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Espresso Yourself: When Prosecution History as a Whole Doesn’t Demonstrate Clear, Unmistakable Disclaimer

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed and remanded a district court’s claim construction and related summary judgment rulings after determining that the district court erred in construing a claim term by improperly limiting the plain and ordinary meaning of the term. K-fee System GmbH v. Nespresso USA, Inc., Case No. 22-2042 (Fed. Cir. Dec. 26, 2023) (Taranto, Clevenger, Stoll, JJ.)

K-fee filed a lawsuit against Nespresso alleging infringement of three K-fee patents directed toward coffee machine portion capsules that use a barcode. The district court issued a claim construction order construing the term “barcode,” which was present in every asserted claim. In the claim construction order, the district court characterized the dispute as “whether statements made by K-fee System GmbH . . . before the EPO [European Patent Office] concerning the meaning of ‘barcode’ should influence the plain and ordinary meaning of that limitation in these proceedings.”

In the EPO, Nespresso’s foreign affiliate had challenged the validity of K-fee’s related European patent, and K-fee had responded seeking to distinguish a particular piece of prior art (Jarisch/D1). Because the statements made to the EPO were submitted to the US Patent & Trademark Office during prosecution of the asserted patents, the district court analyzed the statements as part of the intrinsic record. The district court concluded that K-fee had “argued strenuously before the EPO for a particular ‘plain and ordinary meaning,’ which excluded ‘bit codes’—codes made up of two binary symbols.” Based on the EPO submissions, the district court construed the claim term “barcode” to:

its plain and ordinary meaning (i.e., a code having bars of variable width, which includes the lines and gaps), the scope of which is understood by the clear and unequivocal statements K-fee made to the EPO (i.e., the scope of barcode does not include the type of bit code disclosed in Jarisch/D1).

Based on that construction of “barcode,” Nespresso moved for summary judgment of noninfringement. It argued that its accused products operated identically to Jarisch capsules, which K-fee distinguished before the EPO, since both use a machine-readable code with only two binary symbols. The district court agreed. When applying its construction at summary judgment, the district court clarified that using “the type of bit code disclosed in Jarisch” … means “a binary code containing only ‘0s’ and ‘1s.’” Thus, the district court read K-fee’s EPO statements “to mean that a barcode must ‘contain more than only two binary symbols’ and, by extension, that any code that contains only two binary symbols could not be a barcode.” Because the court found that “there was no dispute that Nespresso’s accused products used a code having only two symbols,” it granted Nespresso’s motion for summary judgment of noninfringement. K-fee appealed.

Considering the issue de novo, the Federal Circuit reviewed K-fee’s statements to the EPO in context and disagreed “that the ordinary meaning of ‘barcode’ excludes ‘bit codes’ (in some sense, two-value codes) or even bit codes of ‘the type . . . disclosed in Jarisch’ to [...]

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All the Way Up to the Second Circuit, and Back

The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated a grant of summary judgment made prior to discovery, holding that the district court abused its discretion in finding a draft contract agreement admissible under Federal Rule of Evidence (FRE) 1003 notwithstanding sworn testimony questioning its contents. Eric A. Elliott, aka Fly Havana v. Joseph Anthony Cartagena et al., (2d. Cir. Oct. 17, 2023) (Merriam, Nardini, JJ.)

The dispute in this case centered on whether Eric Elliott was properly credited and compensated for his contribution in writing the song “All the Way Up.” Both Elliott and Joseph Anthony Cartagena (also known as “Fat Joe”) acknowledged that Elliott had signed an agreement regarding the song, but both parties were unable to locate the original agreement. Instead, Cartagena submitted a draft that he claimed was an authentic duplicate. This draft purported to assign all of Elliott’s rights to the song to an entity.

Elliott disputed the authenticity of the draft, claiming that there were numerous additional and different material terms in the agreement he signed. Nonetheless, the district court found the evidence admissible under FRE 1003 and 1004 and entered summary judgment in favor of defendants prior to discovery being conducted in the case. Elliot appealed.

