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Fifth Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Walker Process Claim, Disagrees with Federal Circuit Transfer of Action

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a summary judgment order dismissing a Walker Process monopolization action brought by Ronald Chandler and his oilfield service company Chandler Manufacturing (collectively, Chandler). The Fifth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s tossing of the action, holding that the alleged claims lacked a nexus to antitrust injury and were time barred under the four-year statute of limitations. Ronald Chandler et al. v. Phoenix Services, LLC, Case No. 21-10626 (5th Cir. Aug. 15, 2022) (Wiener, Graves, Duncan, JJ.)

A Walker Process monopolization action involves antitrust claims regarding fraudulently obtained patents. Chandler alleged that even though Phoenix Services’ patent for fracking technology was declared unenforceable in separate federal litigation in 2018, Phoenix Services continued to enforce the patent to exclude competitors from the market (for example, by sending cease-and-desist letters to Chandler’s clients that attempted to utilize the technology). A Walker Process claim requires a showing of the following:

  • The defendant obtained its patent by “knowing and willful fraud on the patent office and maintained and enforced the patent with knowledge of the fraudulent procurement.”
  • The plaintiff can satisfy all other elements of a Sherman Act monopolization claim.

In the district court, a Texas federal judge granted summary judgment to Phoenix Services, finding that Chandler filed the lawsuit too late and that the defendants involved ultimately could not be held liable. Chandler appealed.

The Fifth Circuit first addressed its appellate jurisdiction. The Court made it clear that it did not agree with the Federal Circuit’s transfer of this Walker Process case (on the basis that it did “not present a substantial issue of patent law” since the underlying patent had already been declared unenforceable in earlier litigation), but that under the Supreme Court’s 1988 decision in Christianson v. Colt Indus. Operating Corp. it did not find the transfer “implausible.” It therefore accepted jurisdiction but noted that its acceptance did not mean that it found the Federal Circuit’s decision correct.

The Fifth Circuit acknowledged that unlike the situation in Xitronix v. KLA-Tencor, where it and the Federal Circuit debated the appellate jurisdiction issue of Walker Process claims, the patent involved here had already been declared unenforceable. However, the Fifth Circuit pointedly noted its position that Walker Process claims should fall under the appellate purview of the Federal Circuit.

On the merits, the Fifth Circuit agreed with the Texas district court that Chandler did not sufficiently demonstrate that its alleged lost profits were caused by Phoenix Services’ alleged antitrust behavior. The Court found that Chandler failed to present substantial evidence that the cease-and-desist letters materially harmed Chandler’s business.

Antitrust plaintiffs must show the following:

  • Injury-in-fact, e., an injury to the plaintiff proximately caused by the defendants’ conduct
  • Antitrust injury
  • Proper plaintiff status, which ensures that other parties are not better situated to bring suit.

Only injury-in-fact was analyzed in the appeal. Chandler argued that the cease-and-desist letter sent to its clients eventually drove the client out of business. However, the Fifth Circuit [...]

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Tableware Designer Gets Heavenly Results on Its Pearly Plates

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed a district court decision, reversing the dismissal of a copyright claim based on lack of standing and finding ownership of the copyright in the claimant based on an assignment of that claim. The Fifth Circuit also found that the plaintiff had a protectible trade dress under the Lanham Act based on secondary meaning. Beatriz Ball, LLC v. Barbagallo Co., LLC, Case No. 21-30029 (5th Cir. July 12, 2022) (Jones, Haynes, Costa, JJ.) (per curiam).

Beatriz Ball, the founder of Beatriz Ball, LLC, alleged that Pampa Bay was marketing and distributing products that infringed on Ms. Ball’s registered copyrights and unregistered trade dress for its “Organic Pearl” line of tableware. Ms. Ball brought suit against Pampa Bay in Louisiana federal court, asserting claims for copyright infringement under the Copyright Act and unfair competition under § 43 of the Lanham Act.

Pampa Bay has marketed and distributed products similar to the Organic Pearl collection but made with cheaper materials since 2016. Ms. Ball alleged that Pampa Bay infringed upon her copyright and its unregistered trade dress because the products are confusingly similar and look and feel like the Organic Pearl trade dress in every way. The district court ruled against Ms. Ball, finding that it had not established that its unregistered trade dress acquired “secondary meaning” as is required for protection of an unregistered trade dress under the Lanham Act. The district court further held that Ms. Ball lacked standing to bring the copyright claims as a result of a lack of legal interest because when “Beatriz Ball Collection” transferred ownership in the copyrights to “Beatriz Ball, LLC,” the language of the assignment did not specifically transfer the right to a cause of action for prior infringements predating the assignment. The assignment clause in issue read:

Assignment. Assignor [Beatriz Ball and Beatriz Ball Collection] hereby irrevocably conveys, transfers, and assigns to Assignee [Beatriz Ball, LLC], and Assignee hereby accepts, all of Assignor’s right, title and interest in and to any and all copyrights, whether registered or not and whether or not applications have been filed with the United States Copyright Office or any other governmental body. This assignment expressly includes any and all rights associated with those copyrights.

