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Cross-Appeals Fail to Strike a Chord

In the latest development in the ongoing litigation saga between competitors Sonos and Google, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the US International Trade Commission’s determination that the original accused audio players and controllers infringed the asserted patents while redesigned products did not. Sonos, Inc. v. Int’l Trade Comm’n, Case No. 22-1421 (Fed. Cir. Apr. 8, 2024) (Stark, Dyk, Reyna, JJ.) (nonprecedential).

Sonos filed a complaint against Google at the Commission, asserting that Google’s importation of certain audio players and controllers infringed Sonos’s patents generally directed to connecting and controlling wireless speakers. The chief administrative law judge made an initial determination that Google’s originally accused products infringed each of the asserted patents but also found that Google’s redesigned products were noninfringing alternatives. After declining the parties’ petitions for review, the Commission issued a final determination adopting the chief administrative law judge’s initial determination and entered a limited exclusion order. Sonos appealed the Commission’s determination concerning the redesigned products, and Google cross-appealed the Commission’s determination concerning the original products.

Sonos argued that the Commission misconstrued disputed claim terms and lacked substantial evidence for its noninfringement findings. First, Sonos argued that the Commission misconstrued claim language reciting “at least a second message containing network configuration parameters,” which “comprise an identifier of the secure WLAN . . . and a security key.” The Commission construed this language as requiring a single second message with both the claimed identifier and security key while Sonos contended that the claim language contemplated multiple second messages that collectively contain the identifier and security key. The Federal Circuit disagreed with Sonos, noting that the specification provided strong support for the Commission’s construction. Because Google’s redesigned product transmitted the identifier and the key in separate messages, the Federal Circuit affirmed the Commission’s conclusion that Google did not infringe.

Sonos next took issue with the Commission’s determination that Google’s redesigned product, which included an incrementing integer counter for synchronizing playback among devices, did not infringe a claim requiring synchronization through “time clock information.” While Sonos framed the issue as one of claim construction, the Federal Circuit reasoned that it was actually a factual issue (whether the accused redesign infringed), which is reviewed for substantial evidence. Because Google’s experts explained that an incrementing counter does not represent a time value, the Court concluded that the Commission’s determination was supported by substantial evidence.

Finally, Sonos contested the Commission’s construction of “equalization” as requiring “alteration of the relative strength of certain frequency ranges in the audio data” by adjusting certain properties of a speaker driver, adjusting amplifier gain in a playback device or using a filter. Finding this construction too narrow, Sonos argued that “equalization” should include any modification to output audio data, including the changing of a channel output without altering strengths of a frequency range. The Federal Circuit agreed with the Commission’s construction, which was based on expert testimony and dictionaries demonstrating that “equalization” is a well-known audio technique used to enhance or diminish specific frequency ranges. [...]

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Patent Venue: VENUE Act Would Expand Scope of Venue

As part of proposed legislation intended to address several procedural issues related to judicial proceedings, a recent section titled the Venue Equity and Non-Uniformity Elimination Act of 2024 (VENUE Act) seeks to expand the number of jurisdictions in which a patent infringement suit can be brought under 28 U.S.C. § 1404(b). The bill, S 4095, is almost identical to a 2016 bill introduced by then-Senator Jeff Flake.

The VENUE Act seeks to legislatively overrule the 2017 Supreme Court ruling in TC Heartland v. Kraft Foods Group Brands by significantly broadening the number of venues in which a suit can be brought. Under the current state of the law, venue for a patent suit is appropriate under 28 U.S.C. § 1400(b) only where a defendant resides (i.e., for a business, its state of incorporation) or where the defendant has infringed the patent and maintains a regular and established place of business. In the wake of TC Heartland, venue has become a contested preliminary issue in many patent litigations.

In addition to the already established venues for patent suits, the VENUE Act would include jurisdictions where an inventor conducted research or development underlying the patent-in-suit. It would also allow venue where the defendant business conducted research and development for the asserted patent, manufactures a product or performs a manufacturing process purportedly embodied by the asserted patent. The VENUE Act would limit a “regular and established place of business” to a “physical facility,” excluding the homes of a business’s teleworking employees.