The Second Circuit concluded that the district court abused its discretion and vacated. FRE 1002, also known as the “best evidence rule,” states that “[a]n original writing . . . is required in order to prove its content unless these rules or a federal statute provides otherwise.” If an original document is unavailable, a duplicate may still be admissible under FRE 1003, which states: “A duplicate is admissible to the same extent as the original unless a genuine question is raised about the original’s authenticity or the circumstances make it unfair to admit the duplicate.”

Here, the district court relied on Cartagena’s sworn testimony that he printed the draft at the complex where he lived and brought it with him to a meeting with Elliott. The district court disregarded Elliott’s sworn testimony in response to Cartagena, which suggested that the draft was not identical to the version Elliott signed. While the draft specified that the rights to the song would be assigned to an entity, Elliott averred that the version he signed “seemed to state that [he] was going to be compensated and credited as a writer.” Given this factual dispute, the Second Circuit held that the district court abused its discretion in admitting the draft as a duplicate under FRE 1003 and granting summary judgment, particularly without the benefit of discovery.

The Second Circuit concluded that there was a genuine factual dispute as to whether Elliott validly assigned all his rights and whether any such purported assignment precluded Elliott’s claims. Given the issues regarding the authenticity of the draft and the genuine dispute of material fact, the Court found summary judgment improper.

However, a duplicate may also be admissible under FRE 1004, which states: “[a]n original is not required and other evidence of the content [...]

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Downloaded: No Relief From Stipulated Claim Construction

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled that a claim interpretation that flows naturally from the parties’ stipulated claim construction is binding on the parties even if the interpretation reads preferred embodiments out of the claims. Finjan LLC v. SonicWall, Inc., Case No. 22-1048 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 13, 2023) (Reyna, Cunningham, JJ.) (Bryson, J., dissenting).

In 2017, Finjan sued SonicWall for infringing several of Finjan’s patents related to cybersecurity technology systems that identify malicious material in downloadable content and programming code. The asserted patents included claims directed to ways to protect network-connectable devices from undesirable downloadable operations. During claim construction, the parties stipulated that a “downloadable” should be construed as “an executable application program, which is downloaded from a source computer and run on the destination computer.”

SonicWall moved for summary judgment, arguing that it did not infringe the patents because the accused devices received and inspected supposed “downloadables” as unextracted packets, which do not constitute executable files under the stipulated claim construction. The district court granted partial summary judgment in favor of SonicWall, finding that Finjan failed to offer evidence that “the accused […] products ‘ever possess a reassembled file or executable application.’” Finjan appealed.

Finjan argued that the district court’s ruling was incorrect because it impermissibly grafted additional requirements onto the stipulated claim construction, and that the district court’s interpretation was inconsistent with claim language found in other parts of the asserted patents. The Federal Circuit rejected these arguments, noting that the district court’s infringement ruling followed directly from the parties’ stipulated definition of the term “downloadables.” Under the stipulated claim construction and in accordance with Finjan’s own expert’s interpretation of the meaning of “executable,” a device “that merely receives and forwards packets without reassembling their contents does not receive a downloadable . . . because that device does not receive an executable application program.” The Court emphasized that Finjan could not challenge its earlier claim construction stipulation. Further, the Court noted that the stipulated definition of “downloadables” was derived verbatim from the specifications of two of the asserted patents.

Judge Bryson dissented for two reasons. First, he noted that the district court’s interpretation of the claims would read preferred embodiments out of the patent and effectively eviscerate from the patent’s scope any device that screens content from the internet. Second, Judge Bryson found that elsewhere in the asserted patents’ specifications it was clear that the meaning of “downloadables” used by the district court was incorrect. Contrary to the majority, Judge Bryson did not find the stipulated claim construction dispositive because Finjan merely challenged the meaning of the word “executable” within the stipulated claim construction, rather than the contents of the stipulation itself.

