We Meant It – No Incorporation by Reference

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued a sua sponte order regarding the impermissibility of incorporating by reference arguments from one brief into another, especially when doing so causes the brief to exceed the permitted word count. Promptu Sys. Corp. v. Comcast Cable Commc’ns, LLC, Case No. 22-1093 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 16, 2024) (Moore, CJ; Prost, Taranto, JJ.) (per curiam).

On January 11, 2024, the Federal Circuit heard oral arguments in four related cases involving Promptu and Comcast. During oral argument, the Court asked counsel for the appellee to submit a brief within 10 days, totaling no more than 10 pages, to show why he should not be sanctioned for attempting to incorporate by reference multiple pages – almost 2,000 words – of argument from the brief in one case into another, thereby causing the brief to exceed the word limit.

The Federal Circuit recounted that it has “repeatedly held” that incorporating by reference to exceed word count is not permitted, citing its holdings on this issue in Microsoft v. DataTern (2014) and more recently in Medtronic v. Teleflex Life Sciences (2023). Appellee counsel responded that he was unaware of the Microsoft decision until the appellant’s reply brief had already been filed. The Court accepted his assertion but noted with disapproval that the precedential Microsoft decision admonished “the exact same law firm before us now for the exact same behavior,” and that once made aware of the Microsoft decision, counsel did nothing to remedy the impropriety.

Practice Note: The Federal Circuit did not award sanctions against appellate counsel but sternly warned future litigants that it is improper to incorporate by reference arguments from one brief into another unless in compliance with Fed. R. App. P. 28, and that such incorporation is never permitted if it results in exceeding the applicable word limit. The Court stated that going forward, such a violation “will likely result in [an award of] sanctions.”




Lost Connection: Preliminary Injunction Against Unreleased Product Is a No-Go

Addressing a preliminary injunction motion directed to a competitor’s yet-to-be-released product, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit determined that the district court did not abuse its discretion in finding that the patent holder failed to establish irreparable harm based on speculative evidence. SmartSky Networks, LLC v. Gogo Bus. Aviation, LLC, Case No. 23-1058 (Fed. Cir. Jan. 31, 2024) (Cunningham, Chen, Hughes, JJ.) (non-precedential).

SmartSky Networks and Gogo Business Aviation are competing aviation network providers that offer air-to-ground in-flight internet networks for aircrafts. SmartSky sued Gogo in early 2020, alleging that Gogo’s 5G network infringed four patents related to wireless in-flight internet connections. SmartSky also moved to preliminarily enjoin Gogo from selling its 5G network, which is not yet operational and has yet to be released. In late 2022, the district court denied SmartSky’s motion for preliminary injunction, finding that SmartSky had not shown a likelihood of success or irreparable harm. SmartSky appealed.

SmartSky first moved to supplement the record with new materials relevant to market share, sales and switching costs. The Federal Circuit first denied SmartSky’s motions to supplement the record, noting that it would not consider new evidence on appeal absent extraordinary circumstances, such as instances where the court can take judicial notice of new facts or where the facts would alter the appropriateness of injunctive relief. Because the district court found no likelihood of irreparable harm, despite acknowledging that SmartSky had shown consumer stickiness and direct competition between the parties, the Court concluded that documents related to market share, sales and switching costs would not alter the appropriateness of injunctive relief. The Court further declined to take judicial notice of the facts, which were subject to dispute.

The Federal Circuit then turned to SmartSky’s argument that the district court erred in finding no likelihood of irreparable harm from lost sales and market share, price erosion, lost reputation and goodwill, and lost research and development and investments. Regarding lost sales, SmartSky argued that the district court ignored Gogo’s sales of AVANCE L5 equipment (used for Gogo’s 4G and 5G networks) and that Gogo’s 5G network was not “yet-to-be-released” because it had been on sale since late 2021. The Court found these arguments unpersuasive. The Court noted that SmartSky did not dispute that Gogo had yet to launch its 5G network and found that the district court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that any such sales were quantifiable. As for AVANCE L5, the Court observed that the equipment was currently sold as part of Gogo’s unaccused 4G network, and that the alleged harm would only occur if Gogo launched its 5G network and customers upgraded. Thus, the Court found that any harm from the sales of AVANCE L5 was highly speculative, particularly because the parties are not the only two players in the market and customers may have other non-infringing options.

