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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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Injunctive Relief Available Even Where Laches Bars Trademark Infringement, Unfair Competition Damage Claims

The US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit affirmed a district court’s conclusion that laches barred an advertising and marketing company’s claims for monetary damages for trademark infringement and unfair competition, but remanded the case for assessment of injunctive relief to protect the public’s interest in avoiding confusion between two similarly named companies operating in the advertising sector. Pinnacle Advertising and Marketing Group, Inc. v. Pinnacle Advertising and Marketing Group, LLC, Case No. 19-15167 (11th Cir. Aug. 2, 2021) (Branch, J.)

Pinnacle Advertising and Marketing Group (Pinnacle Illinois) is an Illinois-based company and owner of two registered trademarks including the name “Pinnacle.” Pinnacle Illinois learned of a Florida-based company operating under almost the same name that was also in the advertising and marketing space—Pinnacle Advertising and Marketing Group (Pinnacle Florida) —through potential clients and a magazine’s accidental conflation of the two unrelated companies. Several years later, Pinnacle Illinois sued Pinnacle Florida for trademark infringement, unfair competition and cybersquatting. Pinnacle Florida filed a counterclaim seeking to cancel Pinnacle Illinois’s trademark registrations and also alleged that Pinnacle Illinois’s claims were barred by the doctrine of laches.

Following a jury trial, the district court granted Pinnacle Florida’s motion for judgment as a matter of law on Pinnacle Illinois’s cybersquatting claim. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Pinnacle Illinois on its claims for trademark infringement and unfair competition, awarding Pinnacle Illinois $550,000 in damages. The district court then granted Pinnacle Florida’s motion for judgment as a matter of law on its laches defense, concluding that Pinnacle Illinois’s trademark infringement and unfair competition claims were barred by laches because it waited more than four years to bring suit after it should have known that it had a potential infringement claim against Pinnacle Florida. The district court also cancelled Pinnacle Illinois’s registrations because it concluded that Pinnacle Illinois’s marks were merely descriptive and lacked secondary meaning. Pinnacle Illinois appealed.

Pinnacle Illinois argued that the district court abused its discretion in finding that Pinnacle Illinois’s claims were barred by laches, and that even if laches did bar Pinnacle Illinois’s claims for money damages, the district court should have considered whether injunctive relief was proper to protect the public’s interest in avoiding confusion between the two companies. Pinnacle Illinois also argued that the district court erred when it cancelled its registrations without regard to the jury’s findings of distinctiveness and protectability or the presumption of distinctiveness afforded to its registered marks.

The 11th Circuit found that the district court did not abuse its discretion in determining that laches barred Pinnacle Illinois from bringing its trademark infringement and unfair competition claims for monetary damages. Pinnacle Illinois sued after the Florida four-year statute of limitations had passed, and the Court found that the company was not excused for its delay because it did not communicate with Pinnacle Florida about the infringement until it filed suit. Pinnacle Florida also suffered economic prejudice because it invested significant time and money, including around $2 million, in developing its business under [...]

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Fairness Is the Limit for Asserting False Advertising Claims

Addressing whether Lanham Act claims for false advertising or false association under § 43(a) (15 USC § 1125(a)) are subject to a statute of limitations, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit concluded that the sole time limit on bringing such claims is the equitable doctrine of laches. Belmora LLC v. Bayer Consumer Care AG, Case No. 18-2183 (4th Cir. Feb. 2, 2021) (Floyd, J.)

The facts of the underlying dispute are straightforward. Bayer has sold the pain reliever naproxen as FLANAX in Mexico since 1972 and in the United States as ALEVE. Belmora began selling naproxen under the name FLANAX in the United States in 2004, where it used similar packaging and described the drug as one sold successfully in Mexico. Both companies tried to register the mark with the US Patent & Trademark Office, where proceedings unfolded. Ultimately, in April 2014, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board cancelled Belmora’s trademark registration, finding that Belmora had blatantly misused FLANAX by drawing on the popularity of Bayer’s Mexican product. Two months later, Bayer brought claims against Belmora under § 43(a) of the Lanham Act and California unfair competition law in the US District Court for the Central District of California. The suit was transferred to the Eastern District of Virginia, where Belmora moved to dismiss, arguing that § 43(a) and state law claims were barred by the statute of limitations. Bayer replied that § 43(a) had no statute of limitations, and that the time to bring the state law claims had been tolled during the Board’s proceedings. The district court granted both of Belmora’s motions, and the appeal followed.