Practice Note: This decision offers a few helpful lessons for practitioners. First, it is important to write claims in language that is both expansive enough to encompass all intended embodiments but precise enough to survive invalidity challenges. By carefully selecting specific but broad language, and writing claims more accurately, patentees may avoid semantic noninfringement arguments. [...]

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Off the Charts: Derivative Work Copyright Registers All Material in Derivative Work

In a matter of first impression, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s partial grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendants, vacated a jury verdict and an award of attorneys’ fees, and remanded an action alleging infringement of copyright in two charts depicting organizational change. The Court agreed with other circuits that by registering a derivative work, an author registers all the material included in the derivative work, including any unregistered original works. Enterprise Management Limited, Inc. v. Construx Software Builders Inc., Case No. 22-35345 (9th Cir. July 17, 2023) (Fletcher, Clifton, Ikuta, JJ.)

Mary Lippitt and her company Enterprise Management filed a lawsuit against Steve McConnell and his company Construx for copyright infringement. Lippitt has built a career around advising companies on organizational change. To this end, she created charts and materials, including one titled “Managing Complex Change,” to demonstrate how an organization can fail by missing key transitional elements. According to Lippitt, the “Managing Complex Change” chart was registered with the US Copyright Office in 1987 as part of a presentation called “Transition: Accomplishing Organization Change.” The Copyright Office subsequently destroyed the deposit copy of the registration as part of its routine practice. In 2000, an updated presentation with an updated version of the chart was registered with the Copyright Office. In 2003, the updated chart, “Aligning for Success,” was registered individually.

In 2016, McConnell used Lippitt’s chart in a YouTube video presentation. McConnell titled the chart “Lippitt/Knoster Change Model,” added supplementary information and made stylistic changes. When Lippitt found out that McConnell used her chart, she sent cease-and-desist letters. After McConnell refused to stop using the chart, Lippitt sued.

Following discovery, McConnell moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted in part and denied in part. The district court ruled that Lippitt failed to show that she had registered the “Managing Complex Change” chart because she did not present evidence that the chart was included in the “Transition: Accomplishing Organization Change” material registered in 1987. The district court also denied the motion for summary judgment with respect to Lippitt’s claim that McConnell infringed the “Aligning for Success” chart because there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether McConnell had copied it. Based on these rulings, the district court issued a pretrial order precluding Lippitt from basing any argument on her alleged ownership of the copyright in the “Managing Complex Change” chart, including any argument that McConnell infringed the “Aligning for Success” chart by copying elements from the “Managing Complex Change” chart. At trial, the jury returned a verdict for McConnell. The district court subsequently granted McConnell’s motion for attorneys’ fees. Lippitt appealed.

The Ninth Circuit first addressed whether Lippitt raised a genuine issue of material fact that she registered the “Managing Complex Change” chart by including it in the “Transition: Accomplishing Organization Change” materials. The Ninth Circuit explained that the district court’s ruling was partially based on the fact that the copyright for Lippitt’s original [...]

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If You Can’t Say a Secret under an NDA, Don’t Say It at All

Considering a trade secret misappropriation claim involving a business pitch that was not subject to a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed a district court’s summary judgment grant for the accused party, finding that it had not acquired the information through a confidential relationship. Novus Grp., LLC v. Prudential Fin., Inc., Case No. 22-3736 (6th Cir. July 17, 2023) (Sutton, Boggs, Readler, JJ.)

Eric Seyboldt and Mark McCanney founded Novus Group to launch their financial product called the Transitions Beneficiary Income Rider. The pair developed the Rider to address the diminishing availability of retirement income vehicles—such as pension plans or 401k profit-sharing plans—for modern workers. In operation, the Rider guaranteed that, following a policyholder’s death, an insurance company would pay pension-style death-benefit proceeds to non-spouse beneficiaries throughout their lifetimes.

