Two weeks ago, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals limited the factors a district court may consider in determining the amount of attorneys’ fees to award in an “exceptional” patent infringement case. Lumen View Tech., LLC v. Findthebest.com, Inc. (January 22, 2016) 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 1087.
Lumen was the exclusive licensee of a patent covering a method for facilitating bilateral and multilateral decisionmaking. The method required analyses of preference data from two groups of people. Findthebest.com (FTB) offered a website with a search feature called “AssistMe” that gave the user information on products and services related to the user’s specific input.
Lumen sued FTB in the Southern District of New York for patent infringement. FTB’s counsel told Lumen on several occasions that FTB’s search method did not use a bilateral or multilateral process. Lumen ignored FTB’s statements, and filed its infringement contentions before obtaining any discovery. FTB then filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings on the grounds that the patent was invalid under 35 U.S.C. §101 as directed to an unpatentable abstract idea. The district court ruled in favor of FTB and dismissed the case. FTB then filed a motion seeking a determination that the case was “exceptional” under 35 U.S.C. §285 and for recovery of its attorneys’ fees on that grounds.
The district court ruled that the case was exceptional and that FTB was entitled to fees. The court awarded FTB the lodestar amount with a multiplier of two, for a total of about $300,000. The court found that the multiplier was justified in order to deter Lumen from filing similar frivolous lawsuits in the future. The court said that the lodestar amount was too small, because the case had been resolved at an early stage, to be an effective deterrent, and so chose to use the multiplier of two.
The Ninth Circuit’s recent decision in the case of Dolby Systems, Inc. v. Christenson, focuses primarily on the issue of which party bears the initial burden of proof with regard to a “first sale” defense in a copyright infringement action. As the reader will see, however, this case really provides a cautionary tale as to the consequences a party may face when it plays games during discovery.
Adobe, a software publisher and the copyright holder for titles such as the “Photoshop” series sued Christenson in October 2009 alleging copyright and trademark infringement. (This column will not address the trademark issues.) Christenson ran a website on which he “re-sells” Adobe software, which he purchases from third party distributors apparently without Adobe’s authorization. Adobe claimed that it does not sell its software, but merely licenses them and that Christenson infringed on its copyrights when he “re-sold” its titles. Christenson claimed that his activities were protected under the First Sale Doctrine, claiming that he lawfully purchased the software from third parties, who had also “purchased” the software from Adobe.
Adobe’s lawsuit against Christenson was apparently quite contentious. The Ninth Circuit observed that the lower court proceedings were “punctuated by discovery disputes, sanctions and multiple rulings on the admissibility and exclusion of evidence.” Both parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The District Court, after excluding certain evidence offered by Adobe because it had not been produced during discovery, granted summary judgment in Christenson’s favor as to the copyright infringement claim after recognizing that the First Sale Defense applied. Adobe appealed this finding to the Ninth Circuit.
In business, there are numerous opportunities for pitfalls, mistakes and errors and they come up in all different legal areas – from basic formation issues to labor and employment to intellectual property. Mistakes and missteps involving intellectual property can be particularly problematic because IP is a company asset; it constitutes a part of (often a significant part of) a company’s valuation. In my 20 years working with start-up companies – and even fully grown-up companies, I have seen mistakes involving company intellectual property prove to be disastrous. With careful planning and good counsel, these mistakes are completely avoidable.
#1. Failure To Transfer the IP From The Founder Into the Company. It is a foundational item for any company – if the company is being formed around a piece of IP or if a piece of IP is intended for use by a company, the company should make sure the founder that owns the IP must contribute it to the company. While a very basic issue, this problem plagues more start-ups than you can imagine. Most often it happens during the informal, pre-formation time frame when founders are kicking around an idea and developing code and no one has consulted a lawyer. Conflict between the founders develop and there is a divergence of opinion on the value brought to the table by the non-developer founders; the developers decide to split with the IP and form a new company. While this will likely generate lawsuits just as soon as the developer’s company is in a financing round, the non-developer founders will very likely not receive as much as they would have had the IP been properly assigned to the company.
Taylor Swift has been in the news a lot over the last year or so. She is phenomenally successful. Her hit album “1989” concert tour was the highest grossing tour in the world in 2015 (over $250 million) and the highest grossing tour ever in North America (smashing the previous record held by the Rolling Stones’ 2005 tour).
