Recently in Intellectual Property Category
Michael Burke, MJLST Staff
Most people are not up to date on the latest and greatest patents. Most wait for the idea to be reported in the media, or see the idea's physical manifestation at their favorite technology store. But this past week, Stephen Colbert made a point to inform his late night audience--and the public at large--about the latest patent filed by Amazon: taking photos against a white background. On March 18th, The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office awarded Amazon with their "Studio Arrangement" patent numbered U.S. 8,676,045. Amazon's filing essentially gives the company the intellectual rights to taking any picture in front of seamless white backgrounds.
Michael S. Mireles, Jr.'s book review, The United States Patent Reform Quagmire: A Balanced Proposal, helps to provide a framework of why weak patent ideas unfortunately receive the blessing of the United States government, and how patent reform efforts can help resolve this problem. Mireles provides a two-tiered approach to solving the problems of the patent system by attacking the current system at its weakest points: the issuance of weak patent grants from the USPTO and the liberal upholding of the validity of weak patents.
Allowing weak patents to exist undermines the genuine purpose of assigning ownership of intellectual property. The result has been a "dangerous and expensive arms' race, which now undermines rather than fosters the crucial process of technological innovations." Most certainly, someone needs to develop and implement a quality idea for change. Who knows, under the current system, maybe he or she could patent it?
Alexander Vlisides, MJLST Staff
The right of publicity tort is meant to balance two rights: a person's limited right to control uses of their name or likeness and the right of artists and content creators to exercise their First Amendment rights. Unfortunately, courts have not addressed the First Amendment rights at stake in right of publicity cases with the deference or clarity that is required in other First Amendment contexts.
In Volume 14 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science and Technology, Micheal D. Murray argued that content creators should navigate right of publicity issues through common sense and an ethical approach to appropriating another's likeness. In "DIOS MIO--The KISS Principle of the Ethical Approach to Copyright and Right of Publicity Law" Murray advises content creators to avoid legal issues by following the DIOS MIO acronym: "Don't Include Other's Stuff or Modify It Obviously." In recent right of publicity decisions, courts have not conformed with this common sense approach.
Ryan Hart and Sam Keller are former NCAA quarterbacks. EA sports made a video game called NCAA Football, which features players that look and play exactly like Hart and Keller. Each of them sued EA sports, the makers of NCAA football, and the NCAA for violations of their right of publicity. In Hart v. Electronic Arts and In re NCAA Student Athlete Name and Likeness Litigation, the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Third and Ninth Circuits, respectively, both found that EA had violated the players right of publicity, meaning that they would need to pay to use players' likenesses in the video games. In many ways this seems like a very equitable outcome. These college athletes receive none of the profits while EA and the NCAA make hundreds of millions of dollars from these games.
However these cases give too little weight to the First Amendment rights at stake and provide little clarity for content producers to know what is protected from suit. When applied outside the sympathetic facts of this case, there is little to distinguish this video game from other works traditionally thought to be protected by the First Amendment, such as biographical books and films. The dissent in In re NCAA concluded that "[t]he logical consequence of the majority view is that all realistic depictions of actual persons, no matter how incidental, are protected by a state law right of publicity regardless of the creative context."
In addition, the fundamentally unclear nature of right of publicity analysis is demonstrated by a paradox within the Hart decision. In the NCAA football games there are two uses of Ryan Hart's likeness. One is the digital avatar that EA artists and designers created to look like him and operate in the interactive world of the game. Another is a simple photograph of him that is used as part of an introductory montage with other football players. The court found the avatar was not protected, but the photograph was. In other words, the court concluded that an animation of Hart, produced by artists, designers and engineers and placed into an interactive virtual world, is a "literal" depiction of Hart and thus unworthy of First Amendment protection, while a photograph of Hart, shown in a montage with other football players, has been transformed to be predominately the creative expression of its designers. A failure to clearly identify criteria and values informing right of publicity analysis led to this paradoxical result.
First Amendment protected creative content should not be subject to so inscrutable a standard. Courts should attempt to give content producers a more workable right of publicity standard by following Murray's advice to KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.
