The IP Law Blog

Focusing on legal trends in data security, cloud computing, data privacy, and anything E

Unprotectable Generic Trademarks + Top-Level Domains = Protectable Trademarks

Posted in Trademark Law

Generic trademarks are those which, due to their popularity and/or common usage, have become synonymous with the products or services. Such trademarks include Kleenex, Band-Aid, Jeep, Aspirin, and Cellophane. Such marks, generally, cannot be federally registered or protected under the Lanham Act due to the marks direct reference to the class of product or service it belongs to. In other words, it fails to distinguish the good or service from other goods or services in the marketplace.

Breaking ways with this long-standing body of law, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia reversed a Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB”) decision denying trademark applications for BOOKING.COM. The plaintiff in that action previously filed a federal trademark application for BOOKING.COM for both travel agency services and for making hotel reservations for others in person and via the internet. Plaintiff already had an international trademark registration for the same services pursuant to the Madrid Protocol.

During the USPTO’s review the plaintiff argued that the marks had acquired distinctiveness, but the USPTO refused to register the mark due to its genericness. The plaintiff appealed the decision to the TTAB, which affirmed the USPTO’s refusal. In doing so, the TTAB stated that “.com” did not impact the genericness.

On appeal, the Eastern District of Virginia first examined whether BOOKING.COM is generic. In doing so, it first analyzed BOOKING and .COM separately before analyzing them in conjunction. The Court found that that BOOKING is generic for the relevant services. When analyzing BOOKING.COM as a whole, however, plaintiff argued that the combination of the generic word BOOKING and .COM created a unique designation of the source of the services.

The Court found that when combined with a second-level domain, top-level domains, such as .com, typically have source identifying significance.  The Court further held that second-level domain and top-level domain combinations generally create descriptive marks that are protectable upon acquiring distinctiveness. The reasoning stemmed from the Court finding that a top-level domain plus a second-level domain equals a domain name, which is unique and can only be owned by a single entity.

Next, the Court analyzed whether BOOKING.COM had acquired distinctiveness. Finding that the plaintiff offered sufficient evidence that consumers identify BOOKING.COM with a specific source, not just a reference to services provided, the Court held that BOOKING.COM had acquired distinctiveness, but only as to hotel registration services, not travel agency services. Accordingly, the Court ordered the USPTO to register BOOKING.COM as to those services, and remanded the matter to the USPTO to determine whether the design and color elements in two of the applications, in conjunction with the protectable word mark, were eligible for protection.

So, what does this mean? In short, it means that although a party may be unable to register its generic mark alone, it may be able to combine the generic mark with a top-level domain to create a registrable trademark. But although this undoubtedly provides some benefit, such trademark owners should heed the Eastern District’s warning that such marks will not be according broad protection.

It’s Not Water under the Bridge – “Fiji Water Girl” Sues Water Company Over Cardboard Cutout

Posted in Entertainment Law, IP

For those of you that watched the red carpet happenings at last year’s Golden Globe Awards, you may have noticed the “Fiji Water Girl”, a model standing ready to keep Hollywood glitterati hydrated with bottles of Fiji water, photobombing numerous shots of celebrities.  Her presence on the red carpet created a social media firestorm and the Fiji Water Girl – a model named Kelly Steinbach – garnered instant and substantial notoriety.  Now this notoriety has evolved into a lawsuit, pitting Steinbach against the very brand of water she was representing.  It appears that Fiji created numerous life-size cardboard cutouts of Steinbach from a photo of her on the red carpet at the Golden Globes holding a tray of Fiji water and placed them at grocery stores and at other retail point-of-sale locations.  In fact, People Magazine published a picture of John Legend leaving a Beverly Hills grocery store with the cardboard cutout of Steinbach in the background next to a display of Fiji water.  Steinbach claims that Fiji never had her permission to use her likeness in such a manner and such use by Fiji violates her right of publicity.

California Civil Code Section 3344 states, in pertinent part:

Any person who knowingly uses another’s name, voice, signature, photograph, or likeness, in any manner, on or in products, merchandise, or goods, or for purposes of advertising or selling, or soliciting purchases of, products, merchandise, goods or services, without such person’s prior consent….shall be liable for any damages sustained by the person or persons injured as a result thereof.

The entire purpose of 3344 is to allow individuals to control any commercial interest they may have in their persona.  That said, every use of a person’s likeness in connection with a commercial product or service is not actionable.  Section 3344(e) states that:

[I]t shall be a question of fact whether or not the use of the person’s name, voice, signature, photograph, or likeness was so directly connected with the commercial sponsorship or with the paid advertising as to constitute a use for which consent is required.