Novus partnered with financial product developers Genesis and Annexus to ensure that the Rider was feasible and to assist with a pitch to Novus’s target customer, Nationwide. These relationships were governed by two contracts with confidentiality provisions: the Genesis-Novus and Annexus-Novus contracts. Before Novus was formed, Genesis and Annexus had also created a joint organization, AnnGen, which had its own confidentiality agreement with Nationwide concerning AnnGen’s New Heights product (AnnGen-Nationwide contract). Prior to Novus’s pitch, Nationwide refused to sign an NDA and warned that Novus should “not disclose any confidential information.” Despite the lack of an NDA, Novus and Annexus pitched the Rider concept to Nationwide, which elected not to pursue the product.

After the unsuccessful pitch, two Nationwide employees who allegedly had access to information concerning Novus’s Rider product left Nationwide for Prudential. Shortly thereafter, Prudential launched Legacy Protection Plus, a death-benefit rider that was similar to Novus’s Rider product. Novus believed Prudential stole its Rider concept and sued Prudential for trade secret misappropriation. Prudential moved for summary judgment. The district court granted the motion. Novus appealed.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit assumed the existence of a trade secret and its unauthorized use, focusing solely on whether Prudential had acquired Novus’s trade secret as a result of a confidential relationship or through improper means. The Court noted that Novus had not raised a theory of “improper means” in district court and thus had waived that argument.

The Sixth Circuit also found that the two Nationwide employees did not have a duty to Novus to maintain its information in the utmost secrecy. Novus argued on appeal that such a duty arose from the web of agreements among Annexus, Genesis, Novus, AnnGen and Nationwide. However, Nationwide was not a party to the Annexus-Novus and Genesis-Novus contracts and was not bound by them. Further, Novus was not a signatory to or third-party beneficiary of the AnnGen-Nationwide contract, which narrowly covered the New Heights product developed by AnnGen, rather than Novus’s Rider. Instead of creating a duty of confidentiality, these contracts demonstrated that Novus knew how to create a confidential relationship, yet declined to form one with Nationwide, which had explicitly refused to sign an NDA. The [...]

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Well Runs Dry: Summary Judgment Denial Supports Non-Exceptional Case Finding

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a district court’s denial of attorneys’ fees, explaining that when a district court denies summary judgment and allows a plaintiff’s case to proceed, the district court effectively determines that the position of the party opposing summary judgment is not objectively baseless. OneSubsea IP UK Limited v. FMC Techs, Inc., Case No. 22-1099 (Fed. Cir. May 23, 2023) (Moore, Clevenger, Dyk, JJ.)

OneSubsea and FMC compete in the subsea oil and gas exploration and extraction industry. In March 2015, OneSubsea filed a lawsuit against FMC alleging infringement of 95 claims across 10 OneSubsea patents. After the district court issued its claim construction ruling, FMC moved for summary judgment of noninfringement. OneSubsea opposed. While the summary judgment motion was pending, the Patent Trial & Appeal Board instituted inter partes review (IPR) proceedings on a subset of the asserted patents. FMC argued that while a stay of district court proceedings would be appropriate, it was unnecessary in light of its pending summary judgment motion. In August 2016, the district court denied summary judgment and stayed the case.

The case remained stayed for three years, during which time the Board invalidated 76 claims. In 2019, the district court lifted the stay. At a pre-trial hearing in 2020 discussing whether additional discovery was needed to address summary judgment, FMC doubted the need for more discovery and pointed to the 3,200 record pages illustrating differences between the designs of the accused device and the patented devices. In response, the district court stated, “And you really think I’m going to be able to grant summary judgment on that?” After the hearing, FMC renewed its summary judgment motion, which OneSubsea opposed. In reply, FMC moved to exclude the report of OneSubsea’s expert because he applied the wrong claim construction. Ultimately, the district court granted FMC’s motion to exclude and its motion for summary judgment.

