What Do You Meme? TFW Commercial Use Outweighs Fair Use

The US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed a district court’s copyright infringement decision, finding that a congressional reelection campaign’s use of a popular meme to solicit donations was commercial in nature and therefore not fair use. Laney Griner v. King for Congress, Case No. 22-3623 (8th Cir. June 7, 2024) (Benton, Erickson, Kobes JJ.)

Laney Griner owns the copyright for the popular meme “Success Kid,” which is a photograph of then 11-month-old Sam Griner with his hand in a fist clenching sand at the beach.

Griner took the photograph in 2007. The photograph went on to become one of the first viral memes, with billions of internet users spreading the image with a variety of captions. Griner registered the copyright of the Success Kid meme in 2012 and has since licensed that photograph to many companies, including Virgin Mobile, Vitamin Water, Microsoft and Coca-Cola, for commercial use.

Steven King served as a congressional representative from Iowa from 2003 to 2021. During his 2020 reelection campaign, the King for Congress Committee, which supported the congressional campaign, posted the meme on its website, Facebook and Twitter in an effort to seek donations:

After requesting the removal of the posts to no avail, Griner filed a lawsuit for copyright infringement and violation of Sam’s privacy. The jury found that neither the committee nor the congressman violated Sam’s privacy, but it did find that the committee (but not the congressman) had “innocently” infringed Griner’s copyright. The jury awarded $750 in damages, which is the statutory minimum. The committee appealed.

The committee argued that its use of the meme was fair use under Section 107 of the Copyright Act. Under the Copyright Act, four factors define fair use:

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work

The Eighth Circuit found that the first factor weighed against the committee since the post clearly used the meme to call for donations and was undoubtedly commercial in nature. The commercial nature of the use voided the committee’s argument that the meme had been used millions, if not billions, of times without permission by users across the internet. Likewise, the “transformative elements” that the committee added (original text) were not persuasive enough to overcome this commercial nature. The Court found that the third factor also weighed against the committee since the “most substantial part of the work,” the “Success Kid himself,” was used in the committee’s post. The Court found that the fourth factor weighed in neither party’s favor, despite the [...]

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Fourth Estate Redux: Dismissal for Lack of Registration Not on the Merits

In the latest development of a complicated eight-year court battle regarding a copyright infringement claim, the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit vacated and remanded the district court’s dismissal on claim preclusion grounds. The Court concluded that dismissal for failure to register the copyright was not “on the merits,” and therefore preclusion did not apply. Foss v. Marvic Inc. et al., Case No. 23-1214 (1st Cir June 10, 2024) (Barron, C.J.; Lipez, Kayatta, JJ.)

In 2006, Cynthia Foss designed a brochure for Marvic, a purveyor of sunrooms, for $3,000. Foss’s grievance with Marvic began in 2016 when she discovered that Marvic had been using a modified version of that brochure without permission. Foss filed a copyright infringement claim in January 2018 demanding $264,000. She inaccurately alleged that she had applied to register the copyright for the brochure. Eight months later, Foss amended her complaint, falsely alleging that she had registered the brochure with the US Copyright Office in February 2018 when in fact she had only applied for registration.

The district court stayed the action pending the Supreme Court’s decision in Fourth Estate v. Wall-Street, which construed 17 U.S.C. § 411(a) to require registration before a copyright claimant may sue for infringement. After Fourth Estate was issued, the district court dismissed Foss’s copyright infringement claim because the Copyright Office had not acted on her application for copyright. Later, the Copyright Office granted Foss a copyright registration in the brochure. Rather than move for reconsideration of the dismissal of her claim in the first action, Foss filed an appeal, which she lost.

After losing the appeal, Foss filed a second copyright infringement complaint against Marvic based on the same facts as the first. Foss also filed an amended complaint naming Charter Communication. She sought a declaratory judgment that Charter was not entitled to assert a safe harbor defense under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA). Marvic and Charter filed motions to dismiss. In February 2023, the district court granted the motions, finding that “[b]ecause Foss’s prior copyright infringement claim against Marvic was dismissed with prejudice, [we] agree[d], for substantially the reasons stated in their supporting memorand[a], that her copyright claims . . . are barred by res judicata.” Foss appealed.

On the issue of claim preclusion, the First Circuit concluded that the first dismissal had not been a “final judgment on the merits” because it was based exclusively on the failure to satisfy the precondition of registration. The Court noted that it had ruled on this issue in Foss v. Eastern States Exposition, another copyright infringement action brought by Foss. The Court explained that, as it concluded in the Eastern States Exposition case, dismissal due to lack of prior registration is “too disconnected from the merits of the underlying claim” to be claim preclusive.

Marvic argued that the prior dismissal “with prejudice” constituted a final judgment on the merits and that the dismissal was “a sanction” based on Foss’s “repeatedly ignoring court directives [...]

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PTO Finalizes Rules Promoting Independence in PTAB Decision-Making

The US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) announced a final rule concerning pre-issuance internal circulation and review of decisions within the Patent Trial & Appeal Board. The new rules are designed to bolster the independence of administrative patent judge (APJ) panels when issuing decisions and increase transparency regarding Board processes. 89 Fed. Reg. 49808 (June 12, 2024).

The new rules amend and codify Title 37 of the Code of Federal Regulations (37 C.F.R. §§ 43.1 – 43.6) by adding Section 43 relating to Board proceedings pending under 37 C.F.R. §§ 41 and 42. The final rule was developed in response to a July 2022 request for comments concerning interim processes and standards in place since May 2022, and an October 2023 notice of proposed rulemaking and request for comments. The final rule codifies the interim processes set forth in Standard Operating Procedure 4 (SOP4), which replaced the standards in place since May 2022.

