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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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US Courts Can Compel Parties to Transfer Ownership of Foreign Patents

Addressing a district court decision agreeing to transfer ownership of certain US patents, but declining to do likewise for the related foreign patents, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit explained that US courts have authority to compel litigants before them to transfer ownership of their patents and held that ownership of the foreign patents should have been transferred as well. SiOnyx LLC v. Hamamatsu Photonics K.K., Case Nos. 19-2359, 20-1217 (Fed. Cir. Dec. 7, 2020) (Lourie, J.).

In 1998, a professor at Harvard discovered a process for creating black silicon with unique properties and launched a company, SiOnyx, to commercialize the invention. SiOnyx eventually met with Hamamatsu, a manufacturer of silicon-based photodetector devices, and entered into a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) to share confidential information to explore a potential joint venture. SiOnyx provided information to Hamamatsu under the NDA, but the joint venture plans never came to fruition, and Hamamatsu allowed the agreement to lapse. A short time later, Hamamatsu began marketing photodetector devices using black silicon and applied for foreign patents covering its products, along with related US patents. SiOnyx sued Hamamatsu for breach of contract, infringement of a SiOnyx patent and for ownership of Hamamatsu’s patents.

The case ultimately went to trial and led to a jury verdict in SiOnyx’s favor on breach of contract and infringement. The jury also found that one of SiOnyx’s employees had contributed to the inventions claimed by Hamamatsu’s patents. Based on that inventorship finding, the district court transferred sole ownership of the US patents to SiOnyx pursuant to an NDA provision retaining intellectual property rights for confidential information shared under the agreement. The district court also treated the ownership transfer as an equitable remedy in view of Hamamatsu’s breach of the agreement. However, the district court declined to transfer ownership of the foreign patents because it questioned its authority to do so. Both parties appealed.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit first disposed of most of the appellate issues as being resolved by the jury verdict. Regarding ownership of the patents, Hamamatsu argued that the jury finding of co-inventorship by SiOnyx’s employee, rather than sole inventorship, implied that Hamamatsu employees also contributed to the invention and thus warranted partial ownership. The Court rejected this argument because it found that Hamamatsu had not shown that its contribution was derived from confidential information shared under the NDA and thus did not trigger any ownership rights under the agreement. The Federal Circuit also reasoned that Hamamatsu’s inventive contribution would not bar the equitable relief imposed by the district court. As for the foreign patents, the Court agreed with SiOnyx that the same grounds that led to transfer of the US patents also warranted transfer of the foreign patents, and reiterated that US courts have authority to compel the parties properly before them to transfer ownership of their patents.

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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Summary Judgment Foreclosed when There Is More than One Possible Inference from Evidence

Reversing a summary judgment ruling that barred a correction of inventorship claim, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, found issues of material fact foreclosed summary judgment and warned that where an issue is a “quintessentially fact-laden one” such as equitable issue involving possible equitable estoppel on inventorship, summary judgement is likely not appropriate.. Ferring B.V. et al. v. Allergan, Inc. et al., Case No. 20-1098 (Fed. Cir. Nov. 10, 2020) (O’Malley, J.)

From 1998 to 2002, Dr. Seymour Fein worked as a consultant for Ferring Pharmaceuticals to develop a drug that helps regulate the body’s retention of water. That work apparently did not include any obligation by Fein to assign any inventions. As a result, both Ferring and Fein ultimately filed dueling patent applications directed to aspects of the drug and its use. In correspondence that took place while patent prosecution was pending, Fein indicated to Ferring that his application would be directed to a low dose administration route for the drug. Ferring responded that it believed that aspect (i.e., the low dose route) to be disclosed by prior art. Both sides eventually obtained patents, and Fein assigned his patents to Allergan.

In 2012, Ferring filed a state court action for correction of inventorship, seeking to add its researchers to Fein’s patents. Allergan counterclaimed with its own inventorship claim seeking to add Fein to Ferring’s patents, and also asserted an equitable estoppel defense based on the above-noted correspondence between the parties that occurred during patent prosecution. Allergan then moved for summary judgment on its equitable estoppel defense, which was granted. The judge subsequently held a bench trial and rejected Allergan’s inventorship claim. Ferring appealed the summary judgment decision.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit rejected Ferring’s argument that the trial court should not have considered any conduct that preceded issuance of the patents for purposes of equitable estoppel. However, the Federal Circuit held that the trial court’s summary judgment decision had improperly resolved issues of material fact regarding that pre-issuance conduct. According to the Federal Circuit, the pre-issuance discussions did not lead to only one possible inference, but rather were subject to interpretation because the claim scope discussed (low dose administration) did not necessarily match the claim scope ultimately granted. As a result, the Federal Circuit vacated the summary judgment decision and remanded to the district court.