Because there is no express statute of limitations for a § 43(a) claim, the question before the Court was whether to assume that Congress intended that the most analogous state law statute of limitations apply, or to apply either the most analogous federal statute or common law laches doctrine. “Conclud[ing] that § 43(a) is one such federal law for which a state statute of limitations would be an unsatisfactory vehicle for enforcement,” the Court held that laches was more appropriate, for primarily two reasons. First, the statutory text provides that § 43(a) damages are subject to the principles of equity, which would include the doctrine of laches. Second, the Court found persuasive the law of the Third, Seventh and Ninth Circuits, which each apply laches as to restrict the timeliness of as § 43(a) action. That said, the Court emphasized that on remand, the district court should consider the period for bringing a similar state action as part of the laches analysis, especially because the Fourth Circuit employs a presumption that claims brought after the expiration of the most-analogous statute-of-limitations are barred by laches.

The Court noted that Bayer could overcome a presumption of laches, and cited three factors for the district court to consider:

  • Bayer’s knowledge (or lack thereof) of Belmora’s adverse use
  • Whether Bayer’s delay was inexcusable or unreasonable
  • Whether Belmora had been unduly prejudiced by [...]

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And the Band Played On: Reviewing Rule 54(b) Partial Summary Judgment Based on Who Did What to Whom and When

In a case where the cast of characters on both sides of the v. evolved during the lead-up to the litigation as the litigants negotiated third-party deals and formed new entities, the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit (characterizing the matter as the “entrepreneurial equivalent of musical chairs”) affirmed a dismissal of a trade secret claim against a foreign defendant but not against the related US entity, and found that the case qualified under Rule 54(b) for the “narrow exception” to the finality rule. Amyndas Pharmaceutical, SA v. Zealand Pharma A/S, Case No. 21-1781 (1st Cir. Sept. 2, 2022) (Barron, Selya, Kayatta, JJ.)

Amyndas is a Greek company with a US affiliate. It is a biotechnology firm that researches and develops therapeutics targeting a part of the immune system known as the complement system. One area of Amyndas’s research deals with “complement inhibitors.”

Amyndas’s research yielded compstatin, a peptide that selectively inhibits the C3 protein (which plays a role in activating the complement system). Amyndas also developed a related peptide (AMY-101) that targets that protein. Amyndas owns trade secrets and confidential information related to this work.

Zealand Pharma, a Danish biotechnology firm, contacted Amyndas about a potential partnership for the development of complement-related therapeutics. The firms entered into a confidential disclosure agreement (CDA) regarding information-sharing “for the purposes of evaluating a possible business/services relationship between the parties and their respective Affiliates.” Amyndas started giving Zealand Pharma access to confidential information (including confidential information about AMY-101). The firms also entered into a second CDA—with added protections—for “the evaluation or formation of a possible business and/or services and/or collaborative relationship.”

Both CDAs included an identical “Governing Law” provision stipulating that the CDAs would “be interpreted and governed by the laws of the country (applicable state) in which the defendant resides” and a forum-selection clause stipulating that “any dispute arising out of th[e CDA] shall be settled in the first instance by the venue of the defendant.”

Zealand Pharma also began its own research program focused on complement therapeutics. It did not inform Amyndas of this initiative. Although negotiations continued, the firms ultimately decided not to collaborate. Amyndas later terminated its information-sharing relationship with Zealand Pharma.

Zealand Pharma later formed Zealand US, a Delaware corporation. Without Amyndas’s knowledge or consent, Zealand Pharma also filed two European patent applications for compstatin analogues and later an international patent application designating the United States and claiming priority to the earlier  EU applications.

After the international applications were published, Amyndas learned that they described “compstatin analogues that are capable of binding to C3 protein and inhibiting complement activation,” which had been the focus of Amyndas’s research and a subject of Amyndas’s confidential information-sharing with Zealand Pharma.

