In the coming year, we anticipate a series of events and decisions with varying degrees of impact on intellectual property law in the United States and the way we advise our clients. This article highlights cases we are monitoring that present, in our view, significant issues relating to various aspects of intellectual property law. Most of these cases are pending appeal at some level, and each has the potential for considerable impact on the landscape of U.S. intellectual property law. A small number of recently-decided cases have also been selected for inclusion in this discussion, as it remains to be seen precisely how these decisions will play out in practice over the coming year. Lastly, we take a look at continuing trends in the intellectual property marketplace and review key legislation, including what to expect from the recently-enacted America Invents Act.
II. Cases to Watch in 2013
A. Patentability of Isolated Human Genes
The Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., No. 12-398, is once again headed to the Supreme Court—this time on the merits. The Supreme Court recently granted certiorari on one seemingly simple question: "Are human genes patentable?" In 2012, the Court reversed and remanded the Federal Circuit's split decision that isolated DNA sequences were patent eligible—ordering the Federal Circuit to reconsider its ruling in light of the Court's opinion in Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc. In finding that the claims at issue covered nothing more than laws of nature, the Mayo Court focused on "whether the claims do significantly more than simply describe  natural relations" and whether the "claims add enough to their statements of the [law of nature] to allow the processes they described to qualify as patent-eligible processes that apply natural laws." On remand, the Federal Circuit achieved substantially the same result as before Mayo: a 2-1 split decision finding that isolated human DNA sequences are patent eligible.
By way of background, Supreme Court precedent establishes three judicially created exceptions to Section 101's broad approach to patent subject matter eligibility: "laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas." These general categories have also been interpreted to exclude mental processes and products of nature because "[t]he concepts covered by these exceptions are 'part of the storehouse of knowledge of all men . . . free to all men and reserved exclusively to none.'" Mayo further defined the law of nature exception, focusing on whether a particular claim would preempt others from applying a law of nature. On remand, the Federal Circuit once again found that isolated DNA is patent eligible; however, the fractured panel issued three separate opinions. The heart of the majority opinion that isolated DNA is patent eligible is its finding that "isolated DNA is not just purified DNA." Judge Lourie, the majority's author, explained, "Purification makes pure what was the same material, but was combined, or contaminated, with other materials. Although isolated DNA is removed from its native cellular and chromosomal environment, it has also been manipulated chemically so as to produce a molecule that is markedly different from that which exists in the body." Naturally occurring "DNA exists in the body as one of forty-six large, contiguous DNA molecules. Each of those DNA molecules is condensed and intertwined with various proteins, including histones, to form a complex tertiary structure known as chromatin that makes up a larger structural complex called a chromosome." Thus, because an isolated DNA molecule is a free standing nucleotide sequence divorced from the naturally occurring chromosome, isolated DNA molecules "are different from the natural products in 'name, character, and use.'"
Judge Moore was unconvinced that the chemical change cited by Judge Lourie was sufficient to render an isolated DNA molecular patent eligible because, in part, the isolated gene "does not clearly have a new utility and appears to simply serve the same ends devised by nature." In the end, Judge Moore concluded that the settled expectations of the biotechnology industry and Congress' implicit approval of the USPTO's policy of awarding patents on human genes was enough to tip the scales. Thus, Judge Moore found "it is not clear to me that [precedent] leads inexorably to the conclusion that isolated DNA molecules are not patentable subject matter."
While Judge Lourie, and, to a lesser extent, Judge Moore focused on the structural differences between isolated DNA and native DNA, Judge Bryson's dissent focused on the structural similarities. For Judge Bryson, Mayo dictates that "a patent involving a product of nature should have an inventive concept that involves more than merely incidental changes to the naturally occurring product." Judge Bryson continued, although an isolated DNA molecule may have different terminal ends than its naturally occurring counterpart, "[t]he functional portion of the composition—the nucleotide sequence—remains identical to that of the naturally occurring gene." Thus, for Judge Bryson, isolated genes fall outside of Section 101's broad subject matter eligibility net.
The Supreme Court's decision will lay to rest the gene patent saga that has captured the attention of the popular press since Judge Sweet's district court ruling invalidated many of Myriad's patents in 2010. As the sea of amici briefs indicates, the issue of gene patents is hotly contested by patent practitioners as well as medical organizations. The Court will be forced to tackle difficult policy issues and the biotechnology industry's settled expectations, and decide whether to create a categorical rule excluding isolated genes from patent eligibility.