In 2021, FMC moved for attorneys’ fees based on OneSubsea’s “substantively weak infringement claims” after the claim construction order was issued and “litigation misconduct.” After briefing was complete, the district court announced that the case had been reassigned to another judge following the retirement of the original assigned judge. The new judge rejected FMC’s view that OneSubsea’s case was objectively baseless and further rejected FMC’s claims of litigation misconduct. FMC appealed.

As a threshold matter, FMC argued that the Federal Circuit should apply de novo review instead of an abuse-of-discretion standard because the new judge only briefly “lived with the case” and should be disqualified from exercising discretion in deciding FMC’s attorneys’ fees motion. The Court rejected FMC’s invitation to change the standard of review, citing the substantial body of law in which appellate courts have consistently reviewed successor judges’ decisions on discretionary issues for abuse of discretion.

Turning to the merits, the Federal Circuit found that FMC’s exceptional case argument lacked merit. The Court explained that the argument disregarded the district court’s observation that FMC’s demand for a prompt favorable noninfringement judgment based [...]

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Elevate the $: Geographic Isolation Helps Defeat Trademark Infringement Claim

In a case between similarly named banks, the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit confirmed expert disclosure requirements, conducted a de novo likelihood of confusion analysis and ultimately upheld a finding of no trademark infringement. Elevate Federal Credit Union v. Elevations Credit Union, Case No. 22-4029 (10th Cir. May 10, 2023) (Bacharach, Moritz, Rossman, JJ.)

Elevate is a federal credit union with almost 13,000 total members, operating exclusively in three rural Utah counties. Elevations is a Colorado state-chartered credit union with more than 150,000 members. The parties’ respective logos are shown below:

Elevate filed a suit seeking declaratory judgment of noninfringement, and Elevations counterclaimed for trademark infringement. After excluding testimony from Elevations’s expert, the district court found no infringement and granted summary judgment in favor of Elevate. Elevations appealed.

Elevations raised two issues on appeal:

  1. Did the district court abuse its discretion in excluding Elevations’s expert’s testimony?
  2. Did the district court err in granting summary judgment to Elevate on likelihood of confusion?

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court on the first issue. Elevations’s expert conducted a survey that involved showing marks from internet searches to consumers and asking whether they thought any came from the same company. While this survey type is legitimate, the expert did not keep records of his searches, write down his search terms, identify his search engines, or justify why he conducted multiple internet searches but showed consumers only results from Bing and the Apple App store. The Tenth Circuit found that the district court could have reasonably considered this information “facts or data” considered by the expert that needed to be—but was not—disclosed. Because the expert failed to meet his disclosure obligations and because this failure was not excused by justification or harmlessness, the lower court did not abuse its discretion.

The Tenth Circuit also affirmed the summary judgment of no likelihood of confusion. The Court conducted a de novo review and analyzed the six factors below. The Court concluded that the following five factors weighed against the likelihood of confusion:

  1. Level of care exercised by purchasers. When customers look to open bank accounts or borrow money, they exercise a great level of care. This is especially true here because credit unions have statutory membership restrictions, meaning consumers need to confirm they qualify for membership before applying.
  2. Strength of senior mark. While Elevations’s marks are “suggestive” and therefore “fall[] midway in the range of conceptual strength,” many other businesses in Colorado use the root term “elevat,” which weakens Elevations’s mark. Elevations’s marks also are weak where Elevate operates in Utah due to lack of advertising.
  3. Degree of similarity. While the marks have some similarities in appearance and sound, they differ in fonts, alignment, background colors, graphics and number of syllables. The Court also stated that the “significance of the similarities fades away” in light [...]