The other defendant, Alexion, is an established player in the complement therapeutics field and a proprietor of Soliris, a complement inhibitor that targets a protein in the complement system. Soliris is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and previously was the only FDA-approved and clinically available [...]

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PTO Director Lays Out Limits on “Roadmapping” as Factor for Discretionary IPR Denials

Exercising its discretion under 35 U.S.C. § 314(a), the Patent Trial & Appeal Board (Board) denied institution of two inter partes reviews (IPRs) based on its understanding of its own precedential 2017 decision in Gen. Plastic Indus. Co. v. Canon Kabushiki Kaisha. US Patent & Trademark Office Director Kathi Vidal subsequently reversed the Board’s ruling in a precedential sua sponte decision clarifying how to apply the seven factors set forth in General Plastic. Code200, UAB v. Bright Data, Ltd., IPR2022-00861; -00862, Paper 18 (PTAB Aug. 23, 2022) (Vidal, Dir. of PTO).

In General Plastic, the Board addressed the practice of filing seriatim petitions attacking the same patent, where each petition raises a new ground for invalidity. The Board considers the General Plastic factors when determining whether to deny IPR institution to ensure efficient post-grant review procedures and prevent inequity. The seven factors are as follows:

  1. Whether the same petitioner previously filed a petition directed to the same claims of the same patent
  2. Whether at the time of filing of the first petition the petitioner knew of the prior art asserted in the second petition or should have known of it
  3. Whether at the time of filing of the second petition the petitioner had already received the patent owner’s preliminary response to the first petition or had received the Board’s decision on whether to institute review in the first petition
  4. The length of time that elapsed between the time the petitioner learned of the prior art asserted in the second petition and the filing of the second petition
  5. Whether the petitioner provided adequate explanation for the time elapsed between the filings of multiple petitions directed to the same claims of the same patent
  6. The finite resources of the Board
  7. The requirement under 35 U.S.C. § 316(a)(11) to issue a final determination no later than one year after the date on which the PTO Director notices institution of review.

In denying institution in this case, the Board explained that the petitioner’s failure to stipulate that it would not pursue the same grounds in district court “weigh[ed] strongly in favor of exercising discretion to deny institution and outweigh[ed] the fact that the Board did not substantively address the merits of the prior petition.” Director Vidal disagreed, reasoning that when a first petition is not decided on its merits, a follow-on petition affords a petitioner the opportunity to receive substantive consideration. Director Vidal further explained that factor 1 “must be read in conjunction with factors 2 and 3.” Application of factor 1 in a vacuum strips context from a petitioner’s challenges and creates an inappropriate bright-line rule for denying institution.

Proper application of the General Plastic factors requires consideration of the potential for abuse by a petitioner. Director Vidal noted the problem of “roadmapping” raised in General Plastic (i.e., using one or more Board decisions to create a roadmap for follow-on filings until the petitioner finds a ground that results in institution). A denial decision based solely on the [...]

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The Halo Effect Won’t Cure Lack of Final Judgment

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit dismissed the appeal of a disappointed movant seeking prejudgment interest and a new damages trial after concluding that the district court did not enter an appealable final order despite closing the case nearly three years before the appeal was filed. Halo Electronics, Inc. v. Bel Fuse Inc., Case No. 2021-1861 (Fed. Cir. May 6, 2022) (per curiam) (nonprecedential).

The Halo v. Bel Fuse litigation has been percolating in the federal courts for over a decade, with multiple significant decisions that continue to reshape patent litigation practice (the most well-known of which restructured the legal framework for willful patent infringement and the recovery of enhanced damages).

Halo first sued Pulse for patent infringement in 2007. The jury found that Pulse willfully infringed Halo’s patents, however, the district court denied Halo’s motion for enhanced damages. On Halo’s appeal, the Supreme Court of the United States articulated a new test for enhanced damages.