Procedurally, the VENUE Act would codify – and potentially strengthen – the existing practice of challenging district court venue determinations by mandamus petitions. By statute, a court’s “clearly and indisputably erroneous” denial of a venue transfer or dismissal motion would constitute “irremediable interim harm,” which would have the effect of requiring the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit to grant such petitions when warranted.

If enacted, the VENUE Act would create new statutory interpretation issues in its significant expansion of the number of districts in which venue may be sought. At the same time, however, the expansion might be significant enough that venue challenges would return to the rarity they once enjoyed.

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Unclean Hands Aren’t Just for Toddlers

In an action involving manufacturers of a self-sealing dining mat for toddlers, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a district court’s finding that the defendants were barred from obtaining relief on their counterclaims under the unclean hands doctrine, thereby vacating the district court’s other findings on inequitable conduct, obviousness, attorneys’ fees and costs. Luv N’ Care, Ltd. et al. v. Laurain et al., Case No. 22-1905 (Fed. Cir. Apr. 12, 2024) (Reyna, Hughes, Stark, JJ.)

Luv N’ Care and Nouri E. Hakim (collectively, LNC) filed suit against Lindsey Laurain and Eazy-PZ (EZPZ), asserting various claims for unfair competition under the Lanham Act and Louisiana law. LNC also sought declaratory judgment that EZPZ’s design patent was invalid, unenforceable and not infringed. After the suit was filed, the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) issued Laurain a utility patent directed toward self-sealing dining mats. Laurain subsequently assigned her rights to EZPZ, which then asserted counterclaims for utility patent, design patent and trademark infringement.

Following discovery, the district court granted LNC’s motion for summary judgment, finding all claims of EZPZ’s utility patent as obvious in view of three prior art references. EZPZ moved for reconsideration, which the district court denied, indicating that a “ruling providing further reasoning will follow in due course.” Before any such ruling issued, the PTO issued an ex parte reexamination certificate confirming the patentability of the utility patent claims two days before the district court’s bench trial began.

EZPZ did not provide this reexam certificate to the district court prior to the bench trial. During the bench trial, the district court found that EZPZ had not committed inequitable conduct but that EZPZ’s litigation conduct constituted unclean hands. After the district court entered judgment, EZPZ moved for reconsideration of summary judgment based on the ex parte reexamination certificate. The district court denied this motion and found that the evidence did not compel alteration of the prior ruling that the utility patent was invalid. It also denied LNC’s motion for attorneys’ fees and costs. EZPZ appealed.

The Federal Circuit affirmed the unclean hands determination but vacated the district court’s rulings on inequitable conduct, invalidity, attorneys’ fees and costs. As to unclean hands, the Court reasoned that EZPZ failed to disclose patent applications related to the utility patent until well after the close of discovery and dispositive motion practice. EZPZ also blocked LNC’s efforts to discover Laurain’s prior art searches by falsely claiming that she had conducted no such searches and that all responsive documents had been produced. It further found that EZPZ witnesses, including Laurain and EZPZ’s former outside counsel, repeatedly gave evasive testimony during depositions and at trial. The Court affirmed the district court’s determination that EZPZ’s misconduct bore an immediate and necessary connection to EZPZ’s claims for infringement because the undisclosed material was directly relevant to the development of LNC’s litigation strategy and undermined LNC’s ability to press its invalidity and unenforceability challenges. The Court found no clear error in the district court’s reasoning that [...]

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PTO Proposes New Guidelines for Director Review in Board Proceedings

The US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) proposed new rules governing the process for Director review of Patent Trial & Appeal Board decisions in America Invents Act (AIA) proceedings. Rules Governing Director Review of Patent Trial and Appeal Board Decisions, 89 Fed. Reg. 26,807 (proposed Apr. 16, 2024) (to be codified at 37 C.F.R. pt. 42).

