The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed and remanded a district court decision regarding experimental use under 35 U.S.C. § 102(b) and the application of enhanced damages based on an allegedly flawed noninfringement and invalidity opinion. Sunoco Partners Mktg. & Terminals L.P. v. U.S. Venture, Inc., Case Nos. 20-1640; -1641. (Fed. Cir. Apr. 29, 2022) (Prost, Reyna, Stoll, JJ.)
Sunoco sued Venture for infringement of four patents related to blending butane into gasoline. Venture argued that certain patent claims were invalid because they were subject to the on-sale bar of 35 U.S.C. § 102(b). The district court found that the sale at issue was primarily for experimentation and that the on-sale bar did not apply. Venture also argued that certain claim terms required measuring the actual vapor pressure of the butane and gasoline, but the district court rejected this argument. The district court found infringement and awarded Sunoco $2 million in damages, which it trebled to $6 million after finding that Venture lacked a good faith belief of invalidity or noninfringement because the legal opinion Venture relied upon was flawed. Venture appealed.
On appeal, Venture challenged numerous issues, including the district court’s rejection of its on-sale bar defense, construction of two claim terms and decision to enhance damages.
The Federal Circuit first addressed the district court’s finding that the on-sale bar did not apply to certain claims of two of the asserted patents. Reviewing de novo, the Court applied the Supreme Court’s 2019 Helsinn v. Teva decision, which requires that the on-sale bar applies if the invention was the subject of a commercial sale and ready for patenting. Analyzing the first prong, the Court looked to the contract language of the sale at issue. The inventor’s company offered to sell and install its butane blending technology at a customer’s fuel terminal more than one year before filing the patent application. The terms of the agreement required that the customer commit to purchasing at least 500,000 barrels of butane as consideration for the installation of the fuel mixing system. The Court noted that this agreement expressly described the transaction as a “sale” and did not reference any experimental purpose.
The Federal Circuit was not swayed by the lower court’s view that the contract did not require the customer to pay for the system directly, finding that a commitment to buy product in the future constituted a sale. The Court also gave little weight to the preinstallation testing terms of the agreement, finding that those tests were not experiments, but rather tests to confirm that the equipment was operating as contractually promised. Additional contract terms further cemented the Court’s view that this transaction was a sale, including language that the technology had already been “developed” and that title to the equipment transferred to the customer. The Court concluded that the sale of the system to the customer was not primarily for experimentation. The Court reversed the district court’s experimental-use determination and vacated its infringement determination, directing [...]