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Employment Agreement Assignment Provisions Don’t Reach Post-Employment Inventions

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit rejected a biotechnology company’s argument that assignment provisions in its employment agreements granted ownership rights in post-employment inventions. Bio-Rad Laboratories, Inc. v. Int’l Trade Comm’n, Case No. 20-1785 (Fed. Cir. Apr. 29, 2021) (Taranto, J.)

10X filed an International Trade Commission (ITC) complaint against Bio-Rad, alleging that Bio-Rad’s microfluidic systems infringed 10X’s gene sequencing patents. Bio-Rad raised an affirmative defense alleging that it co-owned the asserted patents because two of the named inventors, formerly employed by Bio-Rad and its predecessor QuantaLife before forming 10X, conceived the ideas embodied in the patents while they were still employed by Bio-Rad. The two inventors had executed employment agreements, including provisions requiring disclosure and assignment of intellectual property created during their employment with Bio-Rad. The two inventors left Bio-Rad and formed 10X several months before the earliest conception date of the asserted patents.

The ITC administrative law judge rejected Bio-Rad’s co-ownership defense, concluding that Bio-Rad had not shown the inventive concept of the asserted patents was conceived before the inventors left Bio-Rad. The administrative law judge also found that Bio-Rad infringed 10X’s patents and that 10X satisfied the technical domestic industry requirement by practicing the asserted patents. The ITC affirmed the administrative law judge’s determinations and also found that the asserted claims were not invalid for indefiniteness. Bio-Rad appealed.

Bio-Rad argued, among other things, that the ITC erred in not finding co-ownership of the asserted patents based on the assignment provisions. Bio-Rad also contended that during their employment at Bio-Rad, the two inventors had conceived the ideas that contributed to the inventions reflected in the 10X patents, and the invention assignment provisions of their employment agreement required assignment of their interest to Bio-Rad.

The Federal Circuit affirmed the ITC. On the co-inventorship issue, the Court adopted the ITC’s conclusion and found that Bio-Rad had no ownership interest in the asserted patents, explaining that the assignment provisions did not apply to ideas developed during employment solely because the ideas ended up contributing to a post-employment patentable invention. The Court found that the language was limited to a grant of actual intellectual property, i.e., subject matter protectable as a patent created during the term of employment with Bio-Rad. The Court reasoned that a person’s work that contributes, even significantly, to a later patentable invention does not create protectable intellectual property until a patentable invention is made, and that therefore, the assignment provisions did not reach the ideas that Bio-Rad alleged were conceived during the inventors’ Bio-Rad employment.

The Court also noted policy reasons for limiting the reach of the assignment provisions, including the difficult compliance issues raised by requiring assignment of rights in post-employment inventions. The Court explained that such provisions might deter a former employee from pursuing work related to their prior work, or deter a potential future employer from hiring that individual to work in an area similar to that in which they had prior experience. The Court also agreed with the ITC’s conclusion that [...]

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If You Can’t Build it, They Won’t Come: No Obviousness Based on Fanciful Engine Design

Reaffirming that a person of ordinary skill in the art must have been able to actually create a disclosure at the time of invention in order for it to serve as an obviousness reference, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed a decision by the Patent Trial & Appeal Board (the Board) in an inter partes review (IPR), concluding that a patent covering certain turbofan engine technology was not rendered obvious by a prior art publication that could not be realized into practice. Raytheon Techs. Corp. v. General Electric Co., Case No. 20-1755 (Fed. Cir. Apr. 16, 2021) (Chen, J.)

The issue on appeal was relatively straightforward. In an IPR, GE challenged as obvious a Raytheon patent that covered a specific design of geared gas turbine engine that provided for a “power density” higher than previously invented turbine engines. The patent defined “power density” as a “sea-level-takeoff thrust” divided by the engine turbine volume. During the IPR, GE relied on a 1987 NASA technical memorandum as art and argued that the reference, which envisioned superior performance characteristics based on an advanced engine that was made entirely of composite materials, rendered the challenged claims obvious. The parties did not dispute that this engine was unattainable in 1987, and may still be impossible today, because the envisioned composite materials do not yet (and may never) exist. The memorandum disclosed several performance factors, but not power density, sea-level-takeoff thrust or turbine volume. Nonetheless, GE argued, and the Board agreed, that the memorandum disclosed performance parameters that would have permitted an ordinarily skilled artisan to derive power densities that would have fallen within the range claimed in Raytheon’s patent.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit agreed with Raytheon, concluding that the imaginary engine of the NASA memorandum could not serve as an invalidating reference. In reversing the Board, the Federal Circuit reiterated two bedrock principles of obviousness law:

  • An obviousness reference must be enabled by the knowledge of an ordinarily skilled artisan at the time of the invention (but need not be self-enabling).
  • An invention cannot be rendered obvious by a non-self-enabling reference if no other prior art evidence or reference enables the non-self-enabling reference.

In addition, when a reference’s enablement is challenged, the party offering the reference bears a burden to establish that the reference, itself or in combination with other contemporaneous knowledge, was enabled.

Applying these principles here, the Federal Circuit determined that GE had not met its burden to show that the memorandum was indeed enabled. The Board, wrongly in the Court’s view, focused solely on whether an ordinarily skilled artisan was taught the parameters to ascertain a power density, rather than whether the prior art disclosed a turbofan engine possessing the requisite power density. Finding no evidence in the record to conclude that “a skilled artisan could have made the claimed turbofan engine with the recited power density,” the Court reversed.

Practice Note: Although this case does not break new obviousness ground, it reinforces the general [...]