As she said in a Wall Street Journal Op/Ed piece in 2014, Swift believes songs are valuable art that should be paid for. Swift means what she says. She protects her intellectual property. She has become a strong voice for music artists in the fight against those who distribute music for free without permission (otherwise known as copyright infringers), especially Internet music streaming services. When it comes to copyright, Swift has proven herself to be a force to be reckoned with in the music industry – she is not afraid to go after anyone.
For example, in late 2014, Swift’s team directed China’s largest music streaming services to take down her entire catalog of music from all free services. In a country where free music is almost viewed as an entitlement, Swift took her music out of the picture.
If you’re a fan of intellectual property or the National Football League, you may have heard about last July’s ruling in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. There, Judge Gerald Bruce Lee affirmed the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s ruling that the team’s moniker is offensive to Native Americans, and therefore ineligible for trademark protection under the Lanham Act, which prohibits registration of disparaging marks. This battle was fought over more than 20 years. The effect is that the Redskins can continue to use the mark, but they do not have the trademark protections provided by the Lanham Act. The Redskins, clearly unhappy with this result, have appealed the matter to the Fourth Circuit of Appeal. That matter is currently pending and the opening briefs were recently filed.
In its opening brief, the Redskins immediately attacked the District Court’s ruling that the Redskins’ registration is not entitled to First Amendment scrutiny because registered trademarks are “government speech” and the registration is a government subsidy “program.” Counsel for the Redskins, Quinn Emanuel and Arnold & Porter, argue that this notion is disturbing. Specifically the opening brief states that:
A longstanding battle between Google and the authors of published books has been resolved (at least for now) in favor of Google. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals has held that Google’s use of copyrighted books in its Library Project and Google Books website, without the permission of the authors, is fair use and therefore not copyright infringement. The Authors Guild v. Google, Inc. (2nd Cir. 2015) 804 F.3d 202.
In 2004, Google began its Library Project. Google entered into agreements with some of the world’s leading research libraries, including the University of California, the University of Michigan, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, Princeton, the New York Public Library, and Oxford. Under the agreements, the libraries submitted certain books to Google which Google digitally scanned, made machine-readable texts, and indexed the texts. Google has now scanned and indexed over 20 million books. Some of the books were copyrighted, while others were in the public domain. Most of the books were out of print, non-fiction books. The digital copies are stored on Google’s servers.
The public can access Google’s database of machine-readable texts through the Google Books website. On the website, the user can search for key words and find all books that include the key words and the number of times the search terms appear in each book. The search results also include a short summary description of each book and may include a link to purchase the book or the names of the libraries where the book is located. The website also offers the user the ability to see up to three snippets (segments of about an eighth of a page) of the text of the book. Searches for different words will turn up different snippets, but one snippet out of every page and one page out of every ten pages of each book are permanently inaccessible to the user (referred to by Google as “blacklisted”). In 2005, Google agreed to remove the snippet feature for any book at the copyright owner’s request. Google does not permit advertising in the Google Books searches and does not get paid for any sales of books.
Everyone on the West Coast knows In-N-Out Burger. For some of us Californians, the burgers may even be considered a state treasure. Doordash, on the other hand, is much less recognizable. It is an on-demand delivery service that connects its customers with local businesses. According to Doordash, it enables its users to purchase food from merchants and have it delivered within 45 minutes. While providing this service, Doordash delivered In-N-Out food products to its customers all across the nation. Unfortunately for Doordash, this seemingly innocent, and mutually beneficial, conduct resulted in it being sued in the United States District Court for the Central District of California for trademark infringement, trademark dilution, and unfair competition.
In-N-Out filed its complaint against Doordash on November 6, 2015. In the complaint, In-N-Out contends that it has not authorized Doordash to deliver its food products and that Doordash is not its affiliate. Despite these facts, In-N-Out contends that Doordash delivers food from In-N-Out and utilizes a colorable imitation mark, as well as several of In-N-Out’s registered trademarks. According to In-N-Out, the intent of this conduct is to confuse consumers as to Doordash’s authority to deliver In-N-Out’s products.
