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Employee Agreement of What “Shall Be” is Future Promise, Not Present Assignment

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit concluded that university bylaws did not automatically effectuate a present automatic assignment of patent rights and affirmed the district court’s denial of a motion to dismiss for lack of standing by the transferee. Omni MedSci, Inc. v. Apple Inc., Case No. 20-1715 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 20, 2021) (Linn, J.) (Newman, J., dissenting).

Upon joining the faculty of the University of Michigan, Dr. Mohammed Islam executed an employment agreement assenting to abide by the university’s bylaws. The bylaws provide, in relevant part, that patents obtained by university staff that are supported directly or indirectly by university funds “shall be the property of the University.” In 2012, Dr. Islam took an unpaid leave of absence and filed several provisional patent applications. After he returned to the university in 2013, he filed non-provisional patent applications claiming priority to the 2012 provisional applications. Once those applications issued as patents, he assigned the patent rights to the plaintiff, Omni MedSci.

In 2018, Omni initiated a patent infringement action against Apple asserting certain patents, including one in the family of patents that Islam assigned to Omni. Apple moved to dismiss, arguing that Omni lacked standing to assert the patents-in-suit because the university—not Omni—owned the patents-in-suit. Apple argued that the university’s bylaws automatically transferred legal title to Dr. Islam’s patents to the university, leaving Dr. Islam with nothing to assign. Therefore, Omni had no standing to assert the patents.

The US District Court for the Eastern District of Texas denied the motion to dismiss and transferred the action to the Northern District of California. The California court certified the standing question to the Federal Circuit.

In this interlocutory appeal, the Federal Circuit considered whether the university bylaws automatically assigned the patent rights to the university. The Court explained that a patent assignment clause may presently assign a to-be-issued patent automatically—in which case no further acts to effectuate the assignment are necessary—or may merely promise to assign the patent in the future. The issue in the appeal was which type of assignment was intended by the “shall be the property of the University” language in the bylaws—i.e., whether it was “a statement of an intended outcome [or] a present assignment.” Analyzing the university bylaws, the Court agreed with the district court that the bylaws did not automatically assign the patent rights to the university and therefore did not negate Dr. Islam’s assignment of the patent rights to Omni.

The Federal Circuit concluded that the bylaw language “is most naturally read as a statement of intended disposition and a promise of a potential future assignment, not as a present automatic transfer. … It does not purport to effectuate the present transfer of a present or future right.”

In dissent, Judge Pauline Newman noted that at the district court, Dr. Islam only argued that he was not subject the bylaw obligation since the patent applications were filed without university support. However, the district court did not rule on that issue and [...]

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Making Waves: Post-Employment Contract Assignment Provision Invalid Under California Law

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit invoked “precedents that are relevant but not directly on point” to examine when employment contract provisions may require assignment of inventions conceived post-employment and without use of the former employer’s confidential information, finding that an intellectual property assignment provision in the employer’s predecessor’s employment agreement was void under California law. Whitewater West Industries, Ltd. v. Richard Alleshouse, et al., Case No. 19-1852 (Fed. Cir. Nov. 19, 2020) (Taranto, J.)

Richard Alleshouse began working for Wave Loch in 2007 as an engineer in the field of large-scale sheet-wave water attractions, which are surf and wave simulators sometimes seen on cruise ships and in water parks. Alleshouse’s many duties for the company included the inspection, assessment and improvement of the company’s wave rides; the development of new rides; and product management of the company’s branded FlowRider sheet wave attraction.

After almost five years with the company, Alleshouse consulted with a lawyer, Yong Yeh, regarding the scope of his employment agreement with Wave Loch, which included intellectual property assignment terms that survived termination of the employment agreement. Following that consultation, Alleshouse and Yeh discussed the idea of starting their own company to design sheet-wave attractions. In August 2012, Alleshouse resigned from Wave Loch, and in October 2012, Alleshouse and Yeh filed provisional patent applications that resulted in three different US patents describing and claiming certain “water attractions involving a flowing body of water on a surface” and “nozzle shapes and configurations which create a flowing body of water over a surface.”

In 2017, Whitewater West Industries, the successor to Wave Loch, sued Alleshouse, Yeh and their new company, Pacific Surf Design, in federal district court in California, asserting claims for breach of contract and correction of inventorship. In particular, Whitewater sought an assignment of the three patents under the terms of Alleshouse’s employment contract with Wave Loch, and claimed that Yeh was improperly listed as an inventor on each of the three patents. The district court ruled for Whitewater and found that the intellectual property assignment provision in Alleshouse’s employment agreement was valid and thus breached due to the failure to assign the patent rights at issue. Alleshouse appealed.

Alleshouse challenged the employment agreement’s intellectual property assignment provision as invalid under California Labor Code § 16600, which prohibits any contract provision that restrains a person from a lawful profession, trade or business, and under § 2870(a), which prohibits requiring an employee to assign over any invention that an employee developed entirely on her own time without using the employer’s equipment, supplies, facilities or trade secret information (with certain enumerated exceptions for employee inventions related to the employer’s business or the employee’s work for the business). The parties agreed on two factual points that were important to the Federal Circuit’s analysis on appeal: that the inventions at issue were not conceived until after Alleshouse left his job at Wave Loch, and that Alleshouse did not use any trade secret or confidential information belonging to Wave [...]

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A Party May Have Standing Even with Incorrect Patent Assignment

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a district court’s decision that a reformation of an incorrect assignment supports Article III standing and affirmed the court’s prejudgment interest award. Schwendimann v. Arkwright Advanced Coating, Inc., Case Nos. 18-2416, 19-1012 (Fed. Cir. May 13, 2020) (Wallach, J.) (Reyna, J. dissenting).

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