The statute also contains a “safe harbor” for use in any news, public affairs, or sports broadcast or any political campaign.

Most contested right of publicity cases address the fine line between commercial use and a protected First Amendment use.  Although the Supreme Court provided guidance in Comedy III Prods., Inc. v. Gary Saderup, Inc. for determining the difference between protected First Amendment speech and the actionable usurpation of an individual’s right of publicity, balancing tests are never as clear as practitioners would like them to be.

Here however, it seems like a clear case, but like any good Hollywood movie, there’s always a twist.  Fiji claims that the lawsuit is frivolous and without merit.    Fiji claims that “[a]fter the Golden Globes social media moment, [it] negotiated a generous agreement with Ms. [Steinbach].”  Fiji even claims there is a videotape of Ms. Steinbach signing an agreement; Steinbach claims that the agreement was not really an agreement and the signing was a staged event.  Fiji claims that Steinbach “blatantly violated” the agreement between them and stated that it’s confident that it will prevail in Court.

Can Secret Sales Prohibit Patenting Your Invention?

Posted in Patent Law

Prior to the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (“AIA”), the patent statute (35 U.S.C. § 102(b)) prohibited patenting an invention that was “on sale in this country, more than one year prior to the date of the application for patent in the United States.”  This limitation on patentability is often referred to as the “on-sale” bar because it prohibits, or bars, an inventor from obtaining a patent when the invention was on sale more than one year before the patent application was filed.  In fact, all patent statutes since 1836 have included an “on-sale” bar provision.  The motivation behind the bar comes from the U.S. Constitution, which authorizes Congress “[t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.”  Long ago, the Supreme Court determined it would impede “the Progress of Science and useful Arts” to permit an inventor to sell his or her invention while keeping the secrets of his or her invention from the public and then later get a patent when faced with the danger of a competitor.  This would improperly offer a premium, such as longer protection than the standard patent term, “to those who should be least prompt to communicate their discoveries.”  See Pennock & Sellers v. Dialogue, 27 U.S. 2 Pet. 1 1 (1829).

But what does it mean for an invention to be “on sale”?  Does the sale have to make the invention available to the public?  Does the invention have to actually be sold? Does merely offering the invention for sale trigger the on-sale bar provision?  Interpreting the pre-AIA, “on-sale” bar, the Supreme Court determined that an invention was “on sale” when two conditions are met.  First, the invention is “the subject of a commercial offer for sale,” and second, the invention is “ready for patenting.”  In other words, a mere offer for sale triggers the “on-sale” bar whether or not the sale is made.  Further, the sale or offer for sale does not have to make invention available to the public for the invention to be “on sale” and thus subject to the “on-sale” bar provision.

The AIA, however, modified the language for the “on-sale” bar provision.  Under the AIA’s 35 U.S.C. § 102(a)(1), a person shall be entitled to a patent unless the claimed invention was “… on sale, or otherwise available to the public before the effective filing date of the claimed invention.”  This change raised a question as to whether, under the AIA, a sale has to make the invention available to the public to trigger the AIA version of the “on-sale” bar.  In other words, does the phrase “otherwise available to the public” limit the types of sales that trigger the bar or can “secret sales,” such as sales under a non-disclosure or confidential agreement, still trigger the bar as they did under the pre-AIA, “on-sale” bar.

On January 22, 2019, the Supreme Court answered these questions in Helsinn Healthcare S.A. v. Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc.  Specifically, in Helsinn, the Court addressed “whether the sale of an invention to a third party who is contractually obligated to keep the invention confidential places the invention ‘on sale’ within the meaning of § 102(a).”  The Court unanimously held that a confidential sale to a third party triggers the “on-sale” bar provision.  Thus the AIA did not alter the meaning of “on sale.”

Looking at the facts in Helsinn and the Court’s reasoning provides further insight.  Specifically, Helsinn owns four patents, which all claim priority to a provisional patent filed in 2003, related to the drug palonosetron used to treat chemotherapy-induced nausea.  One of the patents, the ‘219 patent, is governed by the AIA and the other three are governed by pre-AIA law.  Nearly two years before filing the provisional patent application, Helsinn entered into two agreements with MGI Pharma, Inc. (“MGI”) whereby MGI would purchase the drug from Helsinn and keep all proprietary information received under the agreements confidential.  Helsinn and MGI announced the agreements in a joint press release, and MGI reported the agreements in its Form 8-K filing with the SEC.  However, they did not disclose specific dosage formulations covered by the agreements.

Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc. (“TEVA”) sought FDA approval to market a generic version of the anti-nausea drug.  In response, Helsinn sued TEVA for patent infringement.  TEVA argued the ‘219 patent was invalid because the invention was on sale more than one year before Helsinn filed its provisional patent application.  The District Court agreed with TEVA concluding that “an invention is not ‘on sale’ unless the sale or offer in question made the claimed invention available to the public.”  On appeal, the Federal Circuit reversed finding that “’if the existence of the sale is public, the details of the invention need not be publicly disclosed in the terms of sale’ to fall within the AIA’s on-sale bar.”  Therefore, “[b]ecause the sale between Helsinn and MGI was publicly disclosed, it held that the on-sale bar applied.”

The Supreme Court then “granted certiorari to determine whether, under the AIA, an inventor’s sale of an invention to a third party who is obligated to keep the invention confidential” triggers the on-sale bar provision.  The Court pointed out that the AIA “retained the on-sale bar and added the catchall phrase ‘or otherwise available to the public.”  Therefore, the question was whether the altered language changed the meaning of the “on sale” bar.  The Court pointed to the well-settled, pre-AIA precedent that sales and offers for sale did not have to be public to trigger the on-sale bar provision.  In fact, the Court acknowledged that the Federal Circuit had explicitly recognized the implicit precedents of the Supreme Court that secret sales can invalidate a patent under the pre-AIA “on sale” bar.  “In light of this settled pre-AIA precedent on the meaning of ‘on sale,’” the Supreme Court presumed “that when Congress reenacted the same language in the AIA, it adopted the earlier judicial construction of that phrase.”  “The new § 102 retained the exact language used in its predecessor statute (‘on sale’) and, as relevant here, added only a new catchall clause (‘or otherwise available to the public’).”  The Court determined that merely adding “or otherwise available to the public” was “simply not enough of a change” to “conclude that Congress intended to alter the meaning of the reenacted term “on sale.”  Therefore, the Court held that “an inventor’s sale of an invention to a third party who is obligated to keep the invention confidential” can bar patentability under the AIA “on sale” bar provision.

Whose “Baby” Is It?

Posted in Patent Law

When a new invention is created (if it is worth anything), everyone wants to take credit. Figuring out whose “baby” it is, is a difficult question.

What is an inventor? Who is the inventor? One would think these questions have straightforward answers. They do not. Inventorship is one of the most difficult and gray areas of patent law.

It is easy to say what (or who) an inventor is not. An inventor is not the research technician who carries out the instructions of the lead investigator developing a new drug. An inventor is not the computer programmer who writes the code for software developed by someone else. An inventor is not the machinist who fabricates a device under the direction of the engineer. An inventor is not the CEO of the company, the most important shareholder, the leading investor, or the supportive colleague. An inventor is not a corporation or other business entity.

The inventor is the person (a natural person) who “invents” the invention. Inventing consists of three phases: conception of the invention; steps taken toward reducing the invention to practice; and reduction to practice of the invention. The person, or persons, who perform the first phase, conception, are the inventors. The person(s) who perform the second and third phases can be the inventor(s) or those acting at the direction of the inventor(s).

Conception is the formation of the definite and permanent idea of the complete and operative invention. This means that the structure and function of the invention have been fully thought out. If the inventor can describe how to make and use the invention, such that a person with ordinary skill in the art could make and use it, then there is conception. The inventor may have others help actually make the invention, but this does not make them inventors.

Any person who makes a contribution to the conception of the invention is an inventor. Multiple inventors are called joint inventors. The determination of whether a person is a joint inventor is very fact-specific. Joint inventors must be working together in some sense, although they need not work together physically or at the same time. Joint inventors cannot be working completely independently; if so, they are not joint inventors, but sole inventors of the same invention. The contributions of the joint inventors need not be of the same size or significance. The contribution of a small, minor aspect of the invention is enough to make a person a joint inventor as long as that aspect is contained in at least one claim of the patent.

If there is more than one inventor of an invention, each inventor owns an equal, undivided interest in the invention and in any patent on the invention. This is true regardless of the amount of the inventor’s contribution. Each inventor can make, use, offer to sell, or sell the invention in the United States, or import the invention into the United States, without the consent of the other joint inventors. In order to transfer all the rights to an invention, all of the joint inventors must sign an assignment.

All of the inventors must jointly file a patent application. Each inventor must sign the oath or declaration. All of the true inventors must be named as inventors, and the application cannot name a person who is not an inventor. For example, an inventor cannot be excluded because he or she is no longer employed by the company filing the patent application. Nor can a person who is not an inventor be named as an inventor simply as an acknowledgment or reward for working on the project. Errors in inventorship can be corrected by amending the patent application, or the issued patent, as long as the error was unintentional.