Elliot Ferrell, MJLST Staff
American Broadcasting Companies v. Aereo, Inc. has seen a surge in the news as the parties head in for arguments next Tuesday, and Justice Alito has no longer recused himself. The case involves copyright issues in streaming television over the internet, specifically asking "Whether a company 'publicly performs' a copyrighted television program when it retransmits a broadcast of that program to thousands of paid subscribers over the internet."
Some of the arguments revolve around the technology used. Aereo maintains that their streaming service is not a "public performance" in violation of copyright law because the DVR'd copy of customer's television content, saved to the cloud, comes from an "individual antenna" accessing "free-to-air broadcasts." However, others counter that Aereo's technology does not save them from violating the law because, when it comes to down to it, they are simply taking a signal, repackaging it, and selling it to their customers without compensating those who produce the content.
Personally, I can see the appeal of such a service. I catch my Game of Thrones on HBOGO, and whatever else I feel like watching on Netflix or the free section on Hulu. A few years ago, if there were a way to watch Lost immediately on the internet, then I may have questioned whether it was worth owning a television at all. However, none of this makes for a particularly compelling legal argument.
Perhaps the most relevant issue that will come out of this for the average person is what will happen to the consumer experience. If Aereo is successful than it could lead to cheaper prices cable bills, as Aereo's service costs a mere $8 per month while the average cable bill is over $100. However, this argument is complicated by the fact that a typical cable package includes a bit more than just the free-to-air broadcasts (but how much of that does the consumer really care about/want to pay for?), and Aereo's service is available in only a few regions. Additionally, one option broadcasters have in the event of an Aereo victory is to remove free-to-air content and sell it instead, perhaps with a streaming service of their own.
The consumer experience has been enriched by the options presented by television streaming services, and Aereo's service seems to supplement the current trend nicely. However, with the proliferation of sites like Netflix and Hulu and individual content producers providing their own similar services, access to free-to-air broadcasts over the internet seems kind of like an inevitability.
Nathan Peske, MJLST Staff
On March 31, 2014 the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case CLS Bank International v. Alice Corporation Pty. Ltd. This case examines patents held by the Alice Corporation for software that implements an abstract scheme for managing settlement risk in the series of transaction banks make back and forth over the course of the day. The question before the court is whether the software is patent-eligible subject matter under §101 of the Patent Act.
Section 101 sets out the initial statutory requirements for patent-eligible subject matter. An invention must be a "new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter" or an improvement to one of those categories. Supreme Court jurisprudence has repeatedly affirmed that there are three judicial exceptions to these categories. These exceptions are laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas. Einstein's famous theory of relativity E = mc^2 is often cited in court opinions as an example of unpatentable subject matter. If patents this broad were granted they would foreclose any other innovation using the abstract idea. This would ultimately stifle innovation rather than encouraging it.
When an implementation of an abstract idea is patentable has proved a very difficult standard to establish, particularly when software is involved. In Gottschalk v. Benson a computer program implementing a mathematical formula was ruled unpatentable because simply incorporating an abstract idea into a software program is not sufficient to render it patent-eligible subject matter. In Diamond v. Diehr a software program that calculated the cook time for curing rubber was ruled patent-eligible subject matter because it also controlled the cook time and opened the mold when the rubber was done. Subsequent cases have generally been decided on narrow factual grounds and have failed to establish a general test.
The Federal Circuit en banc rehearing of Alice Corporation continued this trend. In a thoroughly fractured decision seven of the ten Federal Circuit judges held the Alice patents invalid and wrote five concurring and dissenting opinions to justify their reasoning. Chief Judge Rader also penned a series of Reflections discussing the current state of patent law. Since the Supreme Court granted Alice's petition for certiorari it has the opportunity to establish a clear standard that will settle some of the continuing uncertainty over software and business method patents.
This decision has sweeping implication for the future of software patents. A broad interpretation of the patentability of software would open the door for endless patent litigation and reduced the patent system to dueling patent lawyers. A narrow interpretation would have the benefit of reducing the ability of "patent trolls" to harass other companies. Patent trolls acquire patents, often cheaply from struggling companies, and sue or threaten to sue other companies for infringing them. Rather than face years of expensive patent litigation many companies will settle even spurious claims. At the same time a narrow interpretation could drastically limit the abilities of software inventors to patent their inventions. Thus discouraging the innovation the patent system was designed to encourage.
