Play-Doh is Sniffing its Way to Scent Marks

By: Amber L. Reiner, associate at Picadio Sneath Miller and Norton, P.C. playdoh

When someone mentions Play-Doh, what is the first thing you think of? Is it those flexible yellow containers? Perhaps it is the smooth and squishy texture of the putty? More likely though, you are probably thinking, nay, smelling, Play-Doh’s unmistakable scent. Play-Doh describes its scent best as “the combination of a sweet, slightly musky, vanilla-like fragrance, with slight overtones of cherry, and the natural smell of salted, wheat-based dough.” If you still can’t imagine its scent, put down your device, go find the closest toy store and pop open a tub of Play-Doh. We’ll wait.

In short, Play-Doh arguably has one of the most recognizable scents and n
ow Hasbro (Play-Doh’s owner), is seeking to trademark its distinct scent. Sound simple? Not quite.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office defines a trademark or service mark as “any word, name, symbol, device, or any combination, used or intended to be used to identify and distinguish the goods/services of one seller or provider from those of others, and to indicate the source of the goods/services.” Think Google’s logo or the golden arches of McDonalds. More often than not, trademarks are tangible words or symbols branding a product or service. It gets a bit more complicated when you attempt to protect something intangible, like a scent.

There are two types of registrations: Principal and Supplemental. A Principal Registration is what Play-Doh has applied for and affords the most protection for a mark, including presumption of ownership in the event of litigation and the right to exclusive use of the mark. To qualify for the Principal Register, the mark must have achieved “secondary meaning.” That is, consumers must associate the mark with the particular product or service. So, again, think about the McDonalds arches. However, it is hard to deny that Play-Doh’s scent achieves similar distinctive brand recognition.

A Supplemental Registration, on the other hand, functions more as a holding place for a mark while it gains distinctiveness. Although it does not provide the same security as Principal Registration, the Supplemental Register is helpful in preventing others from registering their mark on either the principal or supplemental registers and is inherently easier to accomplish because, unlike the Principal Register, there is no opposition phase for others to attempt to block the mark.

Only a handful of other scent-based registrations exist. The first scent-based trademark was issued in 1991 for the scent of a line of embroidery thread and yarn. That’s right – yarn.   In 2013, Verizon Wireless attempted to trademark the perfume it s
prays in its stores; however, it was unsuccessful in achieving principal registration because many other companies similarly use scents to create a general ambiance in stores. Ultimately, Verizon was able to achieve a downgraded registration onto the Supplemental Register.

Others have attempted to trademark their scents with limited success, largely because it is difficult for scents to pass the “functionality test.” Put simply, a mark must not serve any practical function of the product or service other than to identify and distinguish it. That is why perfumes and air fresheners often fail to receive principal registration because the product is inherently designed for the functional purpose of smelling.

Whether Play-Doh will be successful in achieving its registration is to be determined. Nevertheless, as markets become increasingly more crowded, we will likely see more companies turning to scents as a method of branding and distinguishing their products.

U.S. Supreme Court Issues Test for Separability Under the Copyright Act

Posted by: Kelly A. Williams, shareholder at the Pittsburgh law firm of Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C.  Ms. Williams may be contacted at kwilliams@psmn.com or 412-288-4005.

Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue, has said, “You either know fashion or you don’t.”  I think it is safe to say that the courts are still struggling to understand fashion—at least the extent to which fashion is afforded potentially 100 years or more of protection under the Copyright Act.  Generally, “useful articles,” such as clothing are not eligible