The district court found that because the assignment did not specifically transfer the assignor’s right to causes of action for prior infringements, the LLC lacked standing to challenge infringements pre-dating the assignment. The district court therefore never reached the merits of the copyright claim.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit first reviewed the standing issue to determine if the LLC owned the copyrights at the time of the alleged infringement or if the right to vindicate prior infringements had been effectively assigned to Ms. Ball. Reversing the district court’s ruling, the Court concluded that the LLC had standing to bring the suit as the actual copyright holder. The Court reasoned that § 411(b)(1), which provides that a registration with “inaccurate information” can support an infringement action [...]

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Employee Agreement of What “Shall Be” is Future Promise, Not Present Assignment

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit concluded that university bylaws did not automatically effectuate a present automatic assignment of patent rights and affirmed the district court’s denial of a motion to dismiss for lack of standing by the transferee. Omni MedSci, Inc. v. Apple Inc., Case No. 20-1715 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 20, 2021) (Linn, J.) (Newman, J., dissenting).

Upon joining the faculty of the University of Michigan, Dr. Mohammed Islam executed an employment agreement assenting to abide by the university’s bylaws. The bylaws provide, in relevant part, that patents obtained by university staff that are supported directly or indirectly by university funds “shall be the property of the University.” In 2012, Dr. Islam took an unpaid leave of absence and filed several provisional patent applications. After he returned to the university in 2013, he filed non-provisional patent applications claiming priority to the 2012 provisional applications. Once those applications issued as patents, he assigned the patent rights to the plaintiff, Omni MedSci.

In 2018, Omni initiated a patent infringement action against Apple asserting certain patents, including one in the family of patents that Islam assigned to Omni. Apple moved to dismiss, arguing that Omni lacked standing to assert the patents-in-suit because the university—not Omni—owned the patents-in-suit. Apple argued that the university’s bylaws automatically transferred legal title to Dr. Islam’s patents to the university, leaving Dr. Islam with nothing to assign. Therefore, Omni had no standing to assert the patents.

The US District Court for the Eastern District of Texas denied the motion to dismiss and transferred the action to the Northern District of California. The California court certified the standing question to the Federal Circuit.

In this interlocutory appeal, the Federal Circuit considered whether the university bylaws automatically assigned the patent rights to the university. The Court explained that a patent assignment clause may presently assign a to-be-issued patent automatically—in which case no further acts to effectuate the assignment are necessary—or may merely promise to assign the patent in the future. The issue in the appeal was which type of assignment was intended by the “shall be the property of the University” language in the bylaws—i.e., whether it was “a statement of an intended outcome [or] a present assignment.” Analyzing the university bylaws, the Court agreed with the district court that the bylaws did not automatically assign the patent rights to the university and therefore did not negate Dr. Islam’s assignment of the patent rights to Omni.

The Federal Circuit concluded that the bylaw language “is most naturally read as a statement of intended disposition and a promise of a potential future assignment, not as a present automatic transfer. … It does not purport to effectuate the present transfer of a present or future right.”

In dissent, Judge Pauline Newman noted that at the district court, Dr. Islam only argued that he was not subject the bylaw obligation since the patent applications were filed without university support. However, the district court did not rule on that issue and [...]

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Can’t Camouflage Express Trademark Contract Terms

Addressing a range of trademark licensing issues, including discretionary approval, exculpatory contract clauses and third party beneficiary standing, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a lower court’s grant of summary judgment to the US Army, finding that the Army abided by the terms of a trademark licensing agreement with a brand management company that sold clothing bearing the Army logo. Authentic Apparel Grp., LLC v. United States, Case No. 20-1412 (Fed. Cir. Mar. 4, 2021) (Lourie, J.)

