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Faked It? Your Contract Won’t Make It

The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed a district court ruling denying a defendant’s motion to enforce an arbitration clause in a software license agreement that the defendant’s employee entered into using a fake company name at the defendant’s direction. CCC Intelligent Sols. Inc. v. Tractable Inc., Case No. 19-1997 (7th Cir. June 6, 2022) (Easterbrook, Brennan, St. Eve, JJ.)

CCC Intelligent Solutions and Tractable are competitors that provide customers, including insurance companies, with cost estimates to repair damaged cars and trucks. Both companies supply software that applies algorithms to data generated by body shops and other repair centers. CCC provides the software to customers under terms in a license agreement. The license prohibits disassembling the software code or incorporating it into other software, forbids assignment of the license without CCC’s consent and includes a representation that the customer is not acting as an agent of any third party. The license also includes an arbitration clause. A Tractable employee obtained a license to CCC’s software under a fake business name, “JA Appraisal,” using a false mailing address and email address. The employee gave the software to Tractable, which disassembled the software and incorporated CCC’s proprietary algorithms into its own product. CCC became aware of Tractable’s improper use of its software and filed a lawsuit in the district court.

Tractable moved to compel arbitration under the terms of the agreement, arguing that JA Appraisal was its agent and that Tractable was therefore a party to the license agreement. The district court denied Tractable’s motion. The district court found that a reasonable jury could find that CCC did not intend to grant Tractable a license, and that CCC could have reasonably believed it was doing business with JA Appraisal based on JA Appraisal’s representations and the agreement’s non-assignment provisions. Tractable appealed.

The Seventh Circuit addressed whether Tractable was a party to the contract. The Court first assessed whether it was publicly known that Tractable did business under the JA Appraisal name. The Court found (and Tractable’s counsel admitted) that it was not possible for CCC to discover that Tractable used that name. Tractable, based on a comment to § 163 of the Restatement of Contracts, argued that § 163 provides that a party’s acceptance of a contract is not effective if it was induced by a misrepresentation of an essential term of the contract by the other party. The cited comment provides an exception to this rule, stating that “the mere fact that a party is deceived as to the identity of the other party” does not bring a case within the auspices of § 163 “unless it affects the very nature of the contract.”

The Seventh Circuit rejected Tractable’s reliance on the comment. The Court found that JA Appraisal’s identity affected the very nature of the contract and therefore the exception recited in the comment did not apply. The Court explained that the exception to § 163 covers situations when a party failed to know the “full truth” [...]

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Over My Dead Body: Defendant Can’t “Wait Until He Dies” to Pay Arbitration Award

The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed the district court’s interpretation of an arbitration award, finding that the defendant could not “wait until he dies” to pay a portion of the damages award. Nano Gas Techs., Inc. v. Roe, Case Nos. 21-1809; -1822 (7th Cir. Apr. 25, 2022) (Rovner, St. Eve, Jackson-Akiwumi, JJ.)

Clifton Roe invented a nozzle that disperses gases into liquids. Roe assigned the invention to Nano Gas as part of a collaboration agreement under which Roe received 20% equity and a board seat. The agreement also provided for a salary that was subject to Nano Gas’s ability to raise capital and Roe’s success in developing the invention at Nano Gas’s facility. The parties’ relationship deteriorated after the collaboration failed to produce the desired results. Roe ultimately took the machine and related intellectual property created by another Nano Gas employee and continued developing the product on his own. Arbitration ensued.

The arbitrator concluded that Roe did not have the right to remove the machine and related intellectual property from Nano Gas’s facility. The arbitrator determined that Roe should pay Nano Gas for the financial harm it suffered but also found that Roe deserved compensation for his work on the technology. In his award, the arbitrator indicated that he had initially considered giving Roe a royalty on future profits but declined to do so because Roe was a shareholder in Nano Gas and could benefit financially from the invention’s future success. The arbitrator offset Nano Gas’s $1.5 million damages award with an award to Roe of $1 million and ordered Roe to pay the $500,000 offset “in such manner as Roe chooses.” Roe was also required to return the related intellectual property or pay Nano Gas $150,000.