While that appeal was pending in 2015, Halo moved the district court for award of prejudgment interest. The district court held that Halo was entitled to prejudgment interest at the state’s statutory rate and directed the parties to either agree to the amount owed or submit briefing that outlined proposed calculations. The parties submitted briefing but before the district court determined what calculation to use, Pulse filed a notice of appeal challenging the district court’s order stating prejudgment interest would be awarded and directing the briefing. The Federal Circuit held that the district court’s prejudgment interest order was not final “because the district court had not determined, or specified the means for determining, the amount of prejudgment interest.”

While Pulse’s appeal was pending in 2017, Halo renewed its motion in the district court for enhanced damages. The district court denied that motion and directed the clerk to enter judgment and close the case, but neither the court’s order nor the ensuing “judgment” addressed prejudgment interest. At the time, Halo did not move for relief from the September 2017 order and judgment.

Then, after nearly three years of inactivity, Halo filed a “Motion for Pre-Judgment Interest Award and Damages Trial” in the district court in July 2020. The district court denied Halo’s motion as untimely under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 59(e) and 60(b), reasoning that “if Halo believed an issue remained unresolved, it should have brought that to the court’s attention then, not three years later,” adding, “the parties are entitled to rely on court judgments and move on with their affairs” and reopening the case “would be unfair to Pulse and contrary to the goal of finality of judgments.”

On appeal, the Federal Circuit held that the district court’s September 2017 judgment was not a final, appealable one because, “with respect to a final judgment for money damages, finality does not exist if the district court does not determine, or specify the means for determining, the amount of the judgment.” Because the district court never resolved the [...]

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#Blessed? Preliminary Injunction Related to Social Media Accounts Vacated

Addressing a dispute between a bridal designer and her former employer regarding the use of the designer’s name and control of various social media accounts, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s preliminary injunction prohibiting the designer from using her name(s) in commerce, vacated the portion of the preliminary injunction granting the employer exclusive control over the social media accounts and remanded the case for further consideration by the district court. JLM Couture, Inc. v. Gutman, Case No. 21-870 (2d Cir. Jan. 25, 2022) (Park, J.) (Newman, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part) (Lynch, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part).

Hayley Paige Gutman worked for JLM Couture from 2011 to 2020, during which time she designed bridal and bridesmaid dresses and developed the Hayley Paige brand. Hayley Paige brand apparel generated hundreds of millions of dollars in sales, and Gutman’s fame (and social media account followers) grew alongside the brand’s sales revenue. Gutman and JLM’s relationship began to break down in 2019. Following the parties’ failed contract negotiations, Gutman locked JLM out of her Instagram account and changed the account bio to indicate that it was a “personal and creative” account.

JLM subsequently sued Gutman for breach of contract, trademark dilution, unfair competition, conversion of social media accounts and trespass to chattels on social media accounts, among other things. The district court agreed with JLM that Gutman had breached the contract but declined to decide “whether JLM had shown a likelihood of success on its conversion and trespass claims or opine on the ‘novel’ and ‘nuanced’ question of who owns the [social media accounts].” The district court granted a temporary restraining order and then a preliminary injunction barring Gutman from changing, using and/or controlling the social media accounts and using the names “Hayley,” “Paige,” “Hayley Paige Gutman,” “Hayley Gutman,” “Hayley Paige” or any derivate thereof (collectively, the designer’s name) in commerce. Gutman appealed.

Gutman argued that the district court erred in concluding that she likely breached the noncompete and name-rights provisions of the employment contract, that JLM’s breach of the contract prohibited it from seeking injunctive relief and that the social media accounts should not have been assigned to JLM. The Second Circuit rejected Gutman’s contract-related arguments and disagreed with the proffered alternative interpretations of the text, concluding that the district court did not err in prohibiting Gutman from any use of the designer’s name in commerce. With respect to the social media accounts, however, the Court held that the preliminary injunction was overbroad because “the character of the district court’s relief—a grant of perpetual, unrestricted, and exclusive control throughout the litigation—sounds in property, not in contract. Yet the district court disclaimed any effort to ground the [preliminary injunction] on its evaluation of the ownership question.” The Court concluded it was “unclear on what basis the district court excluded Gutman from using the Disputed Accounts and granted total control to JLM.” Thus, the Court remanded the case for the district [...]