In a 2010 licensing agreement, the Army granted Authentic Apparel, a brand management company that licenses merchandise, a non-exclusive license to manufacture and sell clothing bearing the Army’s trademarks in exchange for royalties. The licensing agreement gave the Army sole and absolute discretion on whether to approve any products and marketing materials bearing the Army’s trademarks. The licensing agreement also included exculpatory clauses exempting the Army from liability for exercising this discretion. From 2011 to 2014, Authentic submitted 500 requests for product approval, and the Army disapproved of only 41. After a series of late or unpaid royalty payments, Authentic sent notice that it would not pay 2014 royalties. The Army then terminated the license to Authentic. In 2015, Authentic and its chairman, Ron Reuben, sued the US government for breach of contract of the licensing agreement. The alleged breaches included denial of the right to exploit the goodwill associated with the Army’s trademarks, refusal to permit Authentic to advertise its contribution to certain Army recreation programs, delay of approval for a financing agreement for a footwear line, and denial of approval for advertising featuring the actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The Court of Federal Claims granted summary judgment to the US government and dismissed Reuben as a co-plaintiff for lack of standing. Authentic appealed.

The two main issues on appeal were whether Authentic provided sufficient evidence to show there was a genuine dispute of material fact that the Army breached the terms of its contract or any implied duty of good faith, and whether Reuben was a third party beneficiary to have standing as a plaintiff to the suit.

As to the first issue, the Federal Circuit affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment for the government because Authentic was unable to provide sufficient evidence that the Army breached the trademark licensing agreement. The Court found that:

The contracting parties contemplated the terms of the contract and voluntarily decided to include express language of broad discretionary approval and exculpatory clauses exempting liability for disapproval, and therefore they should be held to the express terms for which they bargained.

The Army did not act unreasonably or violate its duty of good faith and fair dealing in exercising its discretion because it did approve more than 90% of Authentic’s products.

Authentic’s argument that the Army’s discretion was too broad and restricted Authentic’s use of the trademarks to solely “decorative purposes” was without merit because (1) the Court was not evaluating the validity of the trademarks here, (2) Authentic still [...]

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Trademark Cancellation Is Appropriate Sanction for Misconduct

In upholding a grocery store chain’s standing to petition for cancellation of a US trademark registration, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s (TTAB’s) express authority to impose cancellation of a trademark by default judgment as a sanction in a TTAB proceeding. Corcamore, LLC v. SFM, LLC, Case No. 19-1526 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 27, 2020) (Reyna, J.).

SFM owns US federal trademark registrations for the mark SPROUTS for use in connection with its retail grocery store services. SFM filed a petition to cancel Corcamore’s US trademark registration for the mark SPROUT for use in connection with vending machine services, alleging a likelihood of consumer confusion with SFM’s prior trademark rights. The TTAB denied Corcamore’s motion to dismiss the cancellation petition for lack of standing. Relying on Empresa Cubana del Tabaco v. General Cigar Co., the TTAB confirmed SFM’s standing based on its “real interest” in the cancellation petition and a “reasonable belief of damage” caused by the continued registration of Corcamore’s SPROUT trademark.

Following the TTAB’s denial of its motion to dismiss, Corcamore undertook a series willful, bad-faith procedural maneuvers that resulted in two separate sanctions. When Corcamore’s further procedural misconduct violated both sanctions orders, the TTAB entered default judgment cancelling Corcamore’s SPROUT trademark registration. Corcamore appealed.

On appeal, Corcamore alleged that the TTAB (1) erred in applying Empresa Cubana rather than the Supreme Court of the United States’ Lexmark v. Static Control framework in affirming SFM’s standing, and (2) abused its discretion in granting default judgment as a sanction. On the issue of standing, the Federal Circuit rejected the TTAB’s “unduly narrow” conclusion that the Supreme Court’s Lexmark framework was inapplicable, since Lexmark related to a claim of false advertising under § 1125(a) of the Lanham Act, while Empresa Cubana addressed the right to bring a cancellation proceeding under § 1064. The Federal Circuit concluded that Lexmark applied to § 1064 and § 1125(a) because both are statutory causes of action. Nevertheless, the Court found no meaningful substantive difference between the analytical frameworks for standing expressed in Lexmark and Empresa Cubana, and found that the Lexmark “zone-of-interests” proximate cause analysis and the “real interest” and “reasonable belief of damage” requirements under Empresa Cubana similarly provided a right to bring a cause of action. As such, the Court ultimately agreed with the TTAB’s conclusion that SFM’s pleaded allegations of a likelihood of consumer confusion based on a similarity of the parties’ SPROUTS and SPROUT trademarks, and their respective goods and services, were sufficient to demonstrate a reasonable belief of damage under Empresa Cubana and thus supported the right to challenge Corcamore’s registered trademark via cancellation.

With regard to the TTAB’s grant of default judgment, Corcamore did not challenge the TTAB’s express authority to grant default judgment as a sanction under 37 CFR § 2.120(h) and Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(b)(2). Instead, Corcamore argued that the TTAB had no factual or legal basis to enter default judgment in the first [...]