Representing copyright owners attempting to enforce online infringement is often routine, but can sometimes prove challenging. This tends to be the case when a content owner is trying to address large scale infringement of one or multiple works. Most often ISPs are cooperative, but on occasion an ISP may resist responding to a content owner when the owner is represented by an organization like Rightscorp — often referred to as “copyright trolls.” Based on the recent ruling by the Eastern District Court of Virginia against Cox Communications, an ISP is taking a huge risk ignoring infringement notices sent by Rightscorp or any similar organization.
In December of 2014, music publishers BMG Rights Management US, LLC and Round Hill Music LP sued Cox Enterprises Inc. for contributory and vicarious copyright infringement. In the complaint the music publishers allege that the ISP waived its immunity from copyright infringement liability under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”) by disregarding numerous takedown notices sent on their behalf by their agent, Rightscorp, and otherwise failing to terminate the accounts of repeat infringers.
The DMCA was enacted in 1998 to implement the World Intellectual Property Organization Copyright Treaty and to update domestic copyright law for the digital age. In particular, the DMCA established a series of four “safe harbors” that allow qualifying Internet service providers to limit their liability for claims of copyright infringement based on (a) “transitory digital network communications,” (b) “system caching,” (c) “information residing on systems or networks at [the] direction of users,” and (d) “information location tools.” 17 U.S.C. §§ 512(a)-(d). To qualify for protection under any of the safe harbors, the ISP must, among other requirements, adopt and implement a “repeat infringer” policy that provides for the termination of account holders.
Although the general rule (based on 35 USC section 101) is that anything made by humans is patentable, there are exceptions. Laws of nature, physical phenomena, and abstract ideas are not patentable. Inventions that fall in these categories are “patent-ineligible,” that is, directed to subject matter that is not eligible to be patented. After the Supreme Court’s key decisions over the last few years in Bilski v. Kappos, 130 S. Ct. 3218 (2010); Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc., 132 S. Ct. 1289 (2012), and Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. V. CLS Bank International, 134 S. Ct. 2347 (2014), the courts have increasingly held computerized methods of doing business unpatentable.
The district court for the Eastern District of Texas, where many patent infringement cases are filed, handled such a case in Kroy IP Holdings, LLC v. Safeway, Inc., 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 69363. In Kroy, the court provides a useful review of the state of the law, starting with the three Supreme Court cases.
In Bilski, supra, decided in 2010, the Supreme Court held that claims to a method for commodities traders to minimize the risk of price fluctuations was an unpatentable abstract idea. The idea of hedging against risks is a common practice in our economy. The Court found that an idea cannot be made patentable by limiting it to a particular field, such as commodities. The Court held that the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals’ previous test for claims that appear directed to abstract ideas, the machine-or-transformation test (which requires a claimed method to be linked to a particular machine or to transform an article into something else in order to be patentable) is one test that can be used, but is not the sole test.
Another intellectual property dispute has arisen in the brewing industry. This time, however, the battle took place on Canadian soil. British Columbia based Pacific Western Brewing (“PWB”) sued renowned Mexican brewery Cerveceria del Pacifico (“CDP”), arguing the latter’s name was confusingly similar to PWB’s various brew-related trademarks. For those who do not know, Cerveceria del Pacifico is the brewery responsible for Cerveza Pacifico Clara, better known as Pacifico. Although the claim concerns numerous PWB marks, the lawsuit seems to center on the alleged similarity between their Pacific Pilsner marks and CDP’s Pacifico marks. After analyzing the merits of this case, I cannot understand why PWB felt the need to pursue this lawsuit. Aside from both marks generally using the word “Pacific,” the marks are vastly different.
First, Cerveza Pacifico Clara is clearly distinct from Pacific Pilsner. Even if you compare the commonly used name Pacifico to Pacific Pilsner, the marks are distinguishable, albeit slightly more similar. Further, the respective design marks are distinct. Pacifico’s mark is generally presented against a bright yellow background with the words appearing in red and a different shade of yellow. The logo also features a lifesaver encompassing a hill with the port city of Mazatlan’s lighthouse hill, known locally as Cerro Del Creston. In contrast, Pacific Pilsner’s mark is generally presented against a white background with the words appearing in red and iridescent blue. Although the PWB designs vary slightly, they consistently include a sailboat. Based on these descriptions, it should be clear that the marks are patently distinguishable.