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Third Circuit Orders Second Look at Delays and Disgorgement of Profits

In a long-running trademark dispute between two charitable organizations, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit found that the appellee did not preserve its challenge to the district court’s denial of summary judgment on its trademark cancelation claims, the appellant waived any challenge to the validity of the defendant’s mark and the district court did not abuse its discretion by declining to award enhanced monetary relief or prejudgment interest. Kars 4 Kids Inc. v America Can!, Case Nos. 20-2813; -2900 (3rd Cir., August 10, 2021) (Shwartz, J.) The Court also vacated-in-part and remanded for the district court to reexamine its laches and disgorgement conclusions under applicable law.

As charitable organizations that sell donated vehicles to fund children’s programs, both America Can (as CARS FOR KIDS) and Kars 4 Kids have used similar trademarks since their respective starts in the early- to mid-1990s. In 2003 and 2013, America Can sent cease and desist letters to Kars 4 Kids after seeing its advertisements in the state of Texas. In 2014, Kars 4 Kids sued America Can for federal and state trademark infringement, unfair competition and trademark dilution claims. Less than one year later, America Can filed its own suit—alleging the same claims—plus a petition to cancel a Kars 4 Kids trademark registration and seeking a nationwide injunction and financial compensation.

Both parties appeal from a denial of their respective summary judgment motions as well as (1) the jury finding that Kars 4 Kids willfully infringed America Can’s trademark rights in Texas, (2) the rejection of America Can’s petition for cancellation of a KARS FOR KIDS trademark registration finding that the registration was not knowingly procured by fraudulent means, (3) the conclusion that laches did not apply against America Can’s claims, (4) disgorgement of Kars 4 Kids profits in Texas totaling about $10.6 million, (5) rejection of enhanced monetary relief and (6) an injunction against Kars 4 Kids with respect to use of its trademark in Texas and from using the carsforkids.com domain name. On appeal, Kars 4 Kids also renewed its motion for judgment as a matter of law, including an argument that America Can’s trademark is invalid.

The Third Circuit rejected Kars 4 Kids’ effort to overturn the jury’s liability verdict, concluding that Kars 4 Kids failed to preserve its challenge to the validity of the CARS FOR KIDS trademark when it left that issue out of its Rule 50(a) motion. Instead, evidence of America Can’s continuous use of the CARS FOR KIDS mark well prior to 2003 predated Kars 4 Kids’ first use of its trademark in Texas in 2003 and established America Can’s ownership of the CARS FOR KIDS trademark in Texas.

However, after examining the laches claim, the Third Circuit explained that it considered (1) the plaintiff’s inexcusable delay in bringing suit and (2) prejudice to the defendant as a result of the delay. With no statute of limitations under the Lanham Act, the parties agreed that their claims are properly analogized to New Jersey’s six-year [...]

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If You Seek or Browse and Can Find, It’s Publicly Available, but Anticipation Isn’t Obvious and Requires Notice

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit found that facilitating browsing of documents on a website was sufficient to support public accessibility of prior art references, but that the Patent Trial and Appeal Board cannot sua sponte invalidate a claim as anticipated under § 102 unless that specific statutory ground had previously been noticed. M & K Holdings, Inc. v. Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd., Case No. 20-1160 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 1, 2021) (Bryson, J.)

In response to M & K Holdings’ suit for patent infringement, Samsung filed an inter partes review (IPR) petition seeking cancellation of all claims of the asserted patent as obvious. The patent is directed to an efficient method for compressing video files by “decoding a moving picture in inter prediction mode,” using a motion vector to quantify where “reference pictures are used to estimate motion of a current block” over the video duration. Samsung’s petition relied on references generated in connection with the Joint Collaborative Team on Video Coding (JCT-VC), which established industry standards for high-efficiency video coding (HEVC). All three prior art references were uploaded to JCT-VC’s website before the critical date.

After the Board held all claims of the patent unpatentable, M & K appealed, arguing that the Board erred by relying on references that do not qualify as prior art printed publications under 35 USC § 102, and by finding claim 3 anticipated when the petition for IPR asserted only obviousness as to that claim.