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Nitpicking Allowed When Determining Statutory Damages

On the second round of a copyright dispute, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded (again) to the district court to apply the “independent economic value test” handed down by the Court in the first iteration of the dispute to determine what constitutes as “one work” for purposes of calculating statutory damages where a jury finds infringement on multiple works registered in a single copyright application. Amy Lee Sullivan, dba Design King v. Flora Inc., Case No. 15-cv-298 (7th Cir. Mar. 31, 2023) (Flaum, Scudder, Eve, JJ.)

In 2013, graphic design artist Amy Sullivan sued herbal supplemental company Flora for copyright infringement after Flora used Sullivan’s illustrations in a manner exceeding the scope of the parties’ license agreement. The district court instructed the jury that Sullivan could receive separate statutory awards for 33 acts of infringement on 33 individual illustrations, which were the subject of two separate US copyright registrations, as compilations. The jury issued a statutory damages award of $3.6 million. Flora appealed.

In its decision on the first appeal, the Seventh Circuit adopted the independent economic value test to address the standard for determining whether multiple related works of authorship are each entitled to a separate statutory damages award, or if the related works constitute one compilation warranting only a single statutory damages award. Because the record in Sullivan’s case was insufficient to make that determination and assess proper damages, the Seventh Circuit remanded to the district court to determine whether Sullivan’s illustrations had standalone “distinct and discernable value to the copyright holder.”

On remand, the district court found that Flora waived several arguments challenging the independent economic value of certain of Sullivan’s illustrations, and therefore entered the same jury verdict. Flora appealed again.

After a lengthy analysis on the scope of remand, the Seventh Circuit found that the district court violated its mandate on remand because it did not put the independent economic value assessment to a jury, and instead decided the factual issue on the same record the appeals court had previously found insufficient. The Court then moved to its summary judgment analysis and reiterated the independent economic value test for considering whether Sullivan’s 33 illustrations constituted 33 individual works or instead were parts of two compilations. The Court articulated several relevant factors that went into its totality of the circumstances analysis, including whether the copyright holder marketed or distributed the works independently or as a compendium, whether the works were produced together or separately, how the works were registered for copyright protection and, ultimately, whether the market assigned value to the works.

The Seventh Circuit concluded that Flora raised facts and arguments relating to the independent economic value test that were within the scope of remand and not waived. Flora was not prohibited from arguing several primary positions. First, Flora noted that it provided Sullivan with only two invoices for both “illustration collections,” and Sullivan registered the illustrations in two compilation copyrights, [...]

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It’s PRUdent to Refrain from Cybersquatting: ACPA Applies to Domain Name Re-Registration

The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit joined the Third and Eleventh Circuits in ruling that the re-registration of an infringing domain name with a bad faith intent to profit violates the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA). Prudential Ins. Co. of Am. v. Shenzhen Stone Network Info. Ltd., Case No. 21-1823 (4th Cir. Jan. 24, 2023) (Diaz, Thacker, Floyd, JJ.)

The ACPA, 15 U.S.C. § 1125(d), protects trademark owners from cybersquatters that register, traffic in, or use a domain name “identical or confusingly similar to or dilutive of” a distinctive or famous mark with the “bad faith intent to profit.” The ACPA jurisdictional requirement states that a trademark owner may either establish that a court has in personam jurisdiction over the defendant or, if personal jurisdiction cannot be established, bring an in rem action against the domain name.

Prudential Insurance Company of America’s trademark portfolio includes the term PRU and other PRU-formative marks. Shenzhen Stone Network Information (SSN) acquired the domain name PRU.COM from an online domain name marketplace, which leads to a parked page containing advertisements displaying Prudential’s trademarks and the marks of Prudential’s competitors. Prudential attempted to acquire the PRU.COM domain name twice—once through a domain name brokerage service and once after filing a Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP) administrative action with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). SSN rejected both offers. SSN claimed that it planned to develop the website into a foreign exchange and economic news platform, but it never substantively altered the parked page. Prudential subsequently dismissed the UDRP action and filed suit in the Eastern District of Virginia alleging cybersquatting and infringement against the CEO of SSN, Zhang (in personam), and PRU.COM (in rem). Zhang moved to dismiss the action or transfer it to the District of Arizona for lack of personal jurisdiction and in rem jurisdiction. The district court held that although it lacked personal jurisdiction over Zhang, in rem jurisdiction was appropriate at the time the complaint was filed. The district court then dismissed Prudential’s trademark infringement claim as moot, granted summary judgment to Prudential on its cybersquatting claim and ordered SSN to transfer the PRU.COM domain name. SSN timely appealed to the Fourth Circuit.