Logic to Modify: Even Deceptive Intent Does Not Bar Inventorship Correction

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit vacated a district court invalidity determination finding that judicial estoppel prevented a patent owner from relisting an inventor previously removed for strategic litigation purposes. Egenera, Inc. v. Cisco Sys., Inc., Case Nos. 19-2015, -2387 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 28, 2020) (Prost, C.J.).

Egenera sued Cisco for infringement of a patent directed to a reconfigurable virtual network that included a “logic to modify” and transmit received messages. In response Cisco petitioned for inter partes review (IPR). During the IPR’s pendency, Egenera realized that all claim limitations were conceived of before inventor Schulter began working at the company, and petitioned the US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) to remove Schulter as a listed inventor. The Patent and Trial Appeal Board (PTAB) declined to institute Cisco’s IPR, and the PTO granted Egenera’s petition to remove Schulter shortly thereafter.

During the litigation, the district court construed the patent claims’ “logic” terms as means-plus-function elements and concluded that the “logic to modify” limitation corresponded to a “tripartite structure” described in the specification. Cisco then asserted invalidity under pre-America Invents Act (AIA) § 102(f), contending that Schulter invented the tripartite structure, and that the patent therefore did not list all inventors. Egenera attempted to re-correct inventorship to include Schulter, but the court rejected the attempt. The district court found the patent invalid under § 102(f), reasoning that judicial estoppel precluded Egenera from “resurrecting” Schulter’s inventorship. Egenera appealed both the means-plus-function construction and the judicial estoppel finding.

The Federal Circuit first addressed whether Egenera could correct inventorship absent any judicial estoppel. The Court looked to the plain meaning of post-AIA § 256, which provides that “the error of omitting inventors . . . shall not invalidate the patent . . . if it can be corrected.” Notably, post-AIA § 256 removed the requirement that an inventorship error occur “without . . . deceptive intent.” The Federal Circuit stated it plainly: “‘Error’ is simply the incorrect listing of inventors” and does not exclude even deceptive intention. The Court explained that the inequitable conduct rules provide a safety valve for such actions, not § 256. The Court also noted that at the time Egenera removed Schulter as an inventor, no one had argued that “logic to modify” was means-plus-function language, which it presumptively was not. Egenera’s preferred construction of that term was consistent with its assertion that Schulter was not an inventor. The omission of Schulter as inventor was thus an “error” within the scope of § 256.

The Federal Circuit next turned to whether Egenera was judicially estopped from relisting Schulter as an inventor. Applying the First Circuit’s New Hampshire factors, the Federal Circuit looked to whether Egenera’s positions were inconsistent, whether its first position was successfully accepted by the court, and whether Egenera would derive an unfair advantage if not estopped. The Federal Circuit found that the district court erred in finding Egenera’s changing inventorship positions inconsistent. The Court explained that inventorship is complex and can depend on claim [...]

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Independently Performed, Publicly Disclosed Prior Work Can Lead to Joint Inventorship

Addressing an inventorship decision that added two co-inventors to patents covering cancer treatments, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit agreed that the co-inventors’ work constituted joint inventorship even though it was performed independently and publicly disclosed prior to conception of the claimed invention. Dana-Farber Cancer Institute v. Ono Pharma. Co., Ltd., Case No. 19-2050 (Fed. Cir. July 14, 2020) (Lourie, J.).

In 2015, Dana-Farber filed an inventorship correction claim seeking to add two of its researchers as inventors to six patents covering cancer treatments that named inventors who had assigned the patents to Ono Pharmaceutical. After an eight-day bench trial, the district court judge issued a 111-page decision agreeing that Dana-Farber’s researchers were joint inventors for all six patents. Ono appealed.

Ono first argued that, as a matter of law, the contributions from Dana-Farber’s researchers were too far removed from the claimed invention because their contributions had been independently performed and publicly disclosed prior to conception, and thus constituted prior art to the patents. The Federal Circuit acknowledged that simply informing another inventor about the state of the prior art does not make one a joint inventor. However, the Court contrasted that situation with a genuine contribution by a participant in a collaborative enterprise that lasted over a year, where the contribution happened to be published shortly before conception. The Court stated that such a situation may be sufficient to lead to joint inventorship.

Ono also contested the district court’s factual determination that Dana-Farber’s researchers contributed to the invention as claimed. Specifically, Ono argued that the contributions from Dana-Farber’s researchers did not relate to the claimed subject matter of an antibody for a particular receptor. Dana-Farber responded that, as found by the district court, all six patents had the same core invention of blocking a particular ligand-receptor interaction and thus the identification of the relevant ligand by Dana-Farber’s researchers was properly considered part of the conception of all claims. The Federal Circuit agreed and affirmed the district court.