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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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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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Liability for Copyright Infringement Attaches if Conduct Exceeds Scope of License

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit revived a software owner’s copyright infringement suit because the district court erred in granting summary judgment of no infringement by failing to analyze whether the accused infringer exceeded the scope of a copyright license. Oracle America, Inc., et al. v. Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company, Case No. 19-15506 (9th Cir. Aug. 20, 2020) (Smith, J.).

Oracle owns registered copyrights for Solaris software, including copyrighted software patches. Oracle requires its customers have a prepaid annual support contract, for each server they desire to be under support, to access the software patches. Customers under a support plan can access patches through an Oracle support website.

Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) provides a “one-stop-shop” for support to its customers, including HPE servers running Solaris. HPE provides this support directly and through its partners. One of HPE’s partners is Terix Computer Company. Terix arranged for joint HPE-Terix customers to have Oracle support for all of their servers through a single server support plan. Terix accomplished this by downloading Solaris software patches, using the customer’s credentials (created using a Terix-supplied credit card), to make copies for servers that were not part of the support contract.

In 2013, Oracle sued Terix for copyright infringement. The court granted Oracle summary judgment, and Terix stipulated to a judgment on the claims without admitting liability. Oracle and HPE entered into an agreement, effective May 6, 2015, to toll the statute of limitations for any claims Oracle might assert against HPE.

In 2016, Oracle sued HPE for direct copyright infringement concerning HPE’s direct support customers, and for indirect infringement concerning joint HPE-Terix customers. Oracle also sued for claims of intentional interference and unfair competition under California state law. The parties did not dispute that the tolling agreement applied, so the court considered whether the copyright infringement claims were barred for conduct before May 6, 2012. The Copyright Act provides that a copyright infringement claim is subject to a three-year statute of limitations, which runs separately for each violation. Under Ninth Circuit law, a copyright infringement claim begins to accrue “when a when a party discovers, or reasonably should have discovered, the alleged infringement.” Importantly, actual or constructive knowledge triggers the statute of limitations. The Ninth Circuit has explained that suspicion of copyright infringement places a duty on the copyright holder to investigate further into possible infringement or lose the claim.

Oracle conceded that it had concerns about Terix and suspicions about HPE as early as 2010, but argued that HPE used fraudulent means to keep Oracle unaware of its actions, so it had no duty to inquire. The district court disagreed, finding that once Oracle had constructive knowledge, the doctrine of fraudulent concealment was no longer an option to toll the limitations. Because Oracle failed to investigate HPE, the court determined that HPE was entitled to summary judgment on the infringement claims for pre-May 6, 2012, conduct. Oracle appealed.

The Ninth Circuit explained that to prove indirect infringement, Oracle had to show that [...]

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Bad Faith Required to Prevent Speech Regarding Potential Patent Infringement

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit found that a district court abused its discretion in granting a preliminary injunction enjoining a patent holder from making claims of patent infringement without finding that those infringement claims were made in bad faith. The Federal Circuit reversed, vacated and remanded the district court’s decision. Myco Indus., Inc. v. BlephEx, LLC, Case No. 2019-2374 (Fed. Cir. Apr. 3, 2020) (O’Malley, J.).

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