Justice Breyer summarized the situation during oral arguments when he said "There is a risk that you will take business in the United States or large segments and instead of having competition on price, service and better production methods, we'll have competition on who has the best patent lawyer. And if you go the other way and say never, then what you do is you rule out real inventions with computers." The justices' questions seemed to indicate they were unsure if and how to address this question.
There is ample precedent for the Supreme Court to issue a narrow ruling on the merits. Rather than attempting to issue a sweeping decision to establish a precedent for future cases. Indeed, they seem poised to do exactly this. Observers can only watch and wait to see how the Supreme Court will decide this time.
Dylan J. Quinn, MJLST Staff
This past spring, the Supreme Court delivered a landmark decision in regard to the first sale doctrine by reversing the Second Circuit in John Wiley & Sons, Inc. v Kirtsaeng. The First Sale Doctrine allows a buyer or recipient of a copyrighted work to dispose of, lend, or distribute that copy as they see fit. In Wiley, the Court ruled in favor of the Defendant - who bought books in another country at a lower cost, imported them to the U.S., and then re-sold them at a higher market rate - thereby solidifying that the doctrine applies to copies of a copyrighted work lawfully obtained abroad.
A year prior to the ruling, in Volume 13, Issue 2, of the Minnesota Journal of Law Science & Technology, Benjamin Hamborg critiqued the Second Circuit for ruling against the Defendant, arguing that the Supreme Court needed to overturn the decision because the Circuit Court failed to give proper weight to the legislative history of the first sale doctrine and the negative public policy implications that would arise from affirming the ruling. The Supreme Court was in agreement with Hamborg, and seemingly eliminated those public policy concerns and the uncertainty surrounding the doctrine.
Hamborg discussed the potential dangers posed to libraries if they were not allowed to distribute works that were manufactured abroad, and while Wiley seemed to put an end to those issues, the movement of libraries into a more digital age has raised recent concerns about libraries' ability to lend or distribute e-books and other digital works. Currently, redistribution of a digital work is not given the same "first sale" protection from copyright infringement claims because digital works do not decay over time and copies are just as valuable as the original - thereby having unknown consequences on the market for the copyrighted works. As libraries convert more and more of their collections into digital formats, we could be moving into an era where a dispute over a licensing agreement removes a large portion of a library's collection instantly.
The recent concerns over libraries by no means represent the first discussion about a potential "digital" first sale doctrine, however it is just another example of the pressure pushing down on Congress to address the proper application of the first sale doctrine in a digital age. Back in 2001, the Copyright office addressed proposals for a digital first sale doctrine, and responded that "there was no convincing evidence of present-day problems" and that no expansion of first sale would be recommended. In the years since, there have been few developments that suggest Congress is ready to address the issue, until recently.
In the last two years, the Department of Commerce solicited comments on a possible digital first sale doctrine, the Director of the Copyright Office discussed possible options Congress could weigh if addressing the issue, and a court ruled against expanding the first sale doctrine into the digital sphere - stating that it is an issue for Congress. The recent resurgence of concerns over libraries is just another indication of the pressure facing Congress to address the application of the first sale doctrine on the internet.
While the issue clearly impacts libraries, the issue has massive implications on the entire online market place. It is a tall order to address such a large issue, but eventually something has got to give. At some point there needs to be alternative legislation or expansion of the first sale doctrine on the internet. The slogan surrounding the early days of internet sums it up best: everything that can be digital will be.
Ryan J. Connell, MJLST Lead Articles Editor
In the spring 2013 issue of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology Mr. Roy D. Gross examined the use of circumstantial evidence to prove inducement of infringement. Mr. Gross's article is titled Can an Inference of Intent to Induce Infringement of a Patent Be Drawn Where Other Reasonable Inferences Exist? An Examination of the Use of Circumstantial Evidence to Prove Inducement of Infringement. Mr. Gross ultimately argues that that the doctrine of specific intent to infringe in patent cases should be harmonized with the standard used for inequitable conduct.
