Federal Circuit Makes Clear: Prior Failures in the Art May Demonstrate Non-Obviousness

Addressing the issue of obviousness of a patent directed toward a method of killing antibiotic-resistant bacteria using only visible light with no photosensitizer, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed the Patent Trial & Appeal Board’s (PTAB) decision, finding no obviousness where the asserted prior art did not disclose a successful method that did not use a photosensitizer. University of Strathclyde v. Clear-Vu Lighting, LLC, Case No. 20-2243 (Fed. Cir. Nov. 4, 2021) (Stoll, J.) The Court held that the PTAB erroneously found a reasonable expectation of success where “[t]he only support for such a finding [was] pure conjecture coupled with hindsight reliance on the teachings in the [asserted] patent.”

Gram-positive bacteria, such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), are known to negatively affect health but effective methods of killing (or inactivating) such bacteria have been elusive. Photoinactivation is a way to kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and previous methods involved applying a photosensitizing agent to the infection and then activating the agent using light. Through experimentation, scientists at the University of Strathclyde discovered that application of visible (blue) light of wavelengths in the range of 400 – 420 nm was effective at inactivating bacteria such as MRSA without using a photosensitizing agent. The challenged patent claimed this method of using a photosensitizer for inactivating MRSA and other Gram-positive bacteria.

After Clear-Vu Lighting petitioned for inter partes review, the PTAB found the patent invalid as obvious in view of prior art disclosing methods of photoactivation using visible light. The university appealed.

The Federal Circuit reversed, finding that the prior art did not disclose all claim elements and there was no reasonable expectation of success in reaching the claimed invention by combining the prior art.

The Federal Circuit first addressed the PTAB finding that the prior art disclosed all claim limitations, finding that neither of the asserted prior art references taught or suggested “inactivation” of the bacteria without using a photosensitizer—as required by the claims. The Court noted that it “fail[ed] to see why a skilled artisan would opt to entirely omit a photosensitizer when combining [the] references,” finding it “particularly relevant” that one of the references actually “disclosed such a photosensitizer-free embodiment and was wholly unsuccessful in achieving inactivation.”

The PTAB also found that, based on a prior art teaching that “blue light may” inactivate “other bacterial cells that produce porphyrins,” a skilled artisan would have expected that MRSA could be inactivated by blue light without a photosensitizer due to the presence of porphyrins. In defense of the PTAB’s findings, Clear-Vu argued that support for the reasonable expectation of success could be found in the challenged patent itself. Citing its 2012 decision in Otsuka Pharm. v. Sandoz, the Federal Circuit harshly criticized this position, reiterating that the inventor’s own path to the invention is not the proper lens through which to find obviousness; “that is hindsight.”

The Federal Circuit explained that “not only is there a complete lack of evidence in the record that any bacteria were inactivated after exposure [...]

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Standing Challenge Brews Trouble in Trademark Dispute

Addressing for the first time Article III standing in a trademark case, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that hypothetical future injury is insufficient to establish standing to oppose a trademark application. Brooklyn Brewery Corp. v. Brooklyn Brew Shop, LLC, Case No. 20-2277 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 27, 2021) (Dyk, J.)

Brooklyn Brewery brews and sells craft beers. Brooklyn Brew Shop (BBS) sells beer-making kits and related accessories. Between 2011 and 2016, the Brewery and BBS collaborated on the sale of co-branded beer-making kits. In 2011, BBS obtained a trademark in its name for beer-making kits. In 2014, BBS filed an application to register a mark in its name for several Class 32 goods, including various types of beer and beer-making kits, as well as Class 5 “sanitizing preparations.”

In 2015, the Brewery petitioned for cancellation of BBS’s 2011 trademark registration and filed a notice of opposition to BBS’s 2014 trademark application. The Trademark Trial & Appeal Board (TTAB) denied the petition for cancellation and rejected the opposition. The Brewery appealed.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit first addressed whether the Brewery had standing to appeal the TTAB’s decision. The Court noted that while it “ha[d] not yet had occasion to address Article III standing in a trademark case,” a party appealing a TTAB decision must satisfy both statutory and Article III requirements. The Court held that the Brewery did not have Article III standing to appeal the TTAB’s decision dismissing the opposition with respect to the Class 5 sanitizing preparations because the Brewery did not make or sell sanitizing preparations. The Court found the possibility that the Brewery might someday expand its business to include the sale of sanitizing preparations was not enough to establish the injury-in-fact prong of the Article III standing test. However, the Court found that the Brewery’s past involvement in the sale of co-branded beer-making kits with BBS was sufficient to establish the Brewery’s standing to challenge BBS’s registration and application for Class 32 beer-making kits.