B. Abstract Ideas and Mental Processes Post-Bilski
Section 101 of the Patent Act provides that a "process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter" may be patented. While the machine-or-transformation test may still be a presumptive starting point in any Section 101 analysis, following the Supreme Court's decision in Bilski, the Federal Circuit has increasingly looked to whether the claims at issue recite a process that is "manifestly abstract," and therefore ineligible for patent protection. However, neither the Supreme Court nor the Federal Circuit has set forth any clear test for evaluating whether a process is "manifestly abstract." In addition to the inherent difficulties in defining when something is "abstract," Federal Circuit jurisprudence post-Bilski has been complicated by the court's inconsistencies in deciding cases involving similar patents with comparable claim language, with the court often applying certain indicia of non-abstractness in one way in some cases and then in an entirely different way in others.
The Federal Circuit's July 2012 opinion in CLS Bank Int'l v. Alice Corp., No. 11-1301, is an example of yet another sharply divided decision. Alice asserted patents relating to a computerized trading platform for exchanging obligations in which a trusted third party settles obligations between a first and second party so as to eliminate 'settlement risk' against CLS Bank. The district court had granted summary judgment of invalidity on the basis that the patents did not claim patent eligible subject matter. When overturning the district court's decision, the Federal Circuit declined to define the concept of 'abstract,' instead implementing a new heightened standard for holding that a claim is not patentable under Section 101. Under CLS Bank, a claim is not abstract "when—after taking all of the claim recitations into consideration—it is not manifestly evident that a claim is directed to a patent ineligible abstract idea, that claim must not be deemed for that reason to be inadequate under §101."
On the other hand, Judge Prost issued a relatively strongly worded dissent, characterizing the majority's decision as an attempt to resist the Supreme Court's unanimous directive to apply the patentable subject matter test with more vigor and by not following the Supreme Court's instructions in its holding and approach by failing to see if the claims include an "inventive concept." She noted that the Federal Circuit had been reversed in a §101 case for a second time in the last three terms of the Supreme Court, "hinting (not so tacitly) that our subject matter patentability test is not sufficiently exacting." Judge Prost's dissent found the claims clearly directed to an abstract idea.
On October 9, 2012, the Federal Circuit vacated the July 2012 decision and ordered a rehearing en banc. The Federal Circuit will be considering two questions: a) what test should the court adopt to determine whether a computer-implemented invention is a patent ineligible "abstract idea;" and when, if ever, does the presence of a computer in a claim lend patent eligibility to an otherwise patent-ineligible idea; and b) in assessing patent eligibility under Section 101 of a computer-implemented invention, should it matter whether the invention is claimed as a method, system, or storage medium; and should such claims at times be considered equivalent for Section 101 purposes?
C. Claim Construction
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court denied certiorari in a case involving, among other things, whether appellate courts should grant deference to district courts' claim constructions. See Retractable Technologies, Inc. v. Bectron, Dickinson and Company, No. 11-1154. Although the Court denied certiorari, the issues raised are sure to be revisited in subsequent Federal Circuit opinions and perhaps again at the Supreme Court on the merits. Of particular importance is the growing support to revisit the Federal Circuit's en banc opinion in Cybor Corp. v. FAS Tech, which held claim construction should be reviewed de novo. In Judge O'Malley's dissent from the Federal Circuit's denial of Retractable's petition for rehearing en banc, she noted that six active Federal Circuit judges have expressed a desire to revisit the court's holding in Cybor. With Judge Bryson and Judge Linn recently taking senior status, there are currently three vacancies on the court and the majority of the active judges (five of nine) have expressed a desire to revisit Cybor. As the composition of the court shifts and vacancies are filled, there is a strong possibility that the court will revisit the standard of review for claim construction.
D. Standing to Challenge Validity When There is a Covenant Not to Sue
In a decision issued earlier this year, the Supreme Court found that a party seeking to divest a court of jurisdiction over a declaratory judgment claim must meet the "formidable burden" of showing that it "'could not reasonably be expected to resume' its enforcement efforts against [the party seeking declaratory judgment]." Already, LLC v. Nike, Inc., 568 U.S. ___, No. 11-982 (Jan. 9, 2013). In finding that Nike's unilateral Covenant not to Sue met this high burden, the Court laid out a blueprint for safely exiting litigation, while leaving room for courts to maintain jurisdiction where the party seeking declaratory judgment can show an intention to develop products falling outside the scope of the covenant.