It is important to discern the boundaries of specific intent to infringe in light of the recent Akamai case. Akamai Techs. Inc. v. Limelight Networks Inc., 692 F.3d 1301 (Fed. Cir. 2012). In Akamai the Federal Circuit arguably made it easier for a patent owner to hold a person liable for induced infringement of a method claim when no single person performed all the steps of the method. The Akamai decision still requires the alleged inducer to have the specific intent to induce infringement. Akamai, 692 F.3d at 1308. The results of Akamai are mixed then, on one hand patent owners can now go after those who induced infringement but never induced a single party to infringe the patent. On the other hand the patent owner must still provide evidence of a specific intent to induce infringement.
by Jenny Nomura, UMN Law Student, MJLST Managing Editor
A celebrity goes into a tattoo shop and gets an elaborate tattoo on her arm. The celebrity and her tattoo appear on TV and in magazines, and as a result, the tattoo becomes well-known. A director decides he wants to copy that tattoo for his new movie. He has an actress appear in the film with a copy of the signature tattoo. Not long after, the film company gets notice of a copyright infringement lawsuit filed against them, from the original tattoo artist. Similar situations are actually happening. Mike Tyson's face tattoo artist sued Warner Bros. for copying his tattoo in "The Hangout Part 2." Warner Bros. settled with the tattoo artist. Another tattoo artist, Christopher Escobedo, designed a large tattoo on a mixed martial arts fighter, Carlos Condit. Both the tattoo and the fighter appeared in a video game. Now Escobedo wants thousands of dollars for copyright infringement. Most people who get a tattoo never think about potential copyright issues, but these recent events might change that.
These situations leave us with a lot of uncertainties and questions. First of all, is there a copyright in a tattoo? It's seems like it meets the basic definition of a copyright, but maybe just a thin copyright (most tattoos don't have a lot of originality). Assuming there is a copyright, who owns the copyright: the wearer or the tattoo artist? Who can the owner, whoever he is, sue for copyright infringement? Can he or she sue other tattoo artists for violation of right of derivative works? Can he or she sue for violation of reproduction if another tattoo artist copies the original onto someone else? What about bringing a lawsuit against a film company for publicly displaying the tattoo? There are plenty of tattoos of copyrighted and trademarked materials, so could tattoo artists and wearers themselves be sued for infringement?
What can be done to avoid copyright infringement lawsuits? Assuming that the owner of the copyright is the tattoo artist, the potential-wearer could have the tattoo artist sign a release. It may cost more money to get the tattoo, but there's no threat of a lawsuit. It has been argued that the best outcome would be if a court found an implied license. Sooner or later someone is going to refuse to settle and we will have a tattoo copyright infringement lawsuit and hopefully get some answers.
by Eric Maloney, UMN Law Student, MJLST Lead Managing Editor
It's a bad time to be a patent troll in the United States. Both the Supreme Court and Congress are taking aim at these widely disparaged "trolls" who buy up a portfolio of patents and proceed to file lawsuits against anyone who may be using or selling inventions covered by those patents, often with a disregard for the merits of such suits.
Critics see these patent trolls as contributing nothing but a waste of time and resources to an already-burdened court system. President Obama has echoed this sentiment, accusing these trolls of "hijack[ing] somebody else's idea and see[ing] if they can extort some money out of them." On the other hand, legitimate patent holders are concerned that their ability to sue infringers may be limited in this mad rush to curb the patent troll problem.
The Patent Act does already have a mechanism in place to deal with frivolous patent lawsuits--35 U.S.C. § 285. This statute allows courts to award patent suit winners with "reasonable attorney fees." There's a catch, though--this fee-shifting isn't available for just any winner. It can only be awarded in "exceptional cases."
The Federal Circuit hears all patent appeals and sets patent precedent that is followed by district courts throughout the country. So far, their interpretation of "exceptional case" has required losing parties to misbehave quite flagrantly; the patent holder's suit must have been "objectively baseless," and the loser must have known it was baseless. Failing that, fees can only be shifted if the loser committed misconduct in the course of the suit or in obtaining the patent. MarcTec, LLC v. Johnson & Johnson, 664 F.3d 907, 916 (Fed. Cir. 2012). This high standard makes it tough for those sued by patent trolls to recover fees spent defending against a frivolous suit.