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Define Frustration: Appealing from Decision in Suit Against Co-Owner’s Wholly Owned Subsidiary with Major Issues Still Undecided

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit vacated a grant of summary judgment of non-infringement and remanded for resolution of numerous factual issues in a case addressing “extremely frustrating” issues involving the litigant’s failure to differentiate statutory prerequisites for bringing suit under 35 USC §262 and Article III standing, waiver of a co-owner’s right to refuse to join a patent enforcement action, and the existence of an express or implied license. AntennaSys, Inc. v. AQYR Techs., Inc., Case No. 19-2244 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 7, 2020) (O’Malley, J.).

AntennaSys and Windmill International are co-owners of the patent in suit. AntennaSys and Windmill entered into a license agreement pursuant to which Windmill acquired an exclusive license to AntennaSys’s one-half interest in the patent in two separate markets. In exchange, AntennaSys was entitled to a royalty of 3% of gross sales. Windmill was also required to create a wholly owned LLC, GBS Positioner, which would own both the license interest and Windmill’s ownership interest in the patent. In the event that Windmill failed to meet the minimum sales targets, the exclusive license became non-exclusive and either party was granted the right to commence a lawsuit against “third party” infringers.

Windmill did not meet its sales targets. AntennaSys subsequently brought suit against AQYR Technologies, a wholly owned subsidiary of Windmill, for patent infringement and several state-law claims. The suit named Windmill as a co-defendant. Following claim construction, AntennaSys conceded that it could not prevail on its patent infringement claim under the court’s construction of one of the claim terms. In an apparent attempt to moot the affirmative defenses of invalidity and unenforceability, AntennaSys sought summary judgment of non-infringement, which the district court granted. Additionally, after a hearing where AntennaSys admitted that its state law claims were dependent on the success of its patent infringement claim, the court entered judgment in favor of defendants on the state law claims. AntennaSys appealed.

AntennaSys challenged the district court’s claim construction. Windmill and AQYR countered that the Federal Circuit need not reach the merits because AntennaSys “lacks standing” to bring an infringement action in federal court absent joining co-owner Windmill as a co-plaintiff.

The Federal Circuit agreed that the need to join Windmill as a co-plaintiff was a threshold question, but stressed that the issue did not affect AntennaSys’s Article III standing. Instead the issue stemmed from AntennaSys’s ability to satisfy the statutory prerequisites for bringing an infringement action. Under 35 USC § 262, each joint owner of a patent may make, use, offer to sell, or sell the patented invention without the consent of, and without accounting to, the other owners. Furthermore, in order to bring an action for infringement, all co-owners must be joined as plaintiffs. The Court acknowledged two exceptions to this rule: (1) when any patent owner has granted an exclusive license, and (2) when a co-owner waives its right to refuse to join an infringement action.

As the license in this case had morphed into non-exclusive status, the question became whether [...]

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The Naked Truth About Trademark Cancellation: Only Harm, No Proprietary Interest Required

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit determined that a contracting party that contractually abandoned any proprietary interest in a mark may still bring a cancellation action if it can “demonstrate a real interest in the proceeding and a reasonable belief of damage.” Australian Therapeutic Supplies Pty. Ltd. v. Naked TM, LLC, Case No. 19-1567 (Fed. Cir. July 24, 2020) (Reyna, J.) (Wallach, J., dissenting).

Australian sold condoms with the marks NAKED and NAKED CONDOMS, first in Australia in early 2000, then in the United States in 2003. Two years later, Australian learned that Naked TM’s predecessor had registered a trademark NAKED for condoms in September 2003. Australian and Naked TM communicated by email regarding use of the mark for a few years. Naked TM contended that the parties reached an agreement; Australian disagreed and said no final terms were agreed upon. Australian filed a petition to cancel the NAKED trademark registration. Ultimately, and after trial, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) concluded that Australian lacked standing because it had reached an informal agreement that Naked TM reasonably believed was an abandonment of any right to contest Naked TM’s registration of NAKED. Thus, the TTAB found that Australian lacked a real interest in the proceeding because it lacked a proprietary interest in the challenged mark. Australian appealed.

The Federal Circuit reversed. First, the Court clarified that the proper inquiry was a matter of proving an element of the cause of action under 15 USC § 1064 rather than standing. The Court explained that, contrary to the TTAB’s conclusion, “[n]either § 1064 nor [its] precedent requires that a petitioner have a proprietary right in its own mark in order to demonstrate a cause of action before the Board.” Assuming without deciding that the TTAB correctly determined that Australian had contracted away its rights, the Court found that fact irrelevant. Ultimately, even though an agreement might be a bar to showing actual damages, a petitioner need only show a belief that it has been harmed to bring a petition under § 1064.