Nike designs and manufactures popular athletic shoes under the registered trademark Air Force 1. Already also designs and manufactures athletic shoes including lines known as Sugars and Soulja Boys. In July 2009, Nike filed suit against Already claiming trademark infringement, unfair competition, and trademark dilution under the Lanham Act and New York State law. In response, Already filed counterclaims for a declaratory judgment that Nike's Air Force 1 trademark was not, in fact, a valid trademark under 15 U.S.C. §1127 or New York law and for cancellation of the trademark's registration with the United States Patent & Trademark Office. Some four months after Already's counterclaims but before the start of discovery, Nike unilaterally delivered Already a "Covenant Not to Sue." Citing Nike's belief that Already no longer infringed or diluted the Nike mark "at a level sufficient to warrant the substantial time and expense of continued litigation," Nike promised that it "would not raise against Already or any affiliated entity any trademark or unfair competition claim based on any of Already's existing footwear designs, or any Already designs that constituted a colorable imitation."
Nike subsequently moved voluntarily to dismiss its claims with prejudice and to dismiss Already's counterclaims without prejudice on the grounds that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. Already opposed dismissal of its counterclaims, arguing that the Declaratory Judgment Act created jurisdiction because an independent controversy existed over whether Nike had violated Already's rights by improperly obtaining a trademark registration. In support, Already presented affidavits from potential investors asserting that Nike's enforcement activities had either deterred them from investing in Already or had prompted them to withdraw prior investments. Further, an investor affidavit explained that Nike's Covenant did not provided adequate assurance that Nike could not "assert its trademarks against" Already in the future.
The Court found that under the voluntary cessation doctrine, Nike had the "formidable burden" of showing that it "'could not reasonably be expected to resume' its enforcement efforts against Already." The Court emphasized that the burden should not be taken lightly, noting that the Court must be "satisfied that it is 'absolutely clear' that the allegedly unlawful activity cannot reasonably be expected to recur." Nevertheless, the Court found that Nike met that burden because of the sheer breadth of the Covenant.
The Court emphasized that (1) "[t]he covenant is unconditional and irrevocable;" (2) "[b]eyond simply prohibiting Nike from filing suit, [the covenant] prohibits Nike from making any claim or any demand;" (3) "[i]t reaches beyond Already to protect Already's distributors and customers;" and (4) "it covers not just current or previous designs, but any colorable imitations." The Court further noted that because the Covenant covers not only the original allegedly infringing shoes but any colorable imitations of those designs, "'it is hard to imagine a scenario that would potentially infringe [Nike's trade-mark] and yet not fall under the Covenant.'"
Although Nike had the burden of showing mootness, the Court noted that "it was incumbent on Already to indicate that it engages in or has sufficiently concrete plans to engage in activities not covered by the covenant." The Court highlighted that Already had several opportunities but failed to show concrete plans to design or market a shoe that could even arguably fall outside of the scope of the Covenant. In short, the affidavits presented by Already failed to show "the sort of 'concrete' and 'actual' injury necessary to establish Article III standing."
In the end, the Court endorsed Nike's Covenant Not to Sue as sufficient to divest a court of subject matter jurisdiction. Those who face a declaratory judgment and wish to exit litigation without jeopardizing future enforcement of their intellectual property may do so by delivering a covenant not to sue that encompasses the four elements highlighted by the Supreme Court and discussed above. On the other hand, the Court sent a strong signal that not all covenants not to sue will be sufficient to divest a court of jurisdiction over declaratory judgment claims. As noted above, the majority highlighted the "formidable burden" the covenant granter must meet. Further, a concurrence written by Justice Kennedy and joined by three other justices asks lower courts to take heed of potentially abusive litigation tactics and to "proceed with caution before ruling that [covenants not to sue] can be used to terminate litigation." Whether courts and litigants will heed that warning remains to be seen.
E. Patent and Copyright Exhaustion
The issue of exhaustion, both under patent and copyright law, will be taken up by the Supreme Court in two separate cases, and possibly a third. The anticipated decisions will help clarify the law surrounding exhaustion on replicating technologies and international sales and importations into the United States, all of which are critical to effectively managing and maximizing your intellectual property rights.
