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Third-Party Licensing Information May Be Exception to General Right of Public Access to Court Records

In a second appeal relating to sealing third-party licensing information, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit vacated and remanded a district court’s order denying a motion to seal because the district court failed to follow the Federal Circuit’s previous instruction to make particularized determinations regarding the information. Uniloc USA, Inc. v. Apple Inc., Case No. 21-1568 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 9, 2022) (Lourie, Cunningham, JJ.) (Mayer, J., dissenting).

In a previous decision, the Federal Circuit affirmed the denial of a motion to seal with regard to information pertaining to Uniloc but vacated and remanded the denial of the motion to seal with regard to certain third-party licensing information. The Court instructed the district court to “make particularized determinations as to whether and, if so, to what extent, the materials of each of these [third] parties should be made public.”

On remand, the district court again denied the motion to seal the third-party licensing information. The district court made findings regarding the relative weight of the public’s interest in accessing judicial records, including patent licensing information. It also found that the particular licensing information at issue was relevant to a dispute over Uniloc’s standing to sue. With regard to one particular third party, Uniloc’s financier Fortress Credit Co. LLC, the district court denied the motion to seal because Fortress had not complied with Local Rule 79-5(e)(1) of the Northern District of California, which requires that a supporting declaration be filed. Uniloc appealed a second time.

The Federal Circuit found that the district court failed to follow its instructions to make particularized determinations regarding whether the third-party licensing information sought to be sealed should be made public. Accordingly, the Court remanded for the district court to carry out the inquiry it had previously ordered.

The Federal Circuit also noted its disagreement with certain statements the district court had made in its order denying the motion to seal. The district court had stated that “[t]he public has an interest in inspecting the valuation of patent rights . . . particularly given secrecy so often plays into the patentee’s advantage in forcing bloated royalties.” The Federal Circuit stated that the district court committed “an error of law in making a blanket ruling that the public has a broad right to licensing information relating to patents.” While the district court had stated that the public has a strong interest in knowing the full extent of the terms and conditions involved in the exercise of its patent rights and in seeing the extent to which the patentee’s exercise of the government grant affects commerce, the Federal Circuit wrote that “[a]bsent an issue raised by the parties concerning license rights and provisions, there is no public interest or entitlement to information concerning consideration for the grant of licenses.” And while the amount Uniloc received in royalties was relevant to the dispute regarding standing, the Court wrote that “that fact can be proved without opening up all the licenses that the court granted [...]

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Third Parties Not Responsible for Defective Motion to Seal

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that a district court did not abuse its discretion in denying reconsideration of a previous order denying a litigant’s defective motion to seal  with regard to the litigant’s own information, but vacated and remanded for further consideration with regard to third-party information. Uniloc 2017 LLC v. Apple, Inc., Case Nos. 19-1922, -1923, -1925, ‑1926 (Fed. Cir. July 9, 2020) (Mayer, J.).

Uniloc sued Apple for patent infringement in the Northern District of California. Apple moved to dismiss. The briefing on the motion included material that Uniloc had designated as highly confidential. Both parties filed motions to seal. Uniloc’s motions to seal covered quotations from published opinions and matters of public record, among other things. Uniloc’s supporting declarations included only boilerplate assertions of harm from disclosure. Non-party Electronic Frontier Foundation asked Uniloc to narrow its redactions, and when Uniloc declined, Electronic Frontier moved to intervene for the purpose of opposing Uniloc’s sealing motions. The district court denied the motions to seal as overbroad under the local rules, which require such motions to be narrowly tailored.

Uniloc sought an extension of time and ultimately filed a motion for leave to seek reconsideration. In that motion, it agreed to make public more than 90% of the material it had originally sought to seal. It also filed a new motion to seal the remainder. In support, it attached a much more specific declaration supporting sealing the more limited set of materials, as well as several declarations of third-party licensees, who stated that disclosure of their confidential information would be harmful to them. The court denied the motion seeking leave as not meeting the local rules’ requirements for reconsideration. The court also denied the narrower motion to seal, reasoning that Uniloc should have filed a proper motion to seal in the first instance. Uniloc appealed.

Uniloc argued that the district court had abused its discretion in denying the narrower motion to seal. In considering Uniloc’s argument, the Federal Circuit distinguished between Uniloc’s information and third-party information. Applying Ninth Circuit law, the Court held that the district court had not abused its discretion by strictly enforcing its local rules with regard to Uniloc’s information. Uniloc had violated the local rules in its motion to seal and subsequent motion for reconsideration. Moreover, the Court explained that notwithstanding the submission of a narrowly tailored motion, the burden is always on the moving party to provide compelling reasons for sealing, which Uniloc had failed to do.

Next, the Federal Circuit explained that third-party information “calls for an analysis not dependent on the overbreadth rationale” because third parties should not be harmed by a litigant’s failure to follow the local rules. Because the district court’s analysis had been based on overbreadth, the Court found that the district court “failed to make findings sufficient to allow us to adequately assess whether it properly balanced the public’s right of access against the interests of the third parties in shielding their . . [...]

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