On the merits, the Federal Circuit affirmed the TTAB’s decision with respect to BBS’s 2011 trademark registration. The Court agreed with the TTAB that the Brewery failed to establish inevitable confusion as to the beer-making kits and failed to establish that BBS’s mark was merely descriptive. The Court vacated the TTAB’s decision with respect to the 2014 trademark application, finding that the TTAB erred by not considering whether BBS proved acquired distinctiveness of its application and remanded for further proceedings.

Practice Note: Before seeking review of a TTAB decision in federal court, a party should ensure that it has satisfied the three-part test for Article III standing.




It’s Not Esoteric: Absent Ambiguity, Plain Contractual Language Governs

Rudimentary principles of contract law stipulate that words in a contract that are plain and free from ambiguity must be understood in their usual and ordinary sense. Applying such principles, the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit vacated a district court’s damages award of more than $1 million under a patent license agreement, finding that the release clause in a settlement agreement wiped out the licensee’s obligation to pay royalties and sublicense fees for use and sale that occurred before the effective date of release. The General Hospital Corporation; Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Inc. v. Esoterix Genetic Laboratories, LLC, Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings, Case Nos. 20-2126; -2149 (1st Cir. Oct. 21, 2021) (Selya, J.)

BACKGROUND

The plaintiff hospitals own several diagnostic patents, and Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings (LabCorp) and its subsidiary, Esoterix Genetic Laboratories, are licensee to the patents. Under the master license agreement, the licensee is obligated to pay fees to the hospitals, including royalties and sublicensee incomes.

In 2014, Esoterix settled a lawsuit against QIAGEN in association with a sublicense agreement concerning the diagnostic patents. LabCorp and Esoterix agreed to pay a portion of the settlement amount paid by QIAGEN to the hospitals. The settlement agreement included a broad release clause under which the hospitals released Esoterix from “any and all” obligations, “known or unknown,” that may have arisen out of the patent rights or the license before the effective date (June 27, 2017), including “payment of any past royalties or other fees pursuant to the [license].”

A semi-annual reporting period under the license agreement was due on June 30, 2017. Esoterix took the position that all royalties and sublicense income prior to June 27, 2017, were released, and thus only reported revenue and royalty information for the period of June 28 ­– 30, 2017. The hospitals sued to recover sublicense fees from QIAGEN to Esoterix. The district court found that Esoterix had not been released from its payment obligation for use and sales occurring before June 27, 2017, on the ground that Esoterix’s payment obligation had not originated until the payment deadline, which fell after the effective date of release. Esoterix appealed.

FIRST CIRCUIT DECISIONS

The First Circuit disagreed with the district court and concluded that the terms of the release agreement and the license agreement did not indicate that Esoterix’s obligation arose when the payments became due and payable (i.e., after the effective date of the release).

Following the Massachusetts law in accordance with the choice-of-law provision in the agreements, the First Circuit applied the principle that the plain meaning of the agreements governs, absent ambiguous provisions. The Court decided that the release agreement released Esoterix’s obligations in connection with the underling license agreement that may have arisen before the effective date. Taking into consideration the royalty and sublicensing fee provisions of the license agreement, the Court further decided that Esoterix’s financial obligation under the license agreement, including royalties and sublicense income, arose upon its sales and receipt of sublicensing income, which originated [...]

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US Lawyers Aiding Scam Trademark Applications May Face Sanctions

As reported by the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) this past summer, since mid-2020 trademark applications from US and foreign applicants have “surged to unprecedented levels.” In December 2020 alone, the PTO received 92,608 trademark applications, an increase of 172% over December 2019. Not only has this extraordinary volume of applications created a backlog and delay in the procedural review of new US trademark application filings, but the PTO is experiencing a notable increase in what it calls “suspicious submissions ranging from inaccurate to fraudulent.”

These illegitimate trademark filings harm the quality and integrity of the trademark register and have significant legal and financial impact on legitimate brand owners whose applications may be blocked by fraudulent filings for marks that are identical or similar to their real brands. Faced with a legal obligation to defend and enforce their trademarks, legitimate brand owners are forced to dispute such illegitimate filings with letters of protest, by filing oppositions or cancellation actions in the Trademark Trial & Appeal Board, and even by taking action in the federal courts. Such enforcement and defensive actions can clog up these forums and force brand owners to take on costs that would not otherwise be necessary, and which may distract from, or reduce the budget for, real trademark disputes.