Public Accessibility and Printed Publications

M & K argued that a person of ordinary skill could not have located two of the three prior art references by exercising reasonable diligence, and therefore the Board’s holding that those references were publicly accessible was erroneous. Specifically, M & K argued that the structure and search capabilities of the JCT-VC website (requiring navigating to the JCT-VC landing page, clicking on the “All meetings” link and selecting a particular meeting in order to access documents, without any explanation that the “All meetings” label contains a document repository, and with no search functionality on the landing page or the “All meetings” page) meant that even if a user happened to navigate to a meeting page of the website, the user could not search documents by content, but could search only by date, title and number.

The Federal Circuit disagreed, explaining that public accessibility does not require a website’s landing page to have search functionality. Instead, “given the prominence of JCT-VC, the dispositive question is whether interested users of the JCT-VC website could have located [the references] through reasonable diligence.” The Court agreed that substantial evidence supported that interested users could have done so.

Regardless of whether the website described itself as a document repository, the Federal Circuit noted that a skilled artisan browsing the JCT-VC website would understand that it was structured to serve the JCT-VC’s purpose of developing HEVC standards through member meetings and communications. Therefore, a skilled artisan browsing the JCT-VC website would have realized that documents are hosted [...]

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Logic to Modify: Even Deceptive Intent Does Not Bar Inventorship Correction

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit vacated a district court invalidity determination finding that judicial estoppel prevented a patent owner from relisting an inventor previously removed for strategic litigation purposes. Egenera, Inc. v. Cisco Sys., Inc., Case Nos. 19-2015, -2387 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 28, 2020) (Prost, C.J.).

Egenera sued Cisco for infringement of a patent directed to a reconfigurable virtual network that included a “logic to modify” and transmit received messages. In response Cisco petitioned for inter partes review (IPR). During the IPR’s pendency, Egenera realized that all claim limitations were conceived of before inventor Schulter began working at the company, and petitioned the US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) to remove Schulter as a listed inventor. The Patent and Trial Appeal Board (PTAB) declined to institute Cisco’s IPR, and the PTO granted Egenera’s petition to remove Schulter shortly thereafter.

During the litigation, the district court construed the patent claims’ “logic” terms as means-plus-function elements and concluded that the “logic to modify” limitation corresponded to a “tripartite structure” described in the specification. Cisco then asserted invalidity under pre-America Invents Act (AIA) § 102(f), contending that Schulter invented the tripartite structure, and that the patent therefore did not list all inventors. Egenera attempted to re-correct inventorship to include Schulter, but the court rejected the attempt. The district court found the patent invalid under § 102(f), reasoning that judicial estoppel precluded Egenera from “resurrecting” Schulter’s inventorship. Egenera appealed both the means-plus-function construction and the judicial estoppel finding.

The Federal Circuit first addressed whether Egenera could correct inventorship absent any judicial estoppel. The Court looked to the plain meaning of post-AIA § 256, which provides that “the error of omitting inventors . . . shall not invalidate the patent . . . if it can be corrected.” Notably, post-AIA § 256 removed the requirement that an inventorship error occur “without . . . deceptive intent.” The Federal Circuit stated it plainly: “‘Error’ is simply the incorrect listing of inventors” and does not exclude even deceptive intention. The Court explained that the inequitable conduct rules provide a safety valve for such actions, not § 256. The Court also noted that at the time Egenera removed Schulter as an inventor, no one had argued that “logic to modify” was means-plus-function language, which it presumptively was not. Egenera’s preferred construction of that term was consistent with its assertion that Schulter was not an inventor. The omission of Schulter as inventor was thus an “error” within the scope of § 256.

The Federal Circuit next turned to whether Egenera was judicially estopped from relisting Schulter as an inventor. Applying the First Circuit’s New Hampshire factors, the Federal Circuit looked to whether Egenera’s positions were inconsistent, whether its first position was successfully accepted by the court, and whether Egenera would derive an unfair advantage if not estopped. The Federal Circuit found that the district court erred in finding Egenera’s changing inventorship positions inconsistent. The Court explained that inventorship is complex and can depend on claim [...]

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