1.Bowman v. Monsanto
The Supreme Court recently granted certiorari in Bowman v. Monsanto, No. 11-796, a case that, at least on its face, involves the doctrine of patent exhaustion and the conditional sale exemption.
The exhaustion doctrine (also known as the first sale doctrine) has its roots in longstanding Supreme Court precedent. It holds that once an authorized sale of a patented article occurs, the patentee's rights in the article are exhausted, and the purchaser is free to use or resell that article free of infringement. The conditional sale doctrine is of more recent origin, and comes from the Federal Circuit case Mallinckrodt, Inc. v. Medipart, Inc., 976 F.2d 700 (Fed. Cir. 1992). That doctrine holds that patented articles can be "licensed" in such a way that restricts the rights of future licensees to make, use, or sell an invention. In many respects, the conditional sale doctrine is the exception that swallows the exhaustion rule.
The technology at issue in Bowman involves Monsanto's patented "Roundup Ready®" soybeans and soybean seeds. These soybeans are genetically modified to exhibit resistance to certain herbicides that are used, for example, in Monsanto's "Roundup®" product. Monsanto licensed farmers these seeds under the condition that the seeds may only be used by a licensed farmer in a single season, and that the second-generation seeds resulting from any crop may not be used, sold, or supplied to others for planting. However, the license agreement allowed farmers to sell second-generation seeds to local grain elevators as a commodity, without requiring the growers to place restrictions on grain elevators' subsequent sales of that seed.
The petitioner, Vernon Bowman, purchased seeds from a local grain elevator and later discovered that the seeds had herbicide resistance. These seeds turned out to be Monsanto seeds that were sold to the grain elevator pursuant to the authorization in the license agreement. After Bowman planted his first crop of seeds purchased from the grain elevator, he saved the resulting seeds and used them for subsequent seasons. Monsanto sued Bowman for patent infringement in the Southern District of Indiana, and later moved for summary judgment of infringement. Bowman defended that the authorized sale to the grain elevator exhausted Monsanto's patent rights in the seed. The district court disagreed, and found no exhaustion.
On appeal, the Federal Circuit affirmed, while sidestepping the issue of exhaustion. The court of appeals held that even if exhaustion applied to the seeds sold to the grain elevator, "such a conclusion would be of no consequence because once a grower, like Bowman, plants the commodity seeds containing Monsanto's Roundup Ready® technology and the next generation of seed develops, the grower has created a newly infringing article." By so doing, the Federal Circuit cast the issue as an infringement rather than an exhaustion question.
The petition for certiorari in Bowman v. Monsanto raised a two-part question: "whether the Federal Circuit erred by (1) refusing to find patent exhaustion in patented seeds even after an authorized sale and (2) creating an exception to the doctrine of patent exhaustion for self-replicating technologies?" Monsanto opposed the petition partly because the Federal Circuit did not rely on the exhaustion doctrine. Thus, Monsanto contended, the case was not a proper vehicle to consider exhaustion, as that issue was not properly presented.
Despite Monsanto's opposition, the Supreme Court granted certiorari on October 5, 2012. Oral argument is scheduled for February 19, 2013.
Due to the ambiguousness of the questions presented, the potential implications of this case are unclear. If the Supreme Court decides to visit the doctrines of exhaustion and conditional sales generally, the decision could have an impact across many industries. More likely, the Supreme Court will focus narrowly on the issues as applied to self-replicating technologies like plant seeds. The sleeper issue of whether the planting of a lawfully-acquired seed constitutes impermissible "making" of a patented article also lingers in this case.
2.Ninestar v. ITC
Ninestar v. ITC, No. 12-552, is a petition for certiorari that involves the issue of international patent exhaustion. The question is whether the authorized sale of a patented article abroad exhausts the patent rights in that article, such that the article may be imported into the U.S. without infringement.
In Jazz Photo v. ITC, 264 F. 3d 1094 (Fed. Cir. 2001), the Federal Circuit held that sales of patented articles abroad do not exhaust a patentee's U.S. rights. Thus, under the current approach, a U.S. patentee can restrict imports of patented articles that were sold abroad. Ninestar challenges the Jazz Photo line of cases.
The technology at issue in this case is Epson's patented ink cartridges. The petitioners ("Ninestar") bought used Epson ink cartridges abroad, refilled them with ink, and imported the "remanufactured" cartridges into the U.S. at a lower price.