The Federal Circuit found that Australian had a reasonable belief in its own damage and a real interest in the proceedings based on a history of two prior applications to register the mark, both of which the US Patent and Trademark Office rejected on the basis that they would have created confusion with Naked TM’s mark. The Court rejected Naked TM’s argument that Australian’s abandonment of those applications demonstrated there was no harm, instead concluding that Australian’s abandonment of its applications did not create an abandonment of its rights in the unregistered mark. Moreover, as a prophylactic rationale, the Court explained that Australian’s sales of products that might be found to have infringed the challenged registration also create a real interest and reasonable belief in harm.

Judge Wallach dissented. Although he agreed that the TTAB erred by imposing a proprietary-interest requirement to bring suit under § 1064, he disagreed that Australian properly demonstrated an alternative, legitimate interest—i.e., a belief [...]

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Unnamed Respondent Has Standing to Seek Rescission of ITC General Exclusion Order

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a US International Trade Commission (ITC) decision denying a petition for rescission of a general exclusion order (GEO) prohibiting importation of products accused of patent infringement, because a post-investigation invalidity attack is not a changed condition warranting rescission. Mayborn Grp., Ltd. v. Int’l Trade Comm’n, Case No. 19-2077 (Fed. Cir. July 16, 2020) (Lourie, J.).

Several parties filed a complaint at the ITC against several respondents, not including Mayborn Group, Ltd., and Mayborn USA, Inc. The complaint alleged infringement of a patent disclosing a self-anchoring beverage container that prevents spills. The complainants sought a GEO barring importation of infringing goods by any party, including unnamed respondents such as Mayborn. In contrast to GEOs, limited exclusion orders only prohibit infringing goods imported by named respondents in an investigation. The ITC instituted an investigation, and the administrative law judge determined that two respondents were in default and liable for unfair acts (patent infringement) in connection with importation. The defaulting respondents did not raise any invalidity challenge during the investigation. On the administrative law judge’s recommendation, the ITC issued a GEO.

Following issuance of the GEO, Mayborn continued to import potentially infringing products. The complainants notified Mayborn that they were working with US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to enforce the GEO against Mayborn’s importations. In response, Mayborn petitioned the ITC to rescind the GEO pursuant to its power to rescind or modify an order if there is a change in the conditions that led to the GEO. Mayborn argued that the “changed condition” requirement was satisfied because it contends the asserted claims are invalid.. The ITC denied Mayborn’s petition, holding that a petitioner’s asserted discovery of invalidating prior art after the issuance of a GEO was not a changed condition. Mayborn appealed, arguing that the ITC erred in rejecting its request for rescission. The ITC alleged that Mayborn lacked standing to appeal because Mayborn’s alleged injury stemmed from the complainants’ threat to enforce the GEO rather than any act by the ITC.

The Federal Circuit affirmed, finding that Mayborn’s post-investigation invalidity challenge was not a basis for rescission of the GEO. The Court first addressed the ITC’s standing argument, and determined that Mayborn had standing because it was injured by the GEO and the GEO was enforced by the ITC. The ITC or CBP could act to enforce the GEO at any time. Mayborn had also lost sales and incurred other harm stemming from the complainants’ threats to assert the GEO, including reputational injury, market share loss and damaged business relationships. Standing did not require the ITC to have already barred importation of Mayborn’s products.

After finding that Mayborn had standing, the Federal Circuit determined that Mayborn’s invalidity challenge was not a permissible basis to seek rescission of the GEO for two reasons. First, although patent invalidity is an affirmative defense to patent infringement, the ITC is constrained to adjudicating patent validity only when a respondent raises an invalidity defense during an [...]

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Ninth Circuit Gleefully Rejects Copyright Claims against California High School

Affirming a district court’s summary judgment in favor of various defendants, including the vocal music director and parent volunteers at Burbank High School (whose competitive show choirs reportedly inspired the television series “Glee”), the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit examined issues of standing via copyright ownership and the copyright infringement defense of fair use. The Court, however, reversed the lower court’s denial of defendants’ attorneys’ fees and remanded for the calculation of an appropriate award in view of plaintiff’s “objectively unreasonable” arguments in the lawsuit. Tresóna Multimedia, LLC, v. Burbank High School Vocal Music Association, et. al., Case No. 17-56006 (9th Cir., Mar. 24, 2020) (Wardlaw, J.).

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