Nano Gas sued to enforce the award, and the district court entered judgment for $650,000 ($500,000 for the offset and $150,000 for the intellectual property). Nano Gas then filed a turnover motion for Roe’s Nano Gas stock, valued at $117,000. Roe argued that the arbitration award protected his status as a shareholder and allowed him to pay the damages “in such manner as [he] chooses.” Roe planned to pay the award with dividends from his stock and maintained that he could “wait until he die[s]” to satisfy the debt. The district court denied Nano Gas’s turnover motion, finding that Roe was entitled to remain a shareholder and could pay both awards “in such a manner as Roe chooses.” Nano Gas filed a motion to reconsider, and the court amended its order to require Roe to either turn over the stock or identify other assets to satisfy the $150,000 award. As to the remaining $500,000, the district court found that Roe could still choose how and when to pay that portion of the award. Both parties appealed.

The Seventh Circuit first addressed Roe’s argument that the arbitration award entitled him to remain a shareholder. The Court observed that the award did not stipulate that Roe would remain a shareholder indefinitely [...]

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Patents and Trade Secrets Aren’t Mutually Exclusive: The Nuanced Nature of Trade Secret Protection

Addressing the nuanced nature of trade secret protection of patented products, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed a district court’s trade secret protection determination, finding that the asserted trade secrets were not publicly disclosed and had been adequately protected. Life Spine, Inc. v. Aegis Spine, Inc., Case No. 21-1649 (7th Cir. Aug. 9, 2021) (St. Eve, J.)

The underlying conflict in this case has its roots in a short-lived business relationship between two companies specializing in selling spinal implant devices. Life Spine makes and sells a device called the ProLift Expandable Spacer System. Aegis Spine contracted with Life to distribute Life’s ProLift system to hospitals and surgeons for scheduled surgeries. Under the distribution agreement, Aegis was obligated to protect Life’s confidential information, act as a fiduciary for Life’s property and refrain from reverse engineering the ProLift system. Aegis did not abide by its contractual promises. It gave information about Life’s ProLift system to L&K Biomed, Aegis’s parent company and Life’s direct competitor. L&K used Life’s confidential information to develop a competing spinal implant device. Shortly after L&K’s device appeared on the market, Life sued Aegis for trade secret misappropriation and breach of the distribution agreement. The district court ruled in favor of Life, granting its motion for preliminary injunction against Aegis and its business partners, all of whom could no longer market the competing product. Aegis appealed.

Aegis argued that the injunction rested on the flawed legal conclusion that a company can have trade secret protection on a device that it publicly discloses through patents, displays and sales. The Seventh Circuit disagreed.

While the Court reaffirmed that there can be no trade secret protection in information available in the public domain, it found that such was not the nature of the information sought to be protected in this matter. Rather, the Seventh Circuit agreed with the district court that Life did not publicly disclose the specific information it sought to protect via patenting, displaying and selling its ProLift system.

The ProLift expandable spinal implant consists of the implant (or cage) component and an installer. The cage comprises an upper and lower endplate, a nose and base ramp and an expansion screw. The installer is used to insert the cage into a patient’s spine and expand the affected spinal disc height. Life considers “the precise dimension and measurements of the ProLift components and subcomponents and their interconnectivity” to be confidential trade secrets. The district court found that third parties are unable to access that precise dimensional information without first signing confidentiality agreements, and the information is not available in any of Life’s marketing materials (which include only dimensional approximations) or patents. Life’s ProLift system cannot be purchased by the general public or even handled at industry convention displays without Life’s close supervision. Instead, Life’s distributors sell ProLift directly to hospitals and surgeons for scheduled surgeries only.

The Seventh Circuit noted that “a limited disclosure” does not destroy all trade secret protection on a product, allowing a company [...]

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Blueprint Blooper: Floor Plan Copyright Infringement Requires Virtually Identical Copying

Addressing whether a home builder’s floor plans infringed the plaintiff’s architectural copyrights, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed a lower court’s entry of summary judgment against the plaintiff, finding that only a virtually identical design would infringe the plaintiff’s “thin copyright” in its floor plans. Design Basics, LLC v. Signature Construction, Inc., Case No. 19-2716 (7th Cir. Apr. 23, 2021) (Sykes, J.)