The PTO outlined various strategies and tools to review, assess, challenge and combat suspicious and fraudulent filings, including aspects of the Trademark Modernization Act of 2020. In 2019, the PTO also implemented a rule requiring any overseas trademark applicant to file with a US lawyer. The requirement for a US lawyer appears to have resulted in many foreign applicants (primarily from China) making up fake names, addresses and bar credentials for the US lawyers named in their applications. Not all named US lawyers are fake, however, as the PTO’s investigations into certain lawyers lodging a high volume of trademark filings for Chinese-based applicants have revealed that some US-based lawyers may be taking on clients from China without conducting proper diligence as to the veracity of the client’s trademark application information. For example, the PTO’s investigation of some potentially illegitimate filings from applicants in China reveal doctored or disingenuous specimens of use, including e-commerce listings for products that may not actually exist or are no longer “in stock” (and likely never were “in stock”).

In September 2021, the PTO’s investigations into US lawyers with a high volume of filings for Chinese applicants resulted in two sanctions orders. The first was issued against a lawyer found to have filed thousands of applications for overseas parties deemed fraudulent by operating as a US-based agent for a centralized “filing gateway” platform located in India. The sanction order includes a 12-month probationary period and required ethics and trademarks classes. The second sanction against a US-based lawyer specifically noted that the lawyer did not do enough to properly review the applications that they signed on behalf of an applicant based in China. It has [...]

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This Case Is Both Hot and Exceptional—Attorneys’ Fees and Inequitable Conduct

In a second visit to the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, after the Court affirmed a finding of unenforceability due to inequitable conduct based on “bad faith” non-disclosure of statutory bar prior sales on the first visit, the Court affirmed a remand award of attorneys’ fees based on a finding of exceptionality under 35 U.S.C. § 285. Energy Heating, LLC v. Heat On-The-Fly, LLC, Case No. 20-2038 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 14, 2021) (Prost, J.)

In its earlier decision, the Federal Circuit remanded the case after reversing a district court’s denial of attorneys’ fees, finding that while the district court correctly found that Heat On-The Fly (HOTF) committed inequitable conduct in failing to disclose to the US Patent & Trademark Office multiple instances of prior use of the claimed method, the district court failed to articulate a basis for denying attorneys’ fees other than that HOTF articulated substantial arguments (experimental use) against the finding of inequitable conduct.

On remand, the district court found the case “exceptional” because it “stands out from others within the meaning of § 285 considering recent case law, the nature and extent of HOTF’s inequitable conduct, and the jury’s findings of bad faith.” HOTF appealed.

HOTF contended that the district court abused its discretion by relying on the jury’s bad-faith finding because that finding “had nothing to do with the strength or weakness of HOTF’s litigation positions.” Citing the 2014 Supreme Court decision in Octane Fitness, the Federal Circuit rebuffed that argument, explaining that “HOTF made representations in bad faith that it held a valid patent [which] was within the district court’s ‘equitable discretion’ to consider as part of the totality of the circumstances of HOTF’s infringement case.”

HOTF also argued that the district court erroneously relied on the jury verdict in finding exceptionality because, since the jury found that HOTF did not commit the tort of deceit, it could not have engaged in inequitable conduct. The Federal Circuit rebuffed this argument as well, noting that inequitable conduct was tried to the district court—not the jury—resulting in a judgment of unenforceability that the Court affirmed in the prior appeal and that the jury’s finding of no state-law “deceit” had no bearing on inequitable conduct.

The Federal Circuit further explained that HOTF’s assertion that under the Court’s 2020 decision in Electronic Communication Technologies v. ShoppersChoice.com, the district court was not required to affirmatively weigh whether HOTF’s purported “lack of litigation misconduct” was incorrect. Rather, “the manner in which [patentee] litigated the case or its broader litigation conduct” is merely “a relevant consideration.” Under Octane, the test for whether a case is “exceptional” under § 285 is whether it is “one that stands out from others with respect to the substantive strength of a party’s litigating position . . . or the unreasonable manner in which the case was litigated.”

Finally, the Federal Circuit noted that the district court correctly explained that “[a] finding of inequitable conduct [...]

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