Inventorship problems occur frequently in companies where several employees work together on a project that results in an invention. The existence of joint inventors raises two problems. First, because each joint inventor owns, and has full rights to exploit, the invention, all of the inventors need to sign an assignment to the company if the company is to obtain clear title to the invention. It is easiest to do this before the employees are hired or, if not, before they leave the company. It is often not done until after the employee has left the company, however, and the company decides to file a patent application. Second, a patent that issues with incorrect inventorship (either omitting an inventor or including a non-inventor) is at risk of being invalidated, unless a correction is made. In other words, years after the invention was invented, when the company is in litigation to enforce its patent, the issue of inventorship can be raised as a basis for invalidating the patent. Thus, inventorship issues should be resolved as early as possible, hopefully before the patent application is filed.

Patent License Royalty Rates are Strong Evidence of Damages

Posted in Intellectual Property Litigation, IP, Patent Law

The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a jury verdict of $140 million in a patent infringement case.  The damages were based on a reasonable royalty.  The case is Sprint Communications Co., L.P. v. Time Warner Cable, Inc., 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 33594 (Fed. Cir.  2018).

Sprint sued Time Warner in the District of Kansas for infringement for several of Sprints patents for a telephone communications network.  Sprint alleged that Time Warner’s voice over internet protocol (VoIP) service infringed Sprints telecommunications patents.  The case was tried to a jury.  At trial, the district court admitted Sprints evidence of another jury verdict Sprint had obtained in a different case over the same patents against Vonage Holdings Corporation.  The court found that the evidence was relevant to the jury’s determination of reasonable royalty damages using the hypothetical negotiation theory of determining the royalty.  The jury awarded Sprint reasonable royalty damages of $140 million, calculated as $1.37 for each of Time Warner’s subscribers to its VoIP service.

On appeal, Time Warner argued that the district court should not have admitted evidence of Sprint’s verdict against Vonage because that royalty was based on the total amount of Vonage’s revenues, rather than the amount apportioned to the patented aspects of the product.

The Federal Circuit affirmed the jury’s verdict.  The court held that the district court had properly admitted the evidence of the Vonage verdict.  The court found that an apportionment between the patented and unpatented aspects of a product is not required if the Georgia-Pacific factors are used to determine the royalty.  The Georgia-Pacific case sets for a long list of factors, which the Federal Circuit has approved, that are relevant in determining a reasonable royalty.  Under Georgia-Pacific, the royalty rates for comparable licenses are relevant even if the royalty rate is based on total sales rather than sales of the patented component.

Here, the court found that the jury had considered two other comparable licenses Sprint had granted for the same technology.  Both of those licenses had utilized the same royalty rate as was used in the Vonage verdict.

The court explained the damage theory as follows:  “[T]he hypothetical negotiation seeks to determine ‘what it would have been worth to the defendant, as it saw things at the time, to obtain the authority to use the patented technology, considering the benefits it would expect to receive from using the technology and the alternatives it might have pursued.’”  Id. at *15, quoting Carnegie Mellon Univ. v. Marvell Tech. Grp., Ltd., 807 F.3d 1283, 1304 (Fed. Cir. 2005).

Based on the jury’s application of this theory, the court held, at *15, that “[I]n light of all the evidence bearing on the damages award, we conclude that the jury’s verdict was supported by sufficient evidence and did not contravene the principles of apportionment set forth by this court.”

District Court Rules Certain Prior Art References Are Precluded Under IPR Estoppel

Posted in Patent Law

On December 28, 2018, the Court in The California Institute of Technology v. Broadcom Limited et al., Case No. 2:16-cv-03714-GW-(AGRx), issued a Final Ruling on Plaintiff’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment of Validity under 35 U.S.C. § 103 based on IPR Estoppel under 35 U.S.C. § 315(e)(2).  In the case, Plaintiff The California Institute of Technology alleges patent infringement against Defendants Broadcom Limited, Broadcom Corporation, Avago Technologies Limited, and Apple Inc. based on infringement from fifteen claims from three of its patents: (1) U.S. Patent No. 7,116,710 (“the ’710 Patent”); (2) U.S. Patent No. 7,421,032 (“the ’032 Patent”); and (3) U.S. Patent No. 7,916,781 (“the ’781 Patent”) (collectively, the “Asserted Patents”).