Under the new rules codified in §§ 43.3 and 43.4, prior to issuance of a panel decision, senior PTO management and non-management APJs (as defined in § 43.2) are barred from communicating, directly or through intermediaries, with any panel member (unless they were themselves panel members) regarding panel decisions. Limited communications are permitted for procedural status and generally applicable paneling guidance that doesn’t directly or otherwise influence the paneling or repaneling of any specific proceeding. The rules do not forbid a panel member from requesting input on a decision prior to issuance from non-panel senior APJs, however. The rules further stipulate that it is within the panel’s sole discretion to adopt any edits, suggestions or feedback from non-panel APJs.

The rule is effective July 12, 2024.

New Arguments Yield Same Unpatentability Outcome

On remand from the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in connection with inter partes review (IPR) proceedings, the Patent Trial & Appeal Board considered the petitioner’s reply arguments and evidence regarding the claim constructions that were first proposed in the patent owner’s response but again found that the claims were not unpatentable. Axonics, Inc. v. Medtronic, Inc., IPR2020-00712; -00680 (May 30, 2024) (Tartal, Jeschke, Dougal, APJ)

Axonics filed IPR petitions challenging two patents owned by Medtronic that are directed to the transcutaneous charging of implanted medical devices. In its petitions, Axonics did not propose any express claim constructions. In its preliminary response, Medtronic agreed that claim construction was not necessary. In its patent owner response, however, Medtronic – for the first time – advanced a new claim construction that differed from the interpretation of the relevant claims implied in Axonics’s claim charts. Axonics defended its own implicit construction but also offered new arguments and evidence that the prior art anticipated the patents even under the alternative construction. The Board adopted Medtronic’s new claim construction but refused to consider Axonics’s new arguments and evidence because they were first presented in the reply. The Board then found that Axonics failed to show by a preponderance of the evidence that the challenged claims were unpatentable. Axonics appealed.

Axonics did not dispute the new claim construction first introduced by Medtronic in its response and adopted by the Board; it argued only that the Board erred in refusing to consider its reply arguments and evidence under the new construction. The Federal Circuit agreed, concluding that in such a situation, “a petitioner must be given the opportunity in its reply to argue and present evidence of anticipation or obviousness under the new construction, at least where it relies on the same embodiments for each invalidity ground as were relied on in the petition.” The Court remanded for the Board to consider Axonics’s new arguments.

On remand, the Board considered Axonics’s new arguments and evidence that the challenged claims were unpatentable over the prior art under the new construction. It also considered Medtronic’s amended sur-reply. The Board again determined that none of the challenged claims were unpatentable. In its analysis, the Board pointed out that some of Axonics’s new arguments and evidence regarding what the prior art disclosed in light of the new claim construction were inconsistent with the arguments and evidence it initially offered in its petition. In particular, the Board observed that the declaration testimony of Axonics’s expert regarding the prior art, on which Axonics relied in its petition, did not support the new claim construction, even considering the expert’s supplemental declaration. The Board also rejected Axonics’s attempts in its post-remand brief to discredit Medtronic’s arguments as “untimely and wrong,” “incorrect” and “contradictory of the positions on infringement it has taken in district court.” Citing the Federal Circuit, the Board pointed out that in an IPR, the burden of persuasion to prove unpatentability by a preponderance of the evidence [...]

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PTO Collaborates With UK Counterpart to Address Standard-Essential Patents

On June 3, 2024, Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) Director Kathi Vidal and Chief Executive Officer of the UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO) Adam Williams signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) designed to tackle various issues related to standard-essential patents (SEPs).

SEPs are patents that have been declared essential to a particular technical standard. Common examples of technical standards with active SEP bases include cellular communication and other wireless standards, such as LTE, 5G and Wi-Fi. Standards are typically adopted by Standard Setting Organizations (SSOs). To have input on standard adoption, many SSOs require participants agree to license any patents that result from discussions with potential licensees on Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (FRAND) terms (See e.g., ETSI Intellectual Property Rights Policy).

But what are FRAND terms, and who gets to decide whether they issue? While individual patents are territorial (e.g., a US-issued patent is only enforceable in the United States), patent owners often obtain patent coverage in multiple jurisdictions. This can lead to challenges wherein a court in one jurisdiction may determine FRAND terms for a patent in that jurisdiction, which may then set or significantly influence the FRAND rate for the patent owner’s corresponding patents in other jurisdictions.

While the MOU is not public at this time, the PTO indicated that the MOU sets forth a framework for the following action items:

  • Cooperate on activities to facilitate collaboration and exchange of information on policy matters concerning SEPs to better ensure a balanced standards ecosystem.
  • Explore means to educate small- and medium-sized enterprises seeking to implement or contribute to the development of technical interoperability standards on FRAND terms.
  • Examine ways of improving transparency in the FRAND licensing of technical interoperability standards.
  • Engage in outreach to stakeholders to raise awareness of issues related to SEPs.
  • Discuss means to incorporate additional jurisdictions into the PTO and IPO’s activities concerning SEPs, including exploring a venue for broader discussions.

The agreement remains in place through June 3, 2029. PTO Director Vidal emphasized that “[t]his important collaboration with UKIPO will help us work together toward a fair and balanced international standard essential patent ecosystem that benefits all businesses in our two countries, including small and medium-sized enterprises and new market entrants.”