In the underlying action against Ninestar, the ITC found that Ninestar's importation of ink cartridges infringed Epson's U.S. patents and issued exclusion orders. In a later enforcement proceeding, Ninestar defended on the grounds of patent exhaustion. Ninestar argued that the prior international sales exhausted Epson's patent rights in the cartridges, and that its refilling of the cartridges constituted a permissible repair. Because the remanufactured cartridges were non-infringing, Ninestar contended it did not violate the exclusion orders.Relying on Jazz Photo, the ITC rejected Ninestar's exhaustion arguments on the basis that the foreign sales of ink cartridges did not exhaust Epson's U.S. patent rights. The Federal Circuit affirmed on the same grounds.
Ninestar subsequently filed a petition for certiorari on November 2, 2012. First, Ninestar contends that Jazz Photo improperly departed from the common law, which held that foreign, authorized sales of patented articles constitute exhaustion of domestic patent rights. Second, Ninestar argues that the Supreme Court's decision in Quanta compels an opposite conclusion.
The Supreme Court has not yet granted certiorari in this case. However, given the other IP exhaustion cases already being considered this term—Bowman and Kirtsaeng—the Supreme Court may well consider this case also.
This case could have major implications for U.S. patent owners who sell patented articles internationally. Often, such patented articles are sold for cheaper abroad than they are domestically. If the Supreme Court were to overturn Jazz Photo, it would mean that, in many cases, importers will be able to undercut domestic pricing by buying abroad. In order to face competition from importers, patentees may have to raise foreign prices or lower domestic prices. The overall effect will be to decrease the value of a U.S. patent.
3. Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., No. 11-697, on October 29, 2012. In the underlying case, Kirtsaeng purchased legitimate, international copies of Wiley's textbooks, and imported them into the United States for resale. These international versions were slightly different than the U.S. version. The first sale doctrine under Copyright law, codified at 17 U.S.C. § 109(a), allows for the owner of a lawfully made copy of a copyrighted work to resell it without the authority of the copyright holder. However, 17 U.S.C. § 602(a) makes it unlawful to import foreign-made copies of copyrighted work into the U.S. without the copyright holder's approval.
The Second Circuit held that a book legally manufactured outside of the United States cannot be imported without the copyright owner's approval, finding that "lawfully made" under the first sale doctrine means "legally manufactured within the United States." John Wiley & Sons, Inc. v. Kirtsaeng, 654 F.3d 210 (2d Cir. 2011). The Second Circuit acknowledged that a likely result of their finding would be that copyright holder would produce all of their goods abroad before importing them into the United States, but were not deterred from their interpretation of the Copyright Act.
Amici briefs urged a strict finding to limit the holding to the Copyright Act without importing from trademark and patent law. At the same time, as suggested during the oral arguments, the practical consequences of a strict reading of the statute could overly restrict the innocent purchaser and operations of bookstores, art museums, and other such businesses.
The doctrine of patent exhaustion is rooted in the same common law origins as copyright exhaustion, although patent exhaustion is not bound by a specific statute. As explained above, the Supreme Court will be hearing oral arguments in Bowman v. Monsanto next month regarding patent exhaustion, and the Supreme Court rulings in the two cases could be related.
F. Pharmaceutical Reverse Payment Standards
In Federal Trade Commission v. Watson Pharmaceuticals, Inc., et al., No. 12-416, the Supreme Court is set to decide whether reverse payment settlements, colloquially known as "pay-for-delay" settlements, violate antitrust laws. In order to market a new drug in the United States, a company must first obtain approval from the Food and Drug Administration by filing of a new drug application (NDA). Along with the NDA, the manufacturer must also submit detailed reports about the drug's safety and efficacy in addition to any patents the drugs embodies. A generic drug manufacturer may bypass most of the NDA requirements by filing an abbreviated new drug application (ANDA) with the FDA. The ANDA generally need only show that the generic drug has the same active ingredients and is bioequivalent to the brand-name drug. An ANDA applicant can petition to begin selling immediately a generic drug arguably covered by patent by certifying its belief that "the patent is invalid or will not be infringed by the manufacture, use, or sale of the new drug for which the application is submitted." The patent holder then has 45 days to institute infringement proceedings against the ANDA applicant. Once a suit is filed, the FDA stays the approval process for 30 months, during which the infringement lawsuit can run its course. After the 30 month stay, the FDA may approve the ANDA and the generic drug may be marketed.