Plaintiff moved for partial summary judgment of no invalidity as to Claims 13 and 22 of the ’781 Patent and Claims 11 and 18 of the ’032 Patent, arguing that IPR estoppel precluded Defendants from raising each invalidity ground that was identified in Defendants’ invalidity contentions as to each of those claims in prior filed IPRs.  Section 315(e)(2) of the Patent Act states: “The petitioner in an inter partes review [IPR] of a claim in a patent under this chapter that results in a final written decision under section 318(a), or the real party in interest or privy of the petitioner, may not assert . . . that the claim is invalid on any ground that the petitioner raised or reasonably could have raised during that inter partes review.”  Here, the Court had to consider whether the statutory IPR estoppel provision reaches to invalidity grounds that a petitioner was aware of at the time it filed its IPR petition, but chose not to bring in the IPR proceeding.

The Defendants argued that if a prior art reference is included in an IPR petition and IPR is not instituted as to that prior art reference, the reference could not have been reasonably raised during IPR.  However, the Court reasoned that the “during IPR” language also should not be read in a vacuum.  The full phrase of § 315(e)(2) is whether the ground is one “that the petitioner raised or reasonably could have raised during that inter partes review.”  There is no reasonable basis by which a petitioner could raise a ground that has been explicitly rejected by the PTAB in making an IPR institution determination.  But in the context of non-petitioned grounds, the issue goes back to the choices made by the petitioner itself.  In other words, prior art references that a petitioner reasonably could have raised, but chose not to raise, in an IPR petition are also prior art references that reasonably could have been raised during actual IPR had the PTAB been given the opportunity (based on the petitioner’s raising them) to consider those references.

The choices of the petitioner – and the petitioner alone – in its initial decision regarding what grounds to bring before the PTAB dictate what grounds are raised (or reasonably could have been raised) “during IPR” and thus could result in estoppel if IPR results in a final written decision.  Thus, the Court found that statutory IPR estoppel applies to invalidity grounds that a petitioner “reasonably could have raised” in its IPR petition, which includes prior art that a “‘skilled searcher conducting a diligent search reasonably could have been expected to discover.’”

Next, and aside from their arguments regarding the scope of § 315(e)(2) estoppel, Defendants argue that they are now bringing certain prior art under pre-AIA § 102(a), i.e., not as “patents or printed publications,” but as information that was “known or used by others” before the patented invention.  As Defendants note, in IPR proceedings, the PTAB will only consider patents or printed publications as grounds for invalidity due to anticipation or obviousness.  Because, Defendants argue, they are relying on the “known or used” prong of pre-AIA § 102(a) for all but one of their prior art grounds (i.e., not on prior art patents or printed publications), the prior art could not have been raised during IPR proceedings and IPR estoppel does not apply.

Under pre-AIA, the juxtaposition between § 102(a) and § 102(b) effectively created a one-year grace period for a patent applicant to file a patent application even after the inventor disclosed information about an invention to the public as long as it was not done via a printed publication.  For example, the “known or used” prong of § 102(a) can come into play in the instance where a scientist gives a public presentation and shows slides, but does not distribute his/her slides or immediately publish a copy of them. The presentation itself (as, for instance, recollected through the scientist’s testimony) could still be considered prior art even if the presentation slides were not made “publicly available” at the same time as the presentation.

The Defendants also emphasized an analogy to a circumstance where a petitioner submits a product manual as printed publication prior art before the PTAB, but is not estopped from submitting a prior art product itself in district court litigation.  However, the Court reasoned that whether brought as a “printed publication” or under the “known or used” prong, the core element that forms the basis of Defendants’ prior art includes the same documents.  Although Defendants assert that there will be a “meaningful difference” in the invalidity presentation under the “known or used” prong, Defendants have not presented sufficient evidence to back that assertion.

Thus, after considering the unique facts of this case, including the specific prior art grounds Defendants seek to characterize, the Court was not persuaded by Defendants’ argument that it is shielded from statutory IPR estoppel by its references to the “known or used” prong of § 102(a). Accordingly, the Court found that statutory IPR estoppel applies to most of the obviousness combinations Defendants has raised, and granted Plaintiff’s motion.

This case is a strong reminder to carefully consider whether or not to file an IPR in defense of a patent infringement action, and if so, what the consequences can be if the IPR fails.  In addition, it is a strong reminder to carefully consider which arguments and prior to raise in any IPR.

Consumers Have Standing to Challenge Trademark Registrations

Posted in Trademark Law

The Trademark Trial and Appeals Board recently issued an interesting decision regarding standing to oppose the registration of trademark applications. United Trademark Holdings, Inc. filed for registration of the mark RAPUNZEL for use in conjunction with dolls and toy figures. However, after the USPTO’s examining attorney published the mark for opposition, a law professor filed a notice of opposition, alleging that Applicant’s mark failed to function as a trademark on the grounds that it is synonymous with the name of a well-known childhood fairytale character, which has long been in the public domain.