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) proposes adding 37 C.F.R. § 42.75, which includes rules addressing the following issues:

Limited Availability of Director Review. The NPRM proposes that Director review in AIA proceedings would only be available to a party from institution decisions, final written decisions or panel decisions granting rehearing of a decision on institution or a final written decision. However, the Director would have authority to review any interlocutory decisions rendered in reaching such decisions. The NPRM also proposes that the Director may sua sponte review institution decisions, final written decisions or decisions granting rehearing.

Timing, Format and Content of Requests for Director Review. The NPRM proposes that requests for Director review would have to be sought within the time period set forth by 37 C.F.R. § 42.71(d), comply with the formatting and length requirements of 37 C.F.R. §§ 42.6(a) and 42.24(a)(1)(v), and would not be allowed to introduce new evidence. Any sua sponte Director review would have to be initiated within 21 days after the deadline to seek rehearing.

Effect of Director Review. The NPRM proposes that a decision on institution, a final written decision or a decision granting rehearing would become final agency action unless Director review was timely sought or timely initiated sua sponte or a request for Director review was denied.

Director Review Process. The NPRM proposes that Director review would not stay the underlying proceeding, but if the Director grants review, the review would conclude with the issuance of a decision or order that provides the reasons for the Director’s disposition of the case. A party would be permitted to appeal a Director review decision of either a final written decision or a decision granting rehearing of a final written decision (not institution decisions or decisions granting rehearing of institution decisions) to the Federal Circuit in accordance with the procedures set forth in 35 U.S.C. §§ 141(c) and 319. A request for Director review would be treated as a request for rehearing and would reset the time for appeal until Director review was resolved.

Delegation. The NPRM proposes that delegation of Director review would be permitted, subject to conditions set forth by the Director.

Communications With the PTO. The NPRM proposes that communications from a party concerning a specific Director review request or proceeding would have to copy counsel for all parties. Other than authorized amicus briefings, communications from third parties would not be allowed.

Comments are due by June 17, 2024, and can be submitted through the federal eRulemaking portal here.

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Virtually Done: Computer Visualization Patents Are Ineligible for Protection

Addressing subject matter eligibility under 35 U.S.C. § 101, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld the district court’s finding that patents related to computer visualizations of medical scans were patent ineligible. AI Visualize, Inc. v. Nuance Communications, Inc., Case No. 22-2019 (Fed. Cir. Apr. 4, 2024) (Moore, Reyna, Hughes, JJ.)

AI Visualize asserted four related patents, each having a substantially similar specification and the same title, against Nuance Communications. The patents are generally directed at systems and methods for users to virtually view a volume visualization dataset (a three-dimensional collection of data representing the scanned area of an MRI) on a computer without having to transmit or locally store the entirety of the dataset.

Nuance moved to dismiss the case, asserting that the claims were directed to patent-ineligible subject matter and invalid under § 101. The district court applied the two-step Alice inquiry to the claims, which the parties had grouped into three representative claims:

  • Claims where a web application directs the server to check what frames of a virtual view are stored locally and creates any additional frames necessary to create and display the virtual view of the medical image.
  • Claims with the further requirement that any previously requested virtual view be given a unique key, which the server checks for (and displays if the key exists) prior to completing the steps of the independent claim.
  • Claims without the requirement of checking to see if any images are stored locally.

In applying part one of Alice, the district court concluded that the asserted claims were directed to the abstract idea of “retrieving user-requested, remotely stored information” and not, as AI Visualize argued, to improvements in computer functionality. The district court then applied Alice step two and considered each of the three representative claims. The district court concluded that none of the claim limitations transformed the claims into patent-eligible applications of an abstract idea. Ultimately, the district court determined that all asserted claims were patent ineligible under § 101. AI Visualize appealed.