At the end of the 30-month period, or on the cusp of a non-infringement or invalidity finding, the brand-name manufacturer is faced with a generic manufacturer poised to flood the market with a cheaper product thereby drastically diminishing the brand-name's profits. In the alternative, the brand-name manufacturer can pay the generic manufacturer to settle the infringement suit and withdraw its ANDA application. In exchange, the generic manufacturer agrees not to enter the market for a period of time. Thus, the brand-name manufacturer can avoid the possibility of an invalidity finding or a finding of non-infringement and maintain its position as the market leader.
The Supreme Court is presented with a clear circuit split. The Eleventh, Seventh, and Federal Circuits have held that federal competition law categorically permits reverse-payment agreements unless the underlying patent litigation was a sham or the patent was obtained by fraud. The theory is that these agreements are lawful provided that they do not exceed the scope of the original patent grant. Thus, a patentee may avoid the risk of a court invalidating a drug patent or the expiration of the 30-month stay by paying a would-be generic manufacturer to remain out of the market up to the term of the patent. Opponents to this approach argue that the ANDA proceedings were designed to facilitate judicial review of validity and infringement and that naked agreements not to compete violate antitrust laws.
The Third Circuit, however, treats reverse-payment agreements as presumptively anticompetitive because "any payment from a patent holder to a generic patent challenger who agrees to delay entry into the market [is] prima facie evidence of an unreasonable restraint of trade." According to the Third Circuit, this presumption can be rebutted by showing either "that there is in fact no reverse payment because any money that changed hands was for something other than a delay" or "that reverse payment offers a competitive benefit that could not have been achieved in the absence of a reverse payment."
The Court is set to hear argument later this year.
G. Obviousness Standard
Recently, in Kinetic Concepts v. Smith & Nephew, No. 2011-1105 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 13, 2012), the Federal Circuit issued a decision involving the role of the judge and jury in determining the legal question of obviousness. Many commentators expected a petition for rehearing en banc, which was ultimately not made. However, the Kinetic Concepts case highlights an area of patent law that is ripe for reconsideration in the upcoming year.At trial in the Kinetic Concepts case, the judge asked the jury to resolve disputed questions of fact regarding obviousness. The judge also allowed the jury to issue a conclusion on the underlying legal issue of obviousness, which the judge indicated he would take as "advisory." The jury ultimately concluded that obviousness had not been proven. On a motion for JMOL, the judge ruled to the contrary, finding that the differences between the prior art and the claimed invention were so minimal as to be obvious to anyone of skill in the art.
On appeal, the Federal Circuit reversed the district judge and reinstated the jury verdict. The court observed that the jury made both explicit and implicit factual findings in reaching its non-obviousness conclusion. The court held that the district court erred by failing to defer to the jury's factual findings, which were supported by substantial evidence. According to the court, the jury's findings on secondary considerations of non-obviousness compelled the legal conclusion of no obviousness.
III. Evolving Trends in the IP Marketplace
A. FTC Review of Patent Assertion Entities
The FTC and Justice Department are considering whether patent assertion entities ("PAEs"), also commonly referred to as non-practicing entities ("NPEs") disrupt competition in high-tech markets, recently holding the first of potentially more workshops in early December 2012. PAEs generally do not make or sell any products or services of their own, depending solely on licensing for revenue. Accordingly, they are less susceptible to counter patent claims and because they have fewer documents than traditional practicing entities, they are less concerned about discovery burdens. Proponents of PAEs and NPEs argue that they promote a fair market by protecting the IP rights of smaller inventors. Without the backing of PAEs, the argument goes, small inventors do not have the resources or the clout to obtain fair licensing deals from established corporations. Regardless of the merits of these arguments, one thing remains clear: with estimated revenues of $29 billion from licensing in 2011 alone, PAEs have been wildly successful at extracting value out of patent portfolios.
Further complicating the NPE debate is the evolving structure of NPE's corporate networks. Many NPE's are subsidiaries of larger corporations that exist only to monetize particular patent portfolios. Moreover, traditional corporations such as Microsoft, Google, and others have joined forces to create patent assertion entities aimed at recuperating some of the cost of defensive patent acquisitions. For example, Apple, Microsoft, RIM, Sony, and Ericsson created the Rockstar Consortium to monetize patents purchased from Nortel Networks. Similarly, Nokia and Sony have assigned certain of their patents to an entity, Mobile-Media Ideas LLC, which has since sued Apple for patent infringement.