In response to the notice of opposition, the applicant filed a motion to dismiss claiming the opposer lacks standing because she is not a competitor and has not used the mark in connection with the manufacturer or sale of dolls. The TTAB disagreed, stating that “Consumers, like competitors, may have a real interest in keeping merely descriptive or generic words in the public domain.” Apparently, the TTAB was receptive to the opposer’s argument that “she has purchased and continues to purchase said goods and that registration of the applied-for mark by applicant would constrain the marketplace of such goods sold under the name ‘Rapunzel,’ raise prices of ‘Rapunzel’ dolls offered by other manufacturers.” Accepting this argument, the TTAB held the opposer’s allegations sufficient to establish that she has a direct and personal interest in the outcome of the proceeding, in accordance with the “liberal threshold” established in Ritchie v. Simpson, a precedential opinion issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

The TTAB reiterated the Federal Circuit’s holding that, “In no case has this court ever held that one must have a specific commercial interest, not shared by the general public, in order to have standing as an opposer.” Instead, “the crux of the matter is not how many others share one’s belief that one will be damaged by the registration, but whether that belief is reasonable and reflects a real interest in the issue.” “Consumers, like competitors, may have a real interest in keeping merely descriptive or generic words in the public domain, (1) to prevent the owner of a mark from inhibiting competition in the sale of particular goods; and (2) to maintain freedom of the public to use the language involved, thus avoiding the possibility of harassing infringement suits by the registrant against others who use the mark when advertising or describing their own products.”

In light of the above, members of the consuming public may have a real interest in preventing exclusive appropriation of merely descriptive or generic terms by trademark owners. As such, consumers are entitled to challenge the registration of trademarks through opposition proceedings before the TTAB.

In-Game “Carlton Dance” Routine Triggers Lawsuit From Fresh Prince Actor Alfonso Ribeiro

Posted in Copyright Law, Entertainment Law, Intellectual Property Litigation

Actors gain notoriety for different reasons.  For some, it’s due to a physical characteristic or an iconic character portrayal.  For Alfonso Ribeiro, it’s a dance.  The dance, which has become known worldwide as the “Carlton Dance,” is a corny dance number performed by Ribeiro’s character Carlton Banks on the 90’s sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.”   That dance is now the center of a copyright infringement lawsuit Ribeiro filed against Epic Games and Take-Two Interactive.  Ribeiro claims that Epic Games incorporated the Carlton Dance in the hit fighting game  “Fortnite” and Take-Two did the same in the popular “NBA 2K16” basketball game.

To be fair, Ribeiro is not the only one claiming Take-Two and Epic Games infringed dance choreography; other plaintiffs include rapper Terrence Ferguson (known as 2 Milly) who claims that Epic Games infringed his “Milly Rock” routine, and Russell Horning, better known as Backpack Kid, who claims that Fortnite and NBA 2K16 characters were programmed to mimic moves from his routine, “The Floss.”

Dance routines are protectable under the Copyright Act.  Section 102(a)(4) of The Copyright Act provides copyright protection of  “pantomimes and choreographic works” created after January 1, 1978, and fixed in some tangible medium of expression.   Choreography is the composition and arrangement of a related series of dance movements and patterns organized into a coherent whole.  According to the Copyright Office’s Circular 52, a choreographic work or pantomime typically contain one or more of the following elements:

  • Rhythmic movements of one or more dancers’ bodies in a defined sequence and a defined spatial environment, such as a stage
  • A series of dance movements or patterns organized into an integrated, coherent, and expressive compositional whole
  • A story, theme, or abstract composition conveyed through movement
  • A presentation before an audience
  • A performance by skilled individuals
  • Musical or textual accompaniment

The Copyright Office does state that the presence or absence of a given element does not determine whether a particular work constitutes choreography or a pantomime.

However, individual movements or dance steps by themselves are not copyrightable.  Examples of non-protectable dance steps include the basic waltz step, the hustle step, the grapevine, or the second position in classical ballet. The U.S. Copyright Office cannot register short dance routines consisting of only a few movements or steps with minor linear or spatial variations, even if a routine is novel or distinctive. An example of a commonplace movement or gesture that does not qualify for registration as a choreographic work includes celebratory end zone dance move or athletic victory gesture.