The Fourth Circuit, reviewing the district court ruling de novo, affirmed. As an initial matter, the Court held that the district court had proper in rem jurisdiction over the PRU.COM domain name because Zhang, as a corporate officer of SSN, lacked standing to defend SSN’s property interests and the domain name registry was located in Virginia. Moreover, in rem jurisdiction is assessed at the time the complaint is filed and cannot be destroyed during the pendency of the case if a proper defendant is later revealed.

Regarding the ACPA claim, SSN argued that since the initial domain name registrant registered PRU.COM in good faith, SSN, as a re-registrant, is not subject to the ACPA. The Fourth Circuit joined the Third and Eleventh Circuits in holding that the term “registration” in the ACPA is [...]

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Challenging Inventorship on Summary Judgment? Put a Cap on It

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, citing a dispute as to material facts, held that a factfinder could reasonably conclude that an alleged joint inventor failed to sufficiently contribute to inventing the claimed technologies and thus reversed a district court order granting summary judgment of invalidity based on failure to join an inventor. Plastipak Packaging, Inc. v. Premium Waters, Inc., Case No. 21-2244 (Fed. Cir. Dec. 19, 2022) (Newman, Stoll, Stark, JJ.)

Plastipak sued Premium Waters, asserting 12 patents directed in part to the neck portions of lightweight plastic containers and preforms. These neck portions include a dispensing opening, a tamper-evident formation (TEF) that indicates if the container has been opened and a support flange/ring to facilitate manufacturing handling:

The patents list Richard Darr and Edward Morgan as inventors. Premium Waters countered that the patents should have included a third co-inventor, Alessandro Falzoni, an employee of another company with whom Darr and Morgan had collaborated on a project involving a design that included a neck portion, a specialty closure and a discontinuous TEF. Premium Waters moved for summary judgment of invalidity on the theory that the failure to include Falzoni as a joint inventor rendered the patent invalid, contending that Falzoni contributed the following to the invention:

  • A discontinuous (as opposed to continuous) TEF that is claimed by five of the asserted patents
  • A neck portion with only 0.580 inches or less separating its dispensing opening from its support flange/ring’s lower surface (the X dimension, as shown in the diagram above) that is claimed by the other asserted patents.

Plastipak contended that the asserted inventors were the sole inventors and that discontinuous TEFs (Falzoni’s alleged contribution) were merely state-of-the-art.

In granting the motion for summary judgment, the district court observed that Falzoni was “at least” a joint inventor because he had disclosed to one of the named inventors a neck finish measuring less than 0.580 inches with a discontinuous TEF in the form of an image of a 3D model that “constituted clear and convincing evidence of Falzoni’s disclosure, leaving ‘no doubt’ that the image ‘contributed significantly to the conception of a complete neck finish.’”

That model’s support ring lacked a lower surface, however, and Plastipak argued that without a lower surface the 3D model’s X dimension was undeterminable.

Plastipak also argued that Falzoni’s email circulating the 3D model stated that “[t]he area below the neck support ring has been left undefined” and seemingly invited the named inventor (Darr) to finalize it. Darr did so and, on the same day, emailed Falzoni a schematic depicting a support ring with a lower surface and a 0.591-inch X dimension.

Falzoni testified that while he calculated that the model had a ~0.563-inch X dimension, that calculation was based on “a reasonable indication” of where the support ring’s lower surface should be, and that the absence of [...]

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