B. Trends of E-Discovery
Last year, two major e-discovery movements gained headway with the courts: the development of model e-discovery orders designed to reduce the cost of discovery and the acceptance of predictive coding. Predictive coding generally involves the use of computer software to classify automatically documents according to the degree to which they match certain input criteria. The end result is a relatively small pool of documents incorporating key concepts ripe for human attorney review. Courts and attorneys had been reluctant to adopt the technology, instead relying on "linear review," in which attorneys search documents through Boolean search terms. However, last year, several courts permitted the use of predictive coding in efforts to reduce litigation costs and perhaps improve the quality of document productions.
Around the same time that predictive coding was gaining traction, several courts adopted iterations of the Federal Circuit's Model E-Discovery Rules with the hope of curbing the rising cost of discovery in patent cases. While these model rules limit the number of search terms and custodians in e-discovery, none have adopted provisions regarding predictive coding. As the costs of patent litigation continue to rise, parties may encourage courts to incorporate predictive coding measures into their e-discovery orders.
C. Kodak Patent Sale
On January 11, 2013, a federal bankruptcy judge approved the sale of Eastman Kodak Co.'s digital imaging patent portfolio for $527 million. The deal was much less than the $2 billion or more Kodak had hoped to achieve, but it remains the largest sale since Nortel Networks' $4.5 billion patent sale last year. The deal is expected to close in late-February or early-March, and will settle a lot of patent litigation that could have hurt the company's reorganization efforts. Purchasers include Apple, Microsoft, Google, RIM, Adobe, Samsung, and Facebook, among others.
IV. Legislation to Watch in 2013
A. Final Provisions of American Invents Act (AIA) Coming Into Effect
The final provisions of the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (AIA) will go into effect on March 16, 2013. Significant features include the implementation of the "first inventor to file" system, and a broadening of the definition of prior art.
The biggest upcoming change is the transition from the "first to invent" system to a "first inventor to file" system. The new approach awards patent rights to the first person to file for a patent, with some exceptions that are roughly outlined here. First, the filer must be an actual inventor of the technology. The AIA provides a new "derivation" proceeding, whereby a later filer can prevail in the rights to a patent by proof that an earlier filer derived the technology from him. Second, patent applications are still subject to invalidation by prior art. The AIA allows an inventor to make a public disclosure that will operate as prior art against other filers, while giving that inventor a one-year grace period to file himself.
The AIA also significantly broadens the scope of prior art. Beginning with patent applications filed March 16 or later, prior art will encompass any disclosure available to the public before the effective filing date of the claimed invention. This includes foreign patents and applications, and public use anywhere in the world. In addition, unpublished patent applications will, for the first time, serve as prior art. These additional sources of prior art will make it easier for patent infringement defendants to raise invalidity defenses. However, the effect of the new prior art definition will not be seen immediately, as it will take several years for applicable patents to begin being enforced.
B. SHIELD Act
Last year, two Congressmen introduced the Saving High-Tech Innovators from Egregious Legal Disputes Act of 2012 (H.R. 6245)—or the SHIELD Act for short. The goal of the SHIELD Act was to amend existing patent laws "to provide for the recovery of computer hardware and software patent litigation costs in cases where the court finds the claimant did not have a reasonable likelihood of succeeding." The SHIELD Act was touted as a mechanism for businesses to fight back against "patent troll" lawsuits by forcing a patent owner who loses an infringement suit to pay the winner's legal fees. However, existing law protects innovators from "egregious legal disputes" under 35 U.S.C. § 285, that is, a court may award attorney's fees in "exceptional cases." The SHIELD Act would expand plaintiff's exposure by permitting—but not mandating—a court to award attorney's fees in the event the court decides that the plaintiff did not have a reasonable likelihood of success. The SHIELD Act of 2012 was referred to the judicial committee where it languished until the end the 112th Congress. Supporters will likely reintroduce the bill in 2013, but it is equally likely that the 2013 version will suffer the same fate as the 2012 SHIELD Act.
C. Hague Agreement Concerning International Registration of Industrial Designs
On December 18, 2012, President Obama signed into law the Patent Law Treaties Implementation Act of 2012, Pub. Law 112-211, which enacted provisions to implement the Hague Agreement Concerning International Registration of Industrial Designs and the Patent Law Treaty. Implementation of the Hague Agreement will result in a filing system for design patents similar to the already existing PCT system for utility patents. The main difference is that design patents will now be afforded provisional patent rights under 35 U.S.C. 154(d) for published international design applications. The law likely will not become effective until December 19, 2013.