Also not registrable are social dance steps and simple routines. Registrable choreographic works are typically intended to be executed by skilled performers before an audience. By contrast, uncopyrightable social dances are generally intended to be performed by members of the public for the enjoyment of the dancers themselves. Social dances, simple routines, and other uncopyrightable movements cannot be registered as separate and distinct works of authorship, even if they contain a substantial amount of creative expression.

This could be the first hurdle Ribeiro must overcome.  It seems fair to argue that the “Carlton Dance” is uncopyrightable due to its simple, uncomplicated nature.   The Carlton Dance consists of only a few or steps with minor linear or spatial variation.

Ribeiro credits the Carlton Dance to Eddie Murphy’s routine “White People Can’t Dance” from RAW.  In that routine, Eddie Murphy commented on the ubiquitous nature of the style of dance mimicked by Ribeiro.  While intended to be humorous (and it is), Murphy’s statement was an accurate generalization of the 90’s dance style.  As such, it would not be an unreasonable argument that the “Carlton Dance” is uncopyrightable basic dance step.

Even if the Carlton Dance were registrable, Ribeiro would have to establish that he owned the copyright and not NBC Productions, the studio that produced “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.”  While this author has not seen Ribeiro’s performer contract, it is standard practice in the entertainment industry that all television performer contracts include a provision which vests the production company with all “right, title and interest, including copyright, in the results and proceeds” of a performer’s services.  As a result of this provision, Ribeiro’s performance as Carlton and all of the characteristics and attributes of the Carlton character would be owned by NBC Productions and not Ribeiro.  As its name implies, the Carlton Dance is an attribute of the character Carlton Banks and any copyright interest therein would likely be owned by NBC Productions.

The fact that the Carlton Dance is an attribute of the television character played by Ribeiro could be a factor in determining his right of publicity claim.  However, Ribeiro has essentially co-opted the “Carlton Dance” as his own by having performed it in numerous talk show and personal appearances.  The right of publicity can extend to various personal attributes such as name, nicknames, pseudonyms, voice, signature, likeness, photograph or other indicia of identity or persona.  An argument that the Carlton Dance has become synonymous with Ribeiro would support a claim that the Carlton Dance is part of his protectable persona.  If such argument is well received by the court, based on the holdings of White v. Samsung Electronics America, Inc., and Wendt v. Host International, the two video game companies could face substantial liability.

Federal Circuit Narrows Reach of Obviousness-Type Double Patenting

Posted in IP, Patent Law

Non-statutory, or obviousness-type, double patenting (“ODP”) is a judicially created doctrine that prohibits an inventor from effectively extending the monopoly on a patented invention by applying for a later patent with claims that are not “patentably distinct” from the claims in the earlier patent.  The core principle behind the doctrine is that “an inventor must fully disclose [the] invention and promise to permit free use of it at the end of [the] patent term.”  See Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp. v. Breckenridge Pharmaceutical (“Breckenridge”).  “Prohibiting double patenting prevents a patentee from obtaining sequential patents on the same invention and obvious variants” to improperly extend patent protection beyond the “statutorily allowed patent term of that invention.”  Id.

In Gilead Sciences, Inc. v. Natco Pharma Ltd., the Federal Circuit previously held that the key to whether a patent is invalid due to ODP is found in the order in which the patents issued.  Only the last patent to issue could be invalid under the double-patenting doctrine.  However, in two decisions issued by the Federal Circuit on December 7, 2018, the Court further narrowed the applicability of this test thus limiting the cases where obviousness-type double patenting can be used to invalidate patents.

In Breckenridge, the Court addressed a “potential double-patenting situation in which the later-filed of two related patents, which share a common specification and effective filing date, expires before … the earlier-filed patent due to an intervening change in law.”  When the first patent was filed, a patent expired 17 years after the date the patent issued.  When the second patent was filed, the law had been changed under the Uruguay Round Agreements Act of 1994 (“URAA”) so a patent was set to expire 20 years after the patent’s earliest filing date.  This change in law caused the second patent to expire before the first patent.  Applying Gilead, the district court determined the second patent could invalidate the first patent under the obviousness-type double patenting doctrine because the second patent expired first.

In Breckenridge, the Federal Circuit reversed distinguishing Gilead.  In Gilead, both patents had been filed after the effective date of the URAA and claimed different priority dates.  In contrast, in Breckenridge, one patent was filed pre-URAA and one was filed post-URAA.  Thus, the Federal Circuit reasoned a change in patent term law should not truncate the term statutorily assigned to the pre-URAA patent, and therefore, the second patent is not a proper double-patenting reference for invalidating the first patent.

