use defense. Although Wilmott conceded that an identical copy of the photo was hosted on its server, the district court found no infringement. Bell appealed.

The Ninth Circuit noted that it had not previously addressed the issue of whether one “publicly displays” a work where it is accessible only to members of the public who either possess the specific pinpoint address or who perform a particular type of online search—here, a reverse image search. Applying Ninth Circuit precedent from Perfect 10, the Court concluded that Wilmott publicly displayed the photo.

The Ninth Circuit also found that there was no place for an inquiry into whether there was de minimis copying because the “degree of copying” was total since the infringing work was an identical copy of the copyrighted photo. The Court explained that it and a majority of other circuits do not view the de minimis doctrine as a defense to infringement but rather as an answer to the inquiry whether an infringing work and copyrighted work are substantially similar so as to make the copying actionable. The Court reiterated that the de minimis defense applies to the amount of copying, not to the extent of the defendant’s use of the infringing work. The Court also explained that the de minimis copying defense is [...]

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NDA Sunset Provision Means Trade Secret Use May Not Be Misappropriation

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court ruling in a trade secret misappropriation case based on a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that resulted in an award of more than $60 million, ruling that any disclosures that occurred after the termination date of the NDA were not subject to misappropriation claims. BladeRoom Group Ltd. v. Emerson Electric Co., Case No. 19-16583 (9th Cir. Aug. 30, 2021) (Murphy, J.) (Rawlinson, J., concurring).

BladeRoom and Emerson compete for contracts to design and build data centers. In August 2011, the companies explored a potential sale of BladeRoom to Emerson. BladeRoom drafted an NDA governed by English law, and the parties signed it. Critically, the 12th paragraph of the NDA provided that “this agreement shall terminate on the date 2 years from the date hereof.” The potential acquisition ultimately fell through.

Not long after, Facebook began plans to build a data center in northern Sweden. BladeRoom pitched a design in July 2012, and Emerson pitched a design several months later. In October 2012, Facebook verbally approved Emerson’s design although it was only 10% complete. Almost a year later, Facebook contacted BladeRoom asking about updates to its proposal. In November 2013, Facebook selected Emerson’s proposal. Facebook and Emerson signed a design-build contract in March 2014, at which point BladeRoom learned about the design Emerson had pitched. BladeRoom sued Facebook and Emerson, alleging that Emerson had breached the NDA and misappropriated BladeRoom’s trade secrets.

The case was tried to a jury. During trial, BladeRoom settled with Facebook but not Emerson. Before closing arguments, Emerson proposed a jury instruction excluding information disclosed or used after August 2013 (i.e., after the NDA allegedly expired). The district court denied the instruction. BladeRoom then moved in limine to prohibit Emerson from arguing that the NDA permitted it to use BladeRoom’s information after August 2013. The district court granted the motion. The jury found Emerson liable and awarded $10 million in lost profits and $20 million in unjust enrichment damages but did not distinguish between the breach and misappropriation claims in making its award. The district court awarded $30 million in punitive damages and further awarded pre-judgment interest beginning on October 30, 2012, and $18 million in attorney’s and expert witness’ fees. Emerson appealed.

The Ninth Circuit first considered whether the NDA expired after two years. Applying English law, the Court held that it did based on a primarily textual analysis. However, the Court could not determine from the record the date on which the alleged breach/misappropriation had occurred. Accordingly, it vacated the judgment and remanded for a new trial.

The Ninth Circuit also discussed several issues in the appeal that would be relevant if Emerson was found liable on remand. The Court stated that the punitive damages award was not supported by the record where the jury did not distinguish between the breach and misappropriation claims because punitive damages are not available for breach of contract under California law. The Court also discussed prejudgment interest, observing [...]

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TTAB Judicial Appointments are Determined Constitutionally Sound

Addressing for the first time whether the Supreme Court of the United States’ recent decision in United States v. Arthrex, Inc. also applied to the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB), the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that it did not, upholding the constitutionality of TTAB judicial appointments and affirming the TTAB’s cancellation of the SCHIEDMAYER trademark. Piano Factory Group, Inc. v Schiedmayer Celesta GMBH, Case No. 20-1196 (Fed. Cir. Sept. 1, 2021) (Bryson, J.)

Schiedmayer Celesta is the remaining corporate entity from a centuries-old line of German keyboard instrument manufacturers that uses the SCHIEDMAYER trademark in connection with the sale of its products. Sweet 16 Musical Properties and Piano Factory Group (collectively, Piano Factory) operated Hollywood Piano retail outlets where it sold “no-name” pianos purchased from China that were affixed with “Schiedmayer” labels. The owner of Piano Factory, believing the SCHIEDMAYER mark had been abandoned, applied to register the SCHIEDMAYER mark, and the registration issued in 2007.

In 2015, Schiedmayer filed a petition to cancel Piano Factory’s registration, alleging that it falsely suggested a connection with Schiedmayer and, thus, violated Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act. After the TTAB granted the petition to cancel, Piano Factory appealed.

Between the time that the parties filed their appeal briefs and the Federal Circuit issued its decision, the Supreme Court issued its decision in United States v. Arthrex, holding that the appointment of Patent Trial & Appeal Board (PTAB) administrative judges violated the Appointments Clause of Article II of the Constitution. On appeal, Piano Factory argued that the appointment of TTAB administrative judges (specifically, the administrative judges who issued the decision Piano Factory was appealing) was likewise unconstitutional. However, the Court disagreed, citing language from the Arthrex decision that “effectively confirmed that . . . the statutory scheme governing TTAB decision-making is not subject to the Appointments Clause problem the Court identified with regard to the PTAB.”

Additionally, Piano Factory cited the Trademark Modernization Act of 2020 (TMA)—which explicitly addressed this issue—for support. Piano Factory argued that since the TMA was not enacted until after the TTAB’s decision to cancel the SCHIEDMAYER registration, its enactment indicated that the TTAB was previously flawed. Again, the Federal Circuit disagreed, stating “the 2020 legislation itself makes clear that it merely confirmed, and did not alter” the framework that was in place prior to the TMA.

Piano Factory also challenged the merits of the TTAB’s decision, including its application of the four-factor test for false association, which considers:

  1. Whether the challenged mark is identical or nearly identical to a name previously used by another person;
  2. Whether the mark would be understood as a unique and unmistakable reference to that person;
  3. Whether the person referenced by the challenged mark was connected with the applicant’s activities and
  4. Whether the earlier user’s name has sufficient fame such that a connection with applicant would be presumed when the contested mark was used to identify the applicant’s goods.

Piano Factory disputed the [...]

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