D. Changes to Trade Secret Law
Straddling the start of 2013, the Senate and the House of Representatives passed significant legislation altering the Economic Espionage Act ("EEA"), sending a clear signal that Congress intends to protect intellectual property. The EEA criminalizes two types of trade secret misappropriation: (1) the theft of a trade secret to benefit a foreign government, and (2) the theft of a trade secret carried out for economic advantage, regardless of whether or not the theft is intended to benefit a foreign entity.
The Theft of Trade Secrets Clarification Act of 2012, S. 3642, was Congress' response to a Second Circuit Court of Appeals opinion that overturned a defendant's conviction under the EEA for stealing trade secrets from his employer, Goldman Sachs. The Second Circuit interpreted the EEA's requirement that a trade secret "is related to or included in a product that is produced for or placed in foreign commerce" narrowly, finding that a former employee who copied Goldman's internal high frequency trading system could not be prosecuted under the EEA because Goldman's system "was neither 'produced for' nor 'placed in' interstate or foreign commerce." The Theft of Trade Secrets Clarifications Act amends the EEA to replace the requirement that an alleged trade secret must be "related to or included in a product that is produced for or placed in interstate or foreign commerce" with language covering trade secrets found in "a product or service used in or intended for use in" interstate or foreign commerce. The EEA as amended criminalizes the misappropriation of trade secrets that are used internally to gain a competitive advantage but may not be embodied in a product placed in interstate or foreign commerce.
On January 1, 2013, the House of Representatives passed The Foreign and Economic Espionage Penalty Enhancement Act of 2012 (H.R. 6029) ("Penalty Enhancement Act"), which increases the maximum penalty for certain trade secret misappropriations under the EEA. The Penalty Enhancement Act seeks to increase the U.S. Government's ability to deter misappropriation by drastically increasing the penalty for misappropriating trade secrets for the benefit of a foreign government. The act increases the penalty for individuals from a fine of "not more than $500,000" and/or imprisonment of not more than 15 years to a maximum of fine of $5,000,000 and maximum prison term of 20 years. Similarly, the Penalty Enhancement Act enhances the penalty for organizations from a $10,000,000 fine to "not more than the greater of $10,000,000 or three times the value of the stolen trade secret to the organization, including the expenses for research and design and other cost of reproducing the trade secret that the organization has thereby avoided."By drastically increasing the penalty for misappropriating trade secrets for the benefit of a foreign government and increasing the scope of trade secret protection across the board, Congress has sent a clear signal that it is serious about protecting domestic intellectual property. The growing support for protecting domestic trade secrets could spill over to creating a private right of action for companies to recover in federal court for the misappropriation of their trade secrets. Currently, most trade secret cases are tried under state law in state courts or in federal courts sitting in diversity jurisdiction. Despite many states' adoption of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act, there continues to be widespread differences in states' application of the law. As a result, there is little uniformity in the application of trade secret law across the United States.
Last year the Senate introduced the Protecting American Trade Secrets and Innovation Act of 2012, which would amend the EEA to include a private right of action. The Act includes a provision permitting the ex parte "seizure of any property (including computers) used or intended to be used, in any manner or part, to commit or facilitate the commission of the violation alleged in the civil action" provided that the plaintiff shows "by clear and convincing evidence that issuing the order is necessary to prevent irreparable harm." This would permit a trade secret holder to limit quickly the damage done to its position in the competitive market place. Perhaps more importantly, the nationalization of trade secret law would create a greater degree of uniformity and may facilitate a more efficient resolution of trade secret misappropriation claims.
Although the Protecting American Trade Secrets and Innovation Act of 2012 languished in the Senate Judiciary Committee, the growing support in Congress for stronger protection of domestic trade secrets suggests that when reintroduced in 2013, the Act will gain some traction.
As in years past, we can expect 2013 to bring significant developments in the intellectual property arena. Both the courts and practitioners will continue to grapple with the bounds of patentable subject matter post-Bilski and other issues that have far-reaching impact on how companies choose to pursue, litigate, and invest in intellectual property. As provisions of the America Invents Act continue to go into effect and Congress considers additional legislation, the year promises to shed light on the interaction between patent-related legislation and the intellectual property marketplace.
The content of this article does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied on in that way. Specific advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.