In the second decision, Novartis AG v. Ezra Ventures LLC (“Ezra”), the Federal Circuit addressed “the interplay between a patent term extension (PTE) granted pursuant to 35 U.S.C. §156 and the obviousness-type double patenting doctrine.”  Section 156 “was passed as part of the Hatch-Waxman Act, ‘establish[ing] a patent term extension for patents relating to certain products subject to regulatory delays that could not be marketed prior to regulatory approval.’”  However, “in no event shall more than one patent be extended … for the same regulatory review period for any product.

Ezra argued that, by extending the term of the ‘229 patent, Novartis effectively extended two patents because the ‘229 patent covers a compound necessary to practice the methods claimed by the ‘565 patent.  Therefore, Ezra argued Novartis violated §156 by effectively using the statute to extend the terms for two patents rather than one.  Further, this patent term extension raised the question as to “whether the ‘229 patent is invalid due to obviousness-type double patenting because the term extension it received causes the ‘229 patent to expire after Novartis’s allegedly patentably indistinct ‘565 patent.”

The Federal Circuit concluded that “a PTE pursuant to §156 is valid so long as the extended patent is otherwise valid without the extension.  Thus, the district court was correct in finding that the ‘565 patent is not a double patenting reference to the ‘229 patent and that the ‘229 patent is valid through the end of its PTE.”

Narrowing the applicability of the ruling in Gilead, these two decisions indicate that patents are not likely to fall prey to obviousness-type double patenting issues when there is a change in law or a statutorily permitted extension rather than gamesmanship on the part of a patent applicant.   However, these decisions do not explicitly address all open questions.  For example, given the difference in statutory wording, it is not certain how courts will treat patent term extensions resulting from delays at the patent office.  Will these extensions be treated the same as the §156 extension at issue in Ezra?  What if a patent’s term is first extended for delays in the patent office and then further extended under §156?  These questions are left for another day.

Royalties, Preemption and Attorney’s Fees

Posted in Copyright Law, IP

The Ninth Circuit recently was called upon to decide awarding attorney’s fees in a case where artists were suing for unpaid royalties under the California Resale Royalties Act (“CRRA”).  In the case, Close v. Sotheby’s, Inc. (decided December 3, 2018), the Ninth Circuit ordered that the Plaintiff-artists be required to pay attorney’s fees to the defendants (eBay and art auction houses) for successfully defending against claims for unpaid royalties resulting from art sales.  This conclusion required a discussion of the doctrine of preemption and a determination that defendants could still be awarded attorney’s fees under CRRA despite a finding that the bulk of Plaintiffs’ claims under the CRRA were preempted by the 1976 Copyright Act.

James Kachmar

Plaintiffs, including the well-known artist Chuck Close, brought an action claiming that they did not receive the appropriate royalties for the sale of their works under the CRRA, which had been enacted in California in 1976.  Under the CRRA, the seller of a work of fine art must withhold 5% of the sale price and remit that amount to the artist.  Artists who do not receive such payments can bring a claim under the CRRA, which also has a provision that the prevailing party in such an action “shall be entitled to reasonable attorney’s fees.”  The Plaintiffs essentially claimed that eBay, Sotheby’s and Christie’s had failed to remit them royalties under the CRRA for as far back as 1976.

At the district court level, the artists lost and their claims were dismissed.  The district court found that the CRRA, which had been enacted in 1976, was subsequently “preempted” by the 1976 Copyright Act that went into effect in 1978.  Preemption occurs where a Federal statute governs a subject matter so that it is the intent of Congress to “preempt” the state from enacting a contrary law.  In essence, the district court was finding that the sole remedy for the Plaintiff-artists for claiming royalties due them was under the1976 Copyright Act and not the California state CRRA.  After the Plaintiff-artists appealed the trial court’s decision to the Ninth Circuit, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the trial court for the most part but did remand some of the claims of Plaintiffs back to the trial court with regard to those sales that occurred between January 1, 1977 and January 1, 1978 (the enactment of the CRRA and the effective date of the Copyright Act).  After the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, the Defendants moved for an award of attorney’s fees claiming that they were the prevailing party under the CRRA.  The Plaintiff-artists opposed the request claiming that since their CRRA claims had been found to have been preempted by federal law, the defendants were not entitled to attorney’s fees under the CRRA for similar reasons.

The Ninth Circuit began by noting that the CRRA allows for an attorney’s fees award to the “prevailing party” and was mandatory because of the use of the language “shall be entitled.”  Nevertheless, because the attorney fee provision had only been added to the CRRA in 1982, the Court would limit its examination of an award of attorney’s fees to those claims pertaining to sales after that date.

Continue Reading