The U.S. Supreme Court IP Year in Review

by Lee Gesmer on September 3, 2014

[As initially published in the September 1, 2014 issue of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly]

A lot has changed in the realm of intellectual property law following the record-breaking ten intellectual property cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2013 term. Highlights of the six unanimously decided patent cases include suits in which the Court narrowed the scope of patent protection for inventions implemented on computers, made it easier to invalidate a patent for indefiniteness, and made it easier for the district courts to shift attorneys’ fees to prevailing defendants.

The Court issued two copyright decisions, including an important ruling that may have implications for cloud computing. And, one of the Court’s two Lanham Act opinions established a new doctrine for standing in false advertising cases.

Patent

Medtronic v. Mirowski Family Ventures (Jan. 22, 2014) was the first of five decisions overruling the Federal Circuit outright. The Court held that in a declaratory judgment action for non-infringement brought by a patent licensee, the burden of proving infringement lies with the licensor/patent holder, not the licensee. Medtronic can be seen as an extension of the Court’s 2007 decision in MedImmune, Inc. v. Genentech, holding that patent licensees have standing to bring declaratory judgment actions for non-infringement or invalidity, even as they continue to make royalty payments for the product in controversy.

By placing the burden of proving infringement on patent owners, the Court has made it easier for patent licensees to challenge a patent during the license term.

Octane Fitness v. ICON Health and Fitness (April 29, 2014), may have important consequences for attorneys’ fee awards in patent cases. The case was a challenge to the Federal Circuit’s “exceptional case” standard for awarding attorneys’ fees in patent litigation under 35 U.S.C. §285. That standard required a party seeking fees to show by “clear and convincing evidence” that the case was “objectively baseless” and brought in “subjective bad faith.”

Overruling, the Court held that an “exceptional case” is “one that stands out from others with respect to the substantive strength of a party’s litigating position (both the governing law and the facts of the case) or the unreasonable manner in which the case was litigated … considering the totality of the circumstances.” The Court also changed the standard of proof to a preponderance of the evidence.

While the fee-shifting statute applies to both parties, Octane should make it easier for patent defendants to force losing plaintiffs to pay attorneys’ fees.

Highmark v. Allcare Health Management System (April 29, 2014), a companion case to Octane, held that the standard established in Octane should be left to the discretion of the district courts rather than, as the Federal Circuit had held, be subject to de novo review on appeal.

Octane and Highmark give the district courts substantial leeway within which to decide fee awards and may impact the debate over the reform of the patent laws to curb abusive lawsuits. An important component of proposed reform legislation has been to encourage judicial fee shifting, until now a rarity. These cases may be a significant step in that direction.

That said, until the lower courts demonstrate how aggressively they will apply Octane’s fee-shifting standard, the full impact of these cases will be unclear. Adding to this uncertainty is the risk that the standard will be applied unevenly in different districts (and even from judge to judge), with little authority left to the Federal Circuit, under Highmark, to intervene and shape uniform national application.

In Nautilus v. Biosig (June 2, 2014), the Court addressed the patent statute’s requirement that patent “claims particularly point[] out and distinctly claim[] the subject matter which the inventor or a joint inventor regards as the invention.” 35 U.S.C. §112(b).

The Federal Circuit had held that a patent claim passed that threshold so long as the claim was “amenable to construction” and the claim, as construed, was not “insolubly ambiguous.” Reversing the Federal Circuit for the fourth time, the Court held that “a patent is invalid for indefiniteness if its claims, read in light of the specification delineating the patent, and the prosecution history, fail to inform, with reasonable certainty, those skilled in the art about the scope of the invention” at the time the patent was filed.

While making it easier to challenge a patent based on indefiniteness, the Court left it to the district courts to interpret and apply the standard. Nevertheless, the decision also appears to be consistent with the Court’s trend during the term: to pull in the reins on a patent system widely perceived to be out of control.

The last two cases stand out as the most complex and likely most important patent decisions of the term.

In Limelight Networks v. Akamai Technologies (June 2, 2014), the issue was whether patent infringement could occur when separate entities perform the steps of a method patent, so-called “divided infringement.”

In a controversial decision, the Federal Circuit ruled that a defendant could be liable if it “induced” several parties to jointly carry out the steps necessary for infringement, whether or not the defendant performed any of the steps itself. Reversing again, the Supreme Court held that a defendant cannot be held liable for inducing patent infringement in the absence of direct infringement, which requires that all steps of a patent be performed by a single actor. The Court was not persuaded by the argument that its holding might enable defendants to evade liability by dividing performance among multiple actors.