The Federal Circuit also applied the Alice analytical framework. Applying Alice step one, the Court considered whether the focus of the claimed advance was on an improvement in computer technologies, rather than the use of computers, and whether the claim limitations described a claimed advance over the prior art. The Court upheld the district court’s finding under Alice step one (i.e., that all three types of asserted claims were directed to an abstract idea) because the steps of obtaining, manipulating and displaying data, when claimed at a high level of generality, constitute an abstract concept. The Court did not agree with AI Visualize’s arguments that the creation of the virtual views is a technical solution to a technical problem because it requires the creation of “on the fly” virtual views at the client computer. In doing so, the Court refused to import details from the specification into the claims.

Applying Alice step two, the Federal Circuit upheld the district court’s finding that [...]

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Drawing Can Teach Claim Limitations If “Clear on Its Face”

Addressing when a drawing in a prior art reference includes a teaching that is “clear on its face,” the Director of the US Patent & Trademark Office vacated and remanded a Patent Trial & Appeal Board decision denying institution of an inter partes review (IPR) petition. MAHLE Behr Charleston Inc. v. Catalano, IPR2023-00861 (PTAB Decision Review, Apr. 5, 2024) (Vidal, PTO Dir.)

MAHLE Behr filed a petition requesting institution of an IPR, challenging claims of a patent owned by Catalano. The patent is directed to a device known as a sacrificial anode that prevents corrosion in motor vehicle radiators caused by electrolysis. One of the claim terms at issue requires the anode to be “within 10 inches” of another element. MAHLE argued that a figure in a prior art reference anticipated or rendered obvious several challenged claims.

The Board denied the institution after determining that MAHLE did not establish a reasonable likelihood that it would prevail with respect to at least one of the challenged claims. The Board cited the Federal Circuit’s 2000 decision in Hockerson-Halberstadt v. Avia Group International to explain that “[p]atent drawings do not define the precise proportions of the elements and may not be relied on to show particular sizes if the specification is completely silent on the issue.” The Board concluded that the figure relied on by MAHLE did not provide exact dimensions and thus could not be sufficient to render the claims invalid.

MAHLE filed a request for Director Review, which was granted. In its request, MAHLE argued that the Board erred in its application of Federal Circuit case law on the use of patent drawings as prior art teachings. The Director agreed, explaining that “the Board did not adequately address [MAHLE’s] arguments regarding what [the figure in the prior art] clearly shows or would have reasonably suggested to a person of ordinary skill in the art.” Federal Circuit case law established that a claim may be anticipated or rendered obvious by a figure in the prior art if the drawing clearly discloses the claim limitation. If “a person of skill in the art could derive the claimed dimensions from the patent’s disclosure, there is no additional requirement that the specification must explicitly disclose the precise proportions or particular sizes.”

The Director further explained that “the Board did not adequately address MAHLE’s arguments regarding what [the prior art figure] clearly shows or would have reasonably suggested to a person of ordinary skill in the art.” While the prior art figure did not disclose the precise proportions or measured quantity specified in the challenged claims, the figure showed the elements being located as claimed (necessarily within the 10 inches recited). The Director explained that the Board should have considered whether a person of ordinary skill in the art would have understood the figure to disclose the claimed elements being within 10 inches of each other.

The Director vacated the Board’s decision and remanded the petition with instructions to consider both what the prior art figure [...]

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Reasonable Royalty Available for Foreign Activities (But Not This Time)

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a district court’s decision to preclude a patent owner from seeking damages based on method claims infringed outside of the United States but confirmed that reasonable royalties are available based on foreign activities. Harris Brumfield v. IBG LLC, Case No. 22-1630 (Fed. Cir. Mar. 27, 2024) (Prost, Taranto, Hughes, JJ.)

Trading Technologies International (TT), whose successor is Harris Brumfield, filed a lawsuit against IBG in 2010 alleging infringement of four patents directed to graphical user interfaces for commodity trading and methods for placing trade orders using those interfaces. During the underlying proceeding, the district court issued several orders. The district court granted IBG’s motion for summary judgment that the claims of two of the patents were invalid. The district court also excluded one of TT’s damages theories concerning foreign activities. Prior to trial, the district court found that two of the patents were invalid as patent ineligible and that the other two patents contained patent eligible subject matter. The district court also excluded one of TT’s damages theories concerning foreign activities.