SmartSky next argued that the district court ignored testimony that customers used Gogo’s pricing to negotiate discounts from SmartSky. The Federal Circuit disregarded this [...]

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No Fair Use for Photo Used Without Required Attribution

The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit concluded that the copyright on a photograph of an entertainment icon was the subject of a valid copyright registration and that use of the photograph in an article missing the author’s required attribution language was not otherwise “fair use.” Philpot v. Independent Journal Review, Case No. 21-2021 (4th Cir. Feb. 6, 2024) (King, Wynn, Rushing, JJ.)

Larry Philpot, a professional concert photographer, photographed Ted Nugent at a concert in July 2013. In August 2013, Philpot registered the photograph with the US Copyright Office and published the photograph on Wiki Commons under a Creative Commons License specifying that anyone could use the photograph for free as long as they provided the following attribution: “Photo Credit: Larry Philpot of www.soundstagephotography.com.”

In 2016, Independent Journal Review (IJR) published an article titled, “Signs Your Daddy Was a Conservative.” One of the “signs” listed in the article was whether “your daddy” was a fan of “The Nuge.” The article used Philpot’s photo in conjunction with this list item. Rather than including the required attribution with Philpot’s photo, IJR included a link to Nugent’s Wikipedia page, which in turn linked to the Wiki Commons site where the photograph was hosted with the proper attribution. IJR generated only $2 to $3 in advertising revenue from the article.

Philpot sued IJR for copyright infringement in May 2020. IJR moved for summary judgment based on its fair use defense and alternatively for a finding that Philpot’s registration was invalid. Philpot moved for summary judgment of valid registration and that IJR’s use did not meet the requirements of fair use. The district court found that there was a genuine issue of material fact regarding the validity of Philpot’s registration but granted IJR’s motion for summary judgment of fair use. Philpot appealed both findings.

Following the statutory four-prong fair use framework and the Supreme Court 2023 fair use analysis in Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts v. Goldsmith, the Fourth Circuit considered whether IJR’s use of the photo was transformative and of a commercial nature or for nonprofit educational purposes. A secondary use is transformative when it has a “further purpose or different character” than the original work. The larger the difference is, the more likely a court is to find that the use constitutes “fair use.” The district court found the work transformative because IJR placed the photo in a new context (i.e., a list of “Signs Your Daddy Was a Conservative.”) The Fourth Circuit, however, found that IJR’s use was not transformative because the two uses “shared substantially the same purpose,” which was to depict Ted Nugent. Beyond cropping negative space in the photo, IJR did not alter or add new expression to the photo and did not “add new purpose or meaning.”

In considering whether the work was for a commercial purpose, the Fourth Circuit questioned whether IJR stood to profit from its use of the photo, not whether IJR was successful at that venture. While the article [...]

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Sliced and Diced: Operating Manuals Are Printed Publications

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed the Patent Trial & Appeal Board’s non-obviousness determination, finding that the Board erred in determining that an operating manual did not qualify as printed publication prior art. Weber, Inc. v. Provisur Technologies, Inc., Case Nos. 22-1751; -1813 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 8, 2024) (Reyna, Hughes, Stark, JJ.)

Provisur owns two patents related to advanced high-speed mechanical slicers used in food processing facilities that precisely slice and package food items such as meats and cheeses. The key components recited in the patent claims are a “loading apparatus” designed to load food items, a “feeding apparatus” responsible for supplying food items to a slicer, and a “stop gate” intended to regulate the assembly of food items prior to their entry into the slicing mechanism.

Weber filed inter partes review (IPR) petitions challenging the validity of several claims of the patents based on certain operating manuals. During the IPR proceedings, the Board determined that Weber’s operating manuals did not qualify as prior art printed publications because they were distributed selectively and subject to confidentiality restrictions. The Board also concluded that the prior art combinations, which included Weber, failed to disclose crucial claim limitations, notably the “disposed over” and “stop gate” limitations. The Board found the challenged claims not unpatentable. Weber appealed.