Two branches of government are taking aim at potentially easing this standard and making fee-shifting more commonplace, or even mandatory. The Supreme Court has decided to hear two appeals for fee-shifting cases, and may be looking to change how courts evaluate what is an "exceptional case" to make it easier for courts to punish frivolous plaintiffs. Rep. Goodlatte (R-VA) introduced the Innovation Act last week, which would change § 285 to mandate that patent suit losers pay fees to the winner, with some exceptions.
This would bring patent suits more in line with how English courts treat losing parties. The American legal system typically does not add insult to injury by forcing losing parties to reimburse the winners. While all the concern about patent trolls may not be misplaced, it may be worthwhile for policymakers (be they Congressional or judicial) to step back and consider the effect this may have on legitimate patent holders, such as inventors wishing to protect their patented products. Is mandatory fee-shifting the answer? All those involved should tread carefully before making groundbreaking changes to the patent litigation system.
by Nihal Parkar, UMN Law Student, MJLST Note and Comment Editor
Synthetic biology is to biology what androids are to humans. Synthetic biology allows moving beyond the evolutionary constraints of life as we know it. Instead of being restricted to using or repurposing cellular genetic machinery, we can now shape our own genetic tools from the ground up. Instead of merely discovering genes, we can now fabricate genes and synthesize a genome, by restructuring the architecture of life itself.
Research institutions and corporations who have been at the forefront of synthetic biology have taken different approaches to protecting IP. Some institutions have taken up the mantle of promoting open source synthetic biology, having being inspired by the parallel open source software movement. On the other hand, corporations have largely played close to their chest, and have adopted the traditional practices of protecting their innovation through patents, copyrights, and trademarks. A recent MJLST article by Professor Andrew Torrance (Synthesizing Law for Synthetic Biology, Issue 11.2 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology) examines the challenges posed by intellectual property rights to the openness of the brave new world of synthetic biology.
by Joe McCartin, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff
Biotechnology encompasses a wide range of cutting-edge fields, from the genetic modification of agricultural crops and energy producing bacteria, to immunology and medical device manufacturing. Rapid innovation in these areas has led to today's most challenging ethical issues. One such concern is the fear that profits, rather than providing incentives for innovation, will slow down innovation by restricting the dissemination of new technologies, processes, and insights. In Volume 6, Issue 1 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science, & Technology, Robin Feldman outlined the problems an open-source biotechnology movement, one similar to the open-source computer programming world, faces in patent law, and ways that movement could navigate those complexities and potentially enhance the common good.
Feldman discussed the work of molecular biologist, Richard Jefferson, founder of Cambia and BioForge, who sought to democratize the field of plant genetics. The failure of those efforts was detailed by Sam Finegold in "The Hard Path to Open Source Bioinnovation." Jefferson claimed that the financial incentives available to researchers were no match for an industry that had become dominated by a small handful of industrial chemical companies.
So, is there a future for open-source biotechnology? While it would seem that the pharmaceutical industry would present similar challenges to the open-source biotech movement, Connie Wong posits that open-source may be exactly what the pharmaceutical industry needs in the face of shrinking R&D budgets. She argues that small, lean players can fully utilize their competitive advantage and still protect their work by using open-source arrangements that create a fair-playing field that allows them to operate nimbly. Perhaps the Affordable Care Act may transform the pharmaceutical industry in a way that creates room for open-source innovations?
But perhaps open-source biotechnology's real promise can be found in the work of Matthew Todd, who sought to bring the power of open-source to a neglected disease, flatworm infections. The World Health Organization documented the amazingly quick success Todd had finding more cost-effective methods of producing praziquantel, the preferred method of treating flatworm. While recognizing that the task far exceeded his abilities by himself, by tapping into not only researchers, but pharmaceutical and chemical companies, he found not one but two new methods of producing the drug! This appears to be the perfect example of the promise of open-source biotechnology. The profit motive focused attention on other diseases, restricting innovation until an open-source community sprung up. While open-source may not be the future of biotechnology innovation, it may end up playing a large role in a transformed pharmaceutical industry.