The case proceeded to trial on the two remaining patents, and the jury found the asserted claims of those two patents infringed. IBG proposed $6.6 million in damages, which corresponds to the total demanded by IBG using IBG’s proposed royalty rate measured against domestic usage, rather than global users. By contrast, TT proposed damages of $962 million, which included all worldwide users of the accused product, regardless of whether they performed the claimed method. The jury agreed with IGB and awarded TT $6.6 million. the district court denied TT’s post-verdict motion for a new trial on damages, a motion in which TT alleged that IBG had misrepresented how it calculated the damages figures it presented to the jury. TT appealed.

Under the Supreme Court’s 2018 decision in WesternGeco v. Ion Geophysical, a patent owner can recover damages in the form of foreign lost profits when infringement is found under 35 U.S.C. § 271(f)(2) of the Patent Act. TT argued that under WesternGeco, it can seek damages in the form of a reasonable royalty based on IBG “making” the accused product in the US, even though the products were used overseas. The Federal Circuit engaged in a detailed description of WesternGeco, concluding that the Court must examine the particular acts alleged to constitute infringement under particular statutory provisions to determine if the allegations focus on domestic conduct. The Court explained that under § 271(a), the making, using, offering to sell and selling provisions are limited to domestic acts. The Court acknowledged that the WesternGeco framework applies to reasonably royalty awards (not just lost profits) and that a reasonable royalty would be the amount a hypothetical infringer would pay to engage in the domestic acts constituting the infringement.

Despite finding that reasonable royalties are permitted under WesternGeco, the Federal Circuit affirmed the district court’s exclusion of TT’s damages theory because TT’s infringement theory about making the accused product [...]

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ITC Shines Light on DI: Complainant Can’t Aggregate Investments Across Patents, Prongs

Addressing a determination by its chief administrative law judge (CALJ) finding a violation of § 337, the US International Trade Commission reversed and held that the complainant had not satisfied the economic prong of the domestic industry (DI) requirement by aggregating its investment across multiple asserted patents. Certain Replacement Automotive Lamps (II), Case No. 337-TA-1292 (USITC Mar. 22, 2024).

In late 2021, Hyundai filed a complaint seeking an investigation under 19 U.S.C. § 337 based on alleged infringement of 21 design patents, each covering a different automotive headlamp or taillamp. In response, two of the proposed respondents filed a request seeking early disposition of the economic prong of the domestic industry under the Commission’s 100-day program. Hyundai filed a response opposing the 100-day program request based on the complexity of the issues. The Commission instituted the investigation and denied the 100-day program request, but when setting the procedural schedule, the CALJ scheduled an early evidentiary hearing on the economic prong of the domestic industry pursuant to the Commission’s pilot program for interim initial determinations. Following that initial hearing, the CALJ issued an interim initial determination finding that Hyundai had satisfied the economic prong of the domestic industry requirement. After the full evidentiary hearing, the CALJ issued a final initial determination finding a violation of § 337 by the respondents based on infringement of all asserted patents. The Commission decided to review both the initial and final determinations.

On review, the Commission reversed the finding that the complainant had satisfied the economic prong of the domestic industry requirement. As the Commission explained, where DI products do not have overlapping protection across common asserted patents, a complainant must treat each product as requiring a separate DI showing. The Commission cannot aggregate investments in articles covered by one patent with investments in articles only covered by a different patent. Here, because each DI product practiced only one of the asserted design patents, to satisfy the economic prong Hyundai was required to demonstrate that the investments in each product were independently significant. The Commission also held that investments in plant and equipment (§ 1337(a)(3)(A)) cannot be combined with employment of labor or capital (§ 1337(a)(3)(B)) and concluded that Hyundai had mistakenly aggregated its investments from both prongs.

Commissioner Schmidtlein filed an opinion concurring with the outcome but declining to join the majority opinion based on her view that it went beyond what was necessary to dispose of the investigation.