Weber argued that the Board erred in determining that the operating manuals were insufficiently accessible to constitute printed publications, specifically contending that the Board misapplied the Federal Circuit’s 2009 decision in Cordis Corp. v. Boston Scientific Corp. The Court agreed. It explained that unlike Cordis, where academic monographs were limited to distribution among a select few, Weber’s operating manuals were intended for distribution to purchasers of the machines and others to provide instructions on food slicer usage and maintenance. The Court explained that the evidence in the form of delivery records and email exchanges showed that manuals were available to customers upon purchase or request. The Federal Circuit also noted that the manuals were not bound by any confidentiality restrictions. The Court thus concluded that the operating manuals qualified as printed publications.

Turning to claim construction, the Federal Circuit reversed the Board’s interpretation of the “disposed over” and “stop gate” limitations. Consistent with long-standing precedent, the Court emphasized the importance of examining intrinsic evidence, including the claims themselves, the specification and the patent’s prosecution history. Weber argued that the claims’ language implied a broader feed apparatus positioning over the loading apparatus without strict alignment requirements. Supported by expert opinions, Weber contended that neither the claim language nor the specification mandated direct alignment. The Court agreed with Weber. The Court emphasized that “disposed over” demanded only a general positioning of the feed apparatus above the loading apparatus, not a direct positioning as the Board had construed.

Similarly, concerning the “stop gate” limitation, the Federal Circuit agreed that the Board’s determination was not supported by substantial evidence because evidence, such as the manuals, disclosed the claimed conveyer mechanism in a manner sufficient to establish its [...]

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Even a Non-Explicit Claim Construction Can Be Erroneous

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed a Patent Trial & Appeal Board decision finding the challenged patent claims not obvious over the prior art. The Court found that the Board, after concluding that no claim construction was required, implicitly construed the claim limitation at issue and did so erroneously. Google LLC v. EcoFactor, Case Nos. 22-1750; -1767 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 7, 2024) (Reyna, Taranto, Stark, JJ.)

Google filed a petition for inter partes review (IPR) challenging claims of an EcoFactor patent related to dynamic climate control systems that factor outside weather conditions and thermal conditions inside the home to balance comfort and energy savings. The challenged claims define a method for reducing the cycling time of a climate control system involving “retrieving a target time at which [the] structure [(e.g., a house)] is desired to reach a target temperature.” The challenged method claims recite a step of “determining a first time prior to said target time at which [the] climate control system should turn on to reach the target temperature by the target time.” The relevant claim limitation reads:

[D]etermining a first time prior to said target time at which said climate control system should turn on to reach the target temperature by the target time based at least in part on [i] said one or more thermal performance values of said structure, [ii] said performance characteristic of said climate control system, [iii] said first internal temperature, [iv] said first external temperature, and [v] the forecasted temperature.

During the IPR proceedings, the parties disputed whether a prior art reference disclosed a method involving determining a first time prior to the target time based on a first internal temperature. Google argued that the prior art taught a calculation of a first time prior to the target time based on thermal performance values (input [i]) calculated from internal temperature values (input [iii]). EcoFactor argued that each of the inputs in the claim limitation was a distinct value not dependent on or calculated from any other input. Based on the claim language, the Board determined that claim construction was unnecessary and concluded that inputs [i] – [v] of the relevant claim limitation were separate inputs using different data. The Board concluded that Google had not shown that the challenged claims were unpatentable, reasoning that Google’s theory of obviousness relied on a single input as the basis for both input [i] and input [iii].

Google appealed. Google argued that although the Board stated that no construction was necessary, it incorrectly construed the claim limitation to require five discrete inputs.

The Federal Circuit agreed with Google, finding that the Board’s assessment of the claim limitation implicitly established the claim scope by requiring inputs [i] – [v] to be completely separate. The Court reasoned that the plain claim language did not provide any indication that none of the listed inputs could be based on any other input(s). Imputing this requirement into the limitation was therefore an act of claim construction.

The Federal [...]

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