Recently in Intellectual Property Category
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.
by Roma Patel, UMN Law and Public Health Student, MJLST Staff
Years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that inventors are not entitled to federal patent protection for discoveries of laws of nature. The Court said, "natural phenomena are the basic tools with which every would-be inventor starts, so locking up the right to use them in a monopoly held by a specific patent owner will frustrate others who might want to look for new ways to interpret [those] phenomena."
On June 13, a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court ruled that, "a naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated, but complementary DNA is patent eligible because it is not naturally occurring." The ruling, authored by Justice Thomas, was issued in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, a landmark case bringing an end to the practice of patenting isolated parts of the human genome as they originally exist.
The defendants, Myriad Genetics, discovered and then patented the location, sequence and mutations of BRCA1 and BRCA2. Both genes are highly associated with a risk of breast and ovarian cancers. If Myriad's patent claims were found valid, Myriad would have gained the exclusive right to isolate an individual's BRCA genes--a necessary step in conducting diagnostic testing for the cancers.
The Plaintiffs, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Public Patent Foundation, consist of a coalition of patients and researchers from University of Pennsylvania, New York University, Columbia, Yale and Emory. Plaintiffs claimed that Myriad's patent monopoly was invalid under 35 U.S.C. § 101 and that patents on isolated natural genetic sequences would restrict medical research, limiting progress. From a patient's perspective, such exclusive patent rights would make getting a second opinion regarding genetic predisposition almost impossible. Additionally, exclusivity would keep the cost of testing BRCA 1 and 2 higher through the absence of competitive pricing.
While patient's rights advocates and research and educational institutions applaud the decision, many are critical. Attorney and chemistry professor Bernhard Saxe stated that the Court, "trivializes chemistry and elevates biological "information" over chemical structure in patent law, and that usurps the role of Congress and creates a new class of patent-ineligible subject matter by judicial fiat." In Issue 2 of MJSLT's 12th volume, Peter Edwards noted that, "It is unwise to blithely remove patent eligibility from fields in which incentives for innovation have a dramatically positive effect on the population as a whole. Patent law was established to incentivize inventions that are useful to the public, while still allowing fair access to innovations. Because the public benefit resulting from incentivizing gene patents far outweighs the potential for public loss, it is in the country's best interest to structure and interpret patent law to find genes and methods employing them patent eligible."
Other case outcomes, Mayo v. Prometheus and In re Bilski have determined most diagnostic claims are not patentable. Now that the Court has determined natural isolated genetic sequences are also not patentable, Myriad's business model, an enterprise predicated on exclusive administration of the BRCAnalysis test to diagnose breast and ovarian cancers, will be difficult to sustain. Biotechnology businesses driven by research and development and investors may face less of an incentive to innovate, which could mean fewer diagnostic tests available on the market. However, multilateral ownership of such natural phenomena could possibly drive more tests to market at lower prices and provide for more accuracy due to alternate testing options. Time will tell us the precise effect this ruling will have on patients, but for now the road beyond the Myriad decision remains unclear.
by Comi Sharif, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff
Next month, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) will launch its "Road to Sochi Tour" to count down the final 100 days leading up to the 2014 Winter Olympics. As the games draw near, we are likely to see a rapid increase in the amount of Olympic advertisements and related promotions. From cereal box covers to credit card commercials narrated by Morgan Freeman, materials will flood the market for the weeks leading up to the competition, to the point where one cannot help but get caught up in "Olympic Fever". The Olympics bring the joy of cheering on our fellow countrymen (and countrywomen) regardless of whether we have ever heard of them or their sport, let alone watched on television before the Games. Though American athletes put in countless hours of commitment in preparation to represent our country, all of it would be for naught without the efforts of the USOC.
Formed in 1894, the USOC is driven by its mission to support U.S. Olympic and Paralympic competitive excellence while exhibiting the values of the Olympic Movement. The key element of this responsibility is generating and allocating revenue. Though the USOC is federally sanctioned under the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act (ASA), the non-profit corporation does not receive federal financial support. For this reason, the USOC relies heavily on sponsorships to fund its programs.
Due to the importance of sponsorships, the USOC has a major incentive to maintain its positive brand along with the reputation of the Olympics as a whole. For this reason, the ASA also grants the USOC exclusive rights to use a number of words and marks in a commercial or athletic context, including the name "United States Olympic Committee," the International Olympic Committee symbol (consisting of 5 interlocking rings), and the words "Olympic," and "Olympiad." Congress has even granted enhanced protections and enforcement powers to the USOC in some circumstances. As part of these rights, the USOC can authorize the use of the protected words and marks by sponsors as well as bring legal action against violators under the Lanham Act. The rationale is that the more control over Olympic intellectual property the USOC holds, the further it can maintain and promote its good name. This, in turn, makes the exclusive right to use Olympic words and marks more valuable to sponsors, which generates more capital that can be used for the U.S. Olympic program.
The scope of the exclusive rights under the ASA has often been a source of controversy, however. Though many alleged infringers discontinue their use upon the receipt of a USOC-issued cease and desist letter, a number of disputes have been brought to court to challenge the scope of the USOC's protection and enforcement rights under the ASA.
Author Marcella David discusses one case in particular in Trademark Unraveled: The U.S. Olympic Committee Versus Knitters of the World (Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, Vol. 14.2), involving alleged infringement by Ravelry.com in its use of the word "Ravelympics." Rather than sending a conventional cease and desist letter, the USOC informed Ravelry.com that their use was not only infringing on the USOC's trademarks, but that their use tends to "denigrate the true nature of the Olympic Games." Instead of convincing Ravelry.com to switch the name of its event, the letter sparked outrage throughout the online community. Ironically, in an attempt to protect its reputation, the USOC managed to do the exact opposite shortly before the Olympics were set to begin. In her article, David assesses the USOC's claims of infringement against Ravelry.com while noting areas in need of improvement in the current legal framework of trademark infringement enforcement.
As intellectual property infringement becomes increasingly difficult to prevent and enforce against in the age of the Internet, owners need to be creative and proactive to limit unauthorized use. In regards to the USOC, this means not going too far in enforcing rights, however. So until there is more clarity as to the extent of the USOC's protection under the ASA, we may be in store for a repeat of the Ravelry fiasco in the coming months. Let the countdown begin!
by Nihal Parkar, UMN Law Student, MJLST StaffThe America Invents Act (AIA) was signed into law in 2011 and fully went into effect on March 16, 2013. The AIA resulted from efforts to strengthen the US patent system and bring it in conformity with global patenting standards. One of the aims of the AIA was to reduce post-grant litigation related to patent validity. It is common for alleged infringers to challenge the validity of patents that are asserted against them in court. However, such litigation can be expensive and protracted.