However, the Court noted that its ruling was based on a 2008 Federal Circuit decision establishing the single actor rule for direct infringement. The Court assumed, without deciding, that that holding was correct, implying that there might be some room for the Federal Circuit (or the Supreme Court) to modify the single actor rule on which the holding in Akamai is based. In the meantime, a divided infringement defense will be a potential loophole for defendants in industries with distributed activities.

The last and most highly awaited patent case in the 2013 term was Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank Int’l (June 19, 2014). At issue was whether claims directed to a computer-implemented financial process were patent-eligible subject matter.

While many in the patent community feared (or hoped) that the decision would render software and business method inventions unpatentable, the Court was careful to avoid that outcome. Rather, it held that, like laws of nature and natural phenomena, “abstract ideas” — such as the business practice in Alice — must contain a sufficient “inventive concept” to “transform” the idea into a patent-eligible application. However, that cannot be achieved solely with a generic computer implementation. In Alice, the claims amounted to “‘nothing significantly more’ than an instruction to apply the abstract idea,” using some “unspecified, generic computer.” That was “not ‘enough’ to transform an abstract idea into a patent-eligible invention.”

While Alice did not create a per se exclusion for software and business processes, these categories will face heightened scrutiny in both prosecution and enforcement. But application of Alice will be complicated by minimal guidance on what constitutes an “abstract idea.” While using a general purpose computer to implement an abstract idea will not achieve patent-eligibility, software that improves a physical process or the functioning of the computer itself may provide the “something more” identified by the Court as a requirement to transform an abstract concept into patent-eligible subject matter.

However, those distinctions were left to the lower courts to resolve on a case-by-case basis.

Copyright

In Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the first of two copyright cases decided in the 2013 term (May 19, 2014), a 6-3 Court reversed the 9th Circuit, holding that the copyright statute’s three-year “rolling” statute of limitations (17 U.S.C. §507) could not be shortened by the common law doctrine of laches. However, an unreasonable, prejudicial delay in filing suit may be relevant to awarding equitable relief and damages based on the infringer’s profits, making it less likely that the ruling will spark a flood of hitherto dormant copyright suits.

The second copyright ruling, ABC v. Aereo (June 25, 2014), involved the legality of Aereo’s system of using micro-antennas and individual digital copies to stream over-the-air TV on the Internet. Reversing the 2nd Circuit, a unanimous Court held that Aereo’s streaming service violated the copyright statute’s public performance right. The Court rejected Aereo’s argument that it was legally indistinguishable from a TV antenna/DVR supplier, holding instead that Aereo transmitted a public performance through “multiple, discrete transmissions,” and that Aereo was substantially similar to cable TV companies, which are required to pay royalties to retransmit TV broadcasts.

The impact of the decision on cloud computing remains to be seen, as does the accuracy of the three-justice dissent’s warning that the rationale of the case will “sow confusion for years to come.”

Lanham Act

In Lexmark Int’l v. Static Control (March 25, 2014) the Court unanimously reversed the 6th Circuit’s holding that Static Control could not proceed with a false advertising counterclaim against Lexmark under §43(a) of the Lanham Act because the parties were not direct competitors. The Court announced a new, two-part test: (1) Is the claim within the “zone of interests” protected by the Lanham Act? (2) Did the alleged conduct proximately cause the alleged injury? To meet the second part of the test, a plaintiff must plead “economic or reputational injury flowing directly from the deception wrought by the defendant’s advertising,” and that the deception causes consumers to withhold business from the plaintiff.

The ruling eliminates circuit conflicts and liberalizes standing under federal false advertising law.

In POM Wonderful v. Coca-Cola (June 12, 2014), another false advertising case, POM complained that the label for Coca-Cola’s “pomegranate blueberry” juice blend was deceptive and misleading, in violation of the Lanham Act.

The 9th Circuit held that POM’s claim was precluded by the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which regulates the misbranding of food by means of false labeling. The Court reversed, holding that the federal law was not a safe harbor from the Lanham Act, and, therefore, food and drink labels are subject to competitor claims under the act.

The extent to which the ruling will lead to an increase in false advertising lawsuits over food and drink labeling remains to be seen.

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