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Old Dawg, Still the Same Tricks: Bankruptcy Asset Successor is Also Inter Partes Re-Exam Successor

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued a modified opinion correcting certain facts relating to a decision in which it originally concluded that because a plaintiff was a successor in bankruptcy, it was a successor in an inter partes re-examination. Mojave Desert Holdings, LLC v. Crocs, Inc., Case No. 20-1167 (Fed. Cir. Apr. 21, 2021 (modified), Feb. 11, 2021 (original)) (Dyk, J.)

In its original decision, the Court found that Mojave should be substituted for the original requestor following the sale of the original re-examination requestor’s right, title and interest in, to and under its assets to a holding company, which further assigned such assets and interests to Mojave. After the decision, Crocs moved for reconsideration because the original opinion incorrectly found that Mojave was the original requestor’s successor-in-interest. Instead, Crocs argued that Mojave had simply acquired assets from the original requestor, including litigation claims. Crocs argued that this distinction necessitated reconsideration of the original decision.

In response, the Federal Circuit issued a modified opinion that, while clarifying the facts, did not change the ultimate outcome. The Court found that the transfer of assets, including rights and claims of past acts of infringement, provided necessary Article III standing to maintain the proceeding. Accordingly, the Court allowed Mojave to be substituted for the original requestor.




Stated Purpose More Decisive than Definition in Construing Claims

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed a Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) obviousness decision, finding the decision was infected by an erroneous claim construction that failed to consider the purpose of the claimed invention. Kaken Pharmaceutical Co., LTD v. Iancu, Case No. 18-2232 (Fed. Cir. Mar. 13 2020)(Taranto, J.).

Kaken owns a patent claiming a method for topically treating fungal infections in nails. Fungal infections of the nail plate and nail bed are notoriously difficult to treat because topical treatments cannot penetrate the thick keratin in the nail plate. The patent describes an effective topical treatment with an antifungal, KP-103, having good permeability, retention capacity and activity in the nail plate. The patent specification notes that topical treatments known in the prior art were largely ineffective at penetrating the nail plate and treating onychomycosis.

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Choosing Advocacy over Candor Renders Patent Unenforceable

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld the district court’s finding that the patents-in-suit were unenforceable due to inequitable conduct because of a failure to disclose information related to an offer for sale of the claimed invention made more than one year prior to the critical date. GS Cleantech Corp v Adkins Energy LLC, Case Nos. 16-2231, 17-1838; GS Cleantech Corp. et al. v. Big River Resources Galva, LLC et al., Case No. 17-1832 (Fed Cir. March 2, 2020) (Wallach, J.)

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Patent-Eligible Improvements to Computer Functionality Must Be Directed to an Improvement of the Computer or Network Platform

Applying the US Supreme Court’s Alice v. CLS framework, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld a Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) finding patent claims directed to data management and processing systems for merely storing advertising data were not patent eligible under 35 U.S.C. §101. Customedia Techs., LLC v. Dish Network Corp., Case No.18-2239 (Fed. Cir. Mar. 6, 2020) (Moore, J.)

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En Banc Federal Circuit Leaves ‘Consisting Essentially Of’ High and Dry

In an 8–4 decision, the en banc US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued a per curiam order upholding its earlier panel decision finding a claim using the transitional phrase “consisting essentially of” to be indefinite because of inconsistences in the manner in which the patent specification explained the meaning of “better drying time” in connection with use of the claimed formulation. The Court denied plaintiff’s petition for panel rehearing and for rehearing en banc. HZNP Fin. Ltd. v. Actavis Labs. UT, Inc., Case No. 17-2149 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 25, 2020) (per curiam) (Lourie, J, joined by Newman, O’Malley and Stoll, JJ, dissenting). Judge Newman also dissented in the original panel decision. (more…)




Failure to Mark Can Put Damages Underwater

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed that patented articles must be marked in order for the patentee to recover pre-notification or pre-complaint damages. Arctic Cat Inc. v. Bombardier Recreational Products Inc., Case No. 19-1080 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 19, 2020) (Lourie, J).

In 2002, Arctic Cat entered into a licensing agreement with Honda for patents related to personal watercraft. The license agreement contained no provisions requiring Honda, as a licensee, to mark all licensed products with the applicable patent numbers. Honda began selling unmarked watercraft, and Arctic Cat made no attempt to ensure that the products were marked. Approximately a decade later, Honda stopped selling the unmarked products.

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Knowledge and Control of Importation Can Lead to § 337 Violation

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a US International Trade Commission (ITC) decision that a respondent qualified as an importer under § 337 despite not being the actual importer of record, based on the respondent’s involvement in the importation. Comcast Corp. et al. v. ITC, Case Nos. 18-1450, -1653, -1667 (Fed. Cir. Mar. 2, 2020) (Newman, J).

In 2016, Rovi filed a complaint with the ITC against Comcast and its suppliers based on infringement allegations of seven patents related to digital video guide technologies. Rovi dropped one asserted patent prior to trial, and the ITC’s administrative law judge ultimately found a § 337 violation based on two of the remaining patents. In late 2017, the ITC commissioners affirmed the administrative law judge’s determination and entered an exclusion order against Comcast.

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Federal Circuit Confirms Time Bar Under § 315(b) Is Waivable

Notwithstanding the jurisdictional nature of the time bar under § 315(b), the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit determined that a party may waive a time bar argument if it failed to raise the issue with the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) during the inter partes review (IPR) proceeding. Acoustic Tech. Inc. v. Itron Networked Solutions, Inc., Case No. 19-1061 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 13, 2020) (Reyna, J.).

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