After Supreme Court Remand, Copyright Infringement Claims Upheld in View of Registrant’s Unknown Inaccuracies

In February 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States held in Unicolors, Inc. v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz, L.P., that lack of either factual or legal knowledge on the part of a copyright holder can excuse an inaccuracy in the holder’s registration under the Copyright Act’s safe-harbor provision, 17 U.S.C. §411(b)(1), which governs the effect of inaccurate information in a copyright application. In light of this decision, the Supreme Court remanded the copyright dispute between textile design company Unicolors and global fast-fashion retail giant H&M Hennes & Mauritz to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit for further proceedings on the issue of whether Unicolors held a valid copyright in a 2011 textile design asserted in its copyright infringement claim against H&M. On remand, the Ninth Circuit concluded that under the correct standard confirmed by the Supreme Court, Unicolors held a valid copyright registration because the factual inaccuracies in its application were excused by the safe-harbor provision. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the prior jury verdict against H&M for copyright infringement and remanded with respect to the issue of damages only. Unicolors, Inc. v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz, L.P., Case Nos. 18-56253; -56548 (9th Cir. Nov. 10, 2022) (Bea, Bade, McCalla, JJ.)

The Copyright Act safe-harbor provision saves a copyright registration from invalidity when the application contains errors, except when the copyright registrant knowingly transmitted inaccurate material facts to the US Copyright Office. After the Supreme Court made it clear that “[l]ack of knowledge of either fact or law can excuse an inaccuracy in a copyright registration,” the Ninth Circuit was charged with determining whether Unicolors submitted its copyright application with knowledge that the information therein was factually inaccurate and with knowledge that the application failed to comply with the specific governing legal requirements. The Court first analyzed the validity of Unicolors’s asserted copyright registration, then addressed the remaining issues raised by H&M on appeal.

The Ninth Circuit’s first step in the validity assessment was to determine whether Unicolors’s application did, in fact, contain an inaccuracy. As in its prior decision, the Court concluded that the application was inaccurate because Unicolors registered a collection of 31 separate fabric designs as a single-unit publication when those 31 works were not initially published as a singular bundled collection, as required under the Copyright Act.

The second step of the Ninth Circuit’s inquiry looked at whether Unicolors submitted its copyright application knowing that it contained errors. This is where the Court departed from its prior decision and affirmed the district court’s decision regarding the validity of the registration. Specifically, the Court found that the single-unit registration issue was an unsettled question of law at the time of Unicolors’s application, such that Unicolors did not know that it submitted an application containing false information because it lacked the requisite knowledge of inaccuracy and lacked an intent to defraud the Copyright Office. Finding Unicolors’s copyright registration valid, the Court determined that Unicolors could maintain its copyright infringement claim against H&M.

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Not So Clean: Federal Circuit Upholds Trade Dress Preliminary Injunction, Finds Defenses Improperly Plead

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld a “narrow” preliminary injunction in a trade dress case, finding that the opponent of a registered configuration mark failed to prove its lack of secondary meaning and functionality defenses. SoClean, Inc. v. Sunset Healthcare Solutions, Inc., Case No. 21-2311 (Fed. Cir. Nov. 9, 2022) (Newman, Lourie, Prost, JJ.)

SoClean manufactures Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machines. SoClean sued Sunset—a former distributor of SoClean products—for patent infringement and later added trademark infringement claims. At issue in this appeal was a single SoClean mark “for the configuration of replacement filters for its sanitizing devices.”

SoClean requested a preliminary injunction to stop Sunset from making or selling allegedly infringing CPAP filters. The district court granted the injunction but narrowly tailored the injunction to only enjoin Sunset from selling its filter cartridges without Sunset’s own brand name attached to the filter drawing so that customers would not falsely believe they were buying SoClean products. Sunset appealed.

While a party seeking preliminary injunction must prove all four eBay elements, this appeal focused on just one: “likelihood of success on the merits.” Sunset argued that the district court abused its discretion in finding that SoClean would likely defeat Sunset’s lack of secondary meaning defense and its functionality defense.

After noting that the parties agreed that SoClean’s trade dress was protectable only upon a showing that it had obtained secondary meaning, the Federal Circuit divided the secondary meaning issue into two subparts:

  1. Whether the district court should have questioned the validity of SoClean’s registration in light of Sunset’s evidence
  2. Whether the district court held Sunset to an improperly high standard of proof.