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PTO Stands by Patent Fee Increases

The US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) issued a notice of rulemaking announcing proposed patent fee increases beginning next year. 89 Fed. Reg. 23226 (April 3, 2024). The proposed increases are generally consistent with the PTO’s May 2023 proposal.

The Notice states that the PTO needs the proposed fee adjustments to provide sufficient revenue to recover costs of patent operations in future years. To that end, the PTO proposes to set or adjust 455 patent fees, including 73 new fees. Complete information about the fee adjustments, including the Notice, is available on the PTO’s website.

The fee increases include higher amounts for routine fees necessary to obtain a patent, including filing, search, examination and issue fees. Excess claim fees will also increase to $200 for each claim over 20 and $600 for each independent claim over three. There will also be an escalating fee structure for terminal disclaimers, ranging from $200 if filed before the first office action to $1,400 if filed after the PTO grants the patent. The fees for filing requests for continued examination (RCE) will now use a tiered fee structure and will increase to $1,500 for the first RCE, $2,500 for the second RCE and $3,600 for the third RCE. Patent Trial & Appeal Board fees will increase by about 25%, and a new fee of $400 will be required for a Request for Director Review of a Board decision.

Written comments on proposed patent fees must be submitted by June 3, 2024, through the Federal eRulemaking Portal.

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Faulty Jury Instruction Tampered With Tamper-Proof Trial

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed in part, vacated in part and remanded a district court decision after concluding that a jury instruction on the objective indicia of nonobviousness that failed to specify all indicia on which evidence had been received constituted prejudicial legal error. Inline Plastics Corp. v. Lacerta Group, LLC, Case Nos. 22-1954; -2295 (Fed. Cir. Mar. 27, 2024) (Taranto, Chen, Hughes, JJ.)

Inline Plastics owns a patent family pertaining to containers with specific tamper-proof features and methods of producing these containers using thermoformed plastic. The invention is intended to deter unauthorized tampering with products in the containers. These tamper-proof features serve to prevent theft and product loss and maintain consumer confidence in product integrity.

Inline sued Lacerta Group for patent infringement over its tamper-proof technology. The district court made several significant pretrial rulings, including a claim construction order, and granted Inline’s motion for partial summary judgment of infringement on some of the asserted claims. During trial, Inline voluntarily withdrew certain claims, and the jury returned a verdict declaring all remaining claims (even those on which summary judgment had been granted) invalid and not infringed. After trial, Inline sought partial final judgment, which was granted, but also motioned for judgment as a matter of law and a new trial on invalidity. The district court denied Inline’s motions. Both Inline and Lacerta appealed.

Inline argued that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law of no invalidity and that an error in the jury instructions requires a new trial on invalidity. Lacerta cross-appealed, challenging the denial of attorneys’ fees and the “without prejudice” dismissal of certain patent claims that Inline voluntarily dropped from its asserted-claims list near the end of trial.

The Federal Circuit rejected Inline’s argument for judgment as a matter of law of no invalidity but agreed with Inline that the jury instruction on the objective indicia of nonobviousness constituted prejudicial legal error. The Court determined that the jury could have reasonably found obviousness and rejected Inline’s three arguments against it. First, Inline argued deficiencies in Lacerta’s prior art references and expert testimony, but the Court found these arguments unpersuasive. Second, Inline challenged Lacerta’s evidence of motivation to combine references, but the Court found enough support to prove a motivation to combine. Third, Inline argued that Lacerta’s challenge failed because there was no rebuttal or opinion on objective-indicia evidence. The Court dismissed this argument, explaining that the absence of such testimony did not necessarily discredit the patentee’s evidence on nonobviousness. According to the Court, Inline failed to explain why the jury could not reasonably assign little weight to its objective-indicia evidence, which led the Court to reject Inline’s categorical argument based on the absence of expert testimony from Lacerta’s side.

However, the Federal Circuit agreed with Inline’s argument for a new trial on invalidity. The Court explained that jury instructions must be legally correct and sufficiently comprehensive to address disputed evidence. The Federal Circuit concluded that the district court’s objective-indicia instruction [...]

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