Design Basics, described bluntly by the Seventh Circuit as a “copyright troll,” holds copyrights in thousands of floor plans for suburban single-family homes. Design Basics sued Signature Construction (Signature) for infringement of 10 of its designs. Discovery showed that Signature held copies of four of Design Basics’ designs, one of which had been marked up by a Signature employee. Signature moved for summary judgment, relying on a 2017 Seventh Circuit opinion in Basic Designs v. Lexington Homes in which the Court found that Design Basics’ copyright protection in its floor plans was “thin.” The district court granted summary judgment against Design Basics, and this appeal followed.

Relying heavily on Lexington Homes, the Seventh Circuit took the opportunity to clarify the elements of a prima facie case of copyright infringement for works with “thin” copyright protection. The Court explained that to establish infringement, the plaintiff must prove (1) ownership of a valid copyright and (2) copying of original elements of the work. Because ownership was not contested in this case, the Court focused on the copying element. The Court explained that “copying” constitutes two separate questions: Whether the defendant actually copied the plaintiff’s protected work (as opposed to creating it independently) and whether the copying constituted wrongful copying, also known as unlawful appropriation.

Because there is rarely direct evidence of copying, circumstantial evidence may be used to infer actual copying, the Seventh Circuit explained. Proving actual copying by circumstantial evidence requires evidence of access to the plaintiff’s work and evidence of substantial similarity between the two works. The analysis of substantial similarity is not limited to the protected elements of the plaintiff’s work; any similarities may be probative of actual copying. However, the unlawful appropriation prong requires substantial similarities to the protected elements of the copyrighted work. The Court noted that the use of the same term for two different tests has caused confusion, and therefore implemented the term “probative similarity” when referring to actual copying, and “substantial similarity” in the case of unlawful appropriation. The Court went on to explain that in the case of thin copyright protection such as this, proving unlawful appropriation requires more than a substantial similarity; only a “virtually identical” plan will infringe.

The Seventh Circuit then turned to the issues of scènes à faire and merger. Citing its detailed analysis in Lexington Homes, the Court noted that arrangements of rooms in Design Basics’ floor plans were largely scènes à faire, deserving no copyright protection. For example, placement of the dining room near the kitchen and a bathroom near the bedrooms is rudimentary, commonplace and standard, and [...]

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Internet Sales Lead to Personal Jurisdiction Despite No Physical Presence

Addressing the issue of personal jurisdiction in a trademark infringement case, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed the district court and concluded that the plaintiff had made a prima facie showing that defendants, who had no physical presence in the forum state, were subject to personal jurisdiction based on sales to consumers through an interactive website. Charles Curry d/b/a/ Get Diesel Nutrition v. Revolution Labs. LLC, Case No. 17-2900 (7th Cir. Feb. 10, 2020) (Ripple, J).

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When It’s All In the Family: Reverse Confusion Not a Basis for Broad Trademark Remedies

Addressing reverse confusion and scope of available remedies, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld a district court’s refusal to award infringing profits and a broad permanent injunction after a jury found infringement. Fabick, Inc. v. JFTCO, Inc., Case Nos. 19-1760; -0072 (7th Cir. Dec. 9, 2019) (Flaum, J.)

This trademark dispute originates with a family feud. John Fabick, founder of the John Fabick Tractor Company, purchased two Caterpillar equipment dealerships intending for his son, Joe, to operate the dealerships. At the time, the John Fabick Tractor Company had used the mark FABICK in connection with its business. Joe later founded FABCO, which sold Caterpillar equipment and related goods. Eventually, one of Joe’s sons, Jeré, took over FABCO.

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Seventh Circuit Formally Adopts Octane Fitness Standard for Trademark Cases

TRADEMARKS / ATTORNEY’S FEE AWARD

The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit officially joined its sister circuits in holding that the Supreme Court standard for awarding attorney’s fees in patent cases, set forth in Octane Fitness, LLC v. ICON Health & Fitness, Inc., was equally applicable to attorney’s fees claims under the Lanham Act. In doing so, the Seventh Circuit overruled its prior holding that a plaintiff’s claims were only “exceptional” under the Lanham Act if they constituted an abuse of process. LHO Chicago River, LLC v. Perillo, Case. No. 19-1848 (7th Cir. Nov. 8, 2019) (Manion, J).

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