As to the first issue, the Court noted that federal registration is prima facie evidence of a mark’s validity. When, as here, the challenged mark was registered fewer than five years prior, the burden shifts from plaintiff to defendant, such that the defendant must rebut the presumption of validity. Sunset acknowledged that it had this burden, but its arguments to the district court focused only on the US Patent & Trademark Office’s decision to grant SoClean’s registration. The Court rebuffed that argument, noting that “scrutinizing the application process and deciding whether the trademark examiner was correct to issue the registration in the first place is the opposite” of the statutory presumption of validity.

Next, the Federal Circuit addressed Sunset’s standard of proof argument. The Court acknowledged that the district court misstated the law by suggesting that there was a “vigorous evidentiary requirement” on the challenging party, instead of simply a “preponderance of the evidence.” However, the Court also noted that the district court considered Sunset’s lack of secondary meaning evidence to be “equivocal, at best,” which “plainly fails to satisfy a preponderance-of-the-evidence standard.” Therefore, the Court judged the error to be harmless.

The Federal Circuit thus affirmed the finding that SoClean would likely defeat Sunset’s secondary meaning challenges.

The Federal Circuit next turned [...]

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Message to Judge Albright: Venue Motions Are First Order of Business

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit vacated a scheduling order from the US District Court for the Western District of Texas and directed the court to postpone fact discovery and other substantive proceedings until it considered a motion for transfer. In re: Apple Inc., Case No. 22-162 (Fed. Cir. Nov. 8, 2022) (Reyna, J.) The Federal Circuit ordered that Apple’s motion to transfer must proceed expeditiously as the first order of business, precluding fact discovery and other substantive matters. The Court has repeatedly scolded Judge Albright for his refusal to transfer patent cases out of the Western District of Texas.

Aire Technology sued Apple for patent infringement in October 2021. In April 2022, Apple moved to transfer the action to the US District Court for the Northern District of California, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a). During venue discovery, Apple submitted declarations by its employees, offered to make the declarants available for deposition, and stated non-opposition to a “reasonable continuance” of the transfer proceedings. Judge Albright granted Apple’s motion but sua sponte ordered the parties to complete fact discovery (which the court extended by 30 weeks) followed by another six weeks of rebriefing before he would rule on Apple’s request to transfer. Apple filed a petition for mandamus with the Federal Circuit seeking an order to vacate the district court’s scheduling order and promptly rule on the transfer motion, staying all proceedings on the merits until the transfer was resolved.

Apple argued that the district court abused its discretion in ordering the parties to complete 30 more weeks of fact discovery and six weeks of rebriefing the issue to decide on Apple’s transfer request. Apple noted that by the time the district court considered Apple’s motion, a full year would have elapsed since Apple initially sought the transfer, fact discovery would be completed, the parties’ infringement and invalidity contentions would be served, the asserted claims and prior art references would be narrowed, and the parties would have exchanged preliminary trial exhibits and witness lists.

The Federal Circuit agreed with Apple that the district court’s scheduling order went too far. The Court stated that “it is a clear abuse of discretion to require the parties to expend additional party and court resources litigating the substantive matters of the case while Apple’s motion to transfer unnecessarily lingers on the docket.” The Court noted that Aire consented to resolving Apple’s transfer motion at any time, provided that no stay interfered with discovery, claim construction proceedings or preparation of the case for trial.

The Federal Circuit disagreed with the district court’s view that delaying the decision until after full fact discovery and rebriefing could reduce “speculation” and “allow the parties to provide the court with the best evidence for ruling on a motion to transfer.” The Court stated that discovery on the transfer motion itself was sufficient to allow a decision of that motion, especially because the parties agreed that further venue discovery was unnecessary. The Federal Circuit ordered the district [...]

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Another Kind of Term Limit: Delay Resulting from After-Allowance Amendments Deducted from PTA

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the US Patent & Trademark Office’s (PTO) decision on a patent term adjustment (PTA), finding that it was appropriate to deduct days from a patent term when the applicant files an amendment after notice of allowance and could have completed prosecution earlier by withdrawing the amendment or abstaining from filing it in first instance. Eurica Califorrniaa v. Vidal, Case No. 22-1640 (Fed. Cir. Nov. 7, 2022) (Lourie, Dyk, Hughes, JJ.) (per curiam) (non-precedential).

Eurica Califorrniaa is the sole inventor of a patent application entitled “nondestructive means of ectopic pregnancy management,” which was filed on March 15, 2014. Near the close of an extended patent prosecution, the examiner identified minor additional changes to the claim language of the patent application that would place it in position for allowance. The examiner unilaterally made the amendments and provided Califorrniaa a notice of allowance. In response, Califorrniaa requested an interview with the examiner and provided a list of further proposed amendments that included changes to the examiner’s amended claim limitations as well as substantive changes unrelated to the Examiner’s Amendments. Following the interview, Califorrniaa formally submitted his proposed amendments for the examiner’s consideration. As a result, the PTO deducted 51 days from the adjusted patent term of the patent to account for the time it took the examiner to consider and accept Califorrniaa’s post-allowance amendments. Califorrniaa appealed the PTO’s calculations, first to the district court (which affirmed the PTO) and then to the Federal Circuit.

The PTO may extend the nominal 20-years-from-filing patent terms to account for each day of delay attributable to the PTO, minus the number of days of delay attributable to an applicant’s failure to engage in reasonable efforts to conclude prosecution. Congress has granted the PTO authority to define when this “reasonable efforts” standard is not met, and the PTO has created regulations to address the issue. In 2019, the Federal Circuit issued its decision in Supernus v. Iancu, finding that the PTO failed to properly consider whether the applicant reasonably engaged in efforts to conclude prosecution. In response, the PTO adjusted its regulations to distinguish between post-allowance amendments expressly requested by the PTO and those voluntarily made by the applicant, and to change the relevant timeframe for the calculation of a reduction in PTA. The PTO’s regulations state, in part, that an applicant’s decision to amend their patent application after the examiner has issued a notice of allowance is not a reasonable effort to conclude prosecution.

Unlike its ruling in Supernus, where no identifiable effort to conclude prosecution existed, here the Federal Circuit agreed with the PTO’s finding that Califorrniaa could have, at any time, withdrawn his post-allowance amendments and accepted the examiner’s amendments to conclude prosecution. As such, an “identifiable effort” existed by which Califorrniaa could have avoided additional delay and concluded prosecution. Therefore, the Court affirmed the 51-day deduction of the patent term.

The Federal Circuit also found that the PTO’s post-Supernus updates to [...]

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Up in Smoke: TTAB Dismisses E-Cigarette Opposition, Provides Guidance for Effective Evidence and Testimony

In a precedential opinion, the Trademark Trial & Appeal Board (Board) dismissed an opposition filed against an application for registration of a logo mark containing the word “SMOKES,” finding no likelihood of confusion with the opposer’s registered mark SMOK. The Board cited the dissimilarity of the marks and the weakness of the common mark element SMOK, as well as a lack of evidence that the parties’ trade channels overlapped. Shenzhen IVPS Technology Co. Ltd. v. Fancy Pants Products, LLC, Opp. No. 91263919 (Oct. 31, 2022) (precedential) (Goodman, Pologeorgis, English, ATJ). The decision was rendered without a brief, testimony or evidence filed by the trademark applicant.

Fancy Pants Products filed an application to register a logo mark (depicted above) that included the stylized word “SMOKES.” The application record disclaimed “smokes,” meaning that Fancy Pants conceded that the word “smokes” was not inherently distinctive for its applied-for goods: “[c]igarettes containing tobacco substitutes … with a delta-9 THC concentration of not more than 0.3% on a dry weight basis,” i.e., a description for hemp-derived products eligible for federal registration in accordance with the 2018 Farm Bill. Shenzhen IVPS Technology opposed registration of Fancy Pants’ mark on the ground of likelihood of confusion with Shenzhen’s alleged rights in the trademark SMOK. In support of the opposition, Shenzhen pleaded ownership of 11 registered SMOK and SMOK-variant marks for electronic cigarettes, parts and components (among other goods) and related retail services.

Fancy Pants did not take testimony or introduce any evidence during its testimony period, nor did it file a brief. The Board noted, however, that Fancy Pants was not required to make these submissions because Shenzhen bore the burden of proving its entitlement to a statutory cause of action and its trademark “likelihood of confusion” claim by a preponderance of the evidence.

The Board first looked at what trademark rights Shenzhen could properly rely on in the opposition proceeding in view of the rights pleaded. As a result of Shenzhen’s errors in the presentation of its trademark registrations into the record with respect to verifying the current status and title of the registrations, the Board found that 10 of Shenzhen’s 11 pleaded trademark registrations were not properly made of record. Nevertheless, Shenzhen was allowed to rely on common law rights for these 10 SMOK-variant trademarks since Fancy Pants failed to object to Shenzhen’s evidence of common law use.

Having determined the scope of the trademark rights at issue, the Board turned to the issue of priority in Shenzhen’s alleged trademarks. Priority over Fancy Pants’ mark was not at issue with respect to Shenzhen’s one properly pleaded §2(f) trademark registration for the SMOK mark that was made of record (and the goods and services covered thereby). As to Shenzhen’s common law rights in its alleged family of the other 10 SMOK-variant marks, the Board explained that Shenzhen first had to establish that it even owned a “family” of marks—i.e., marks that share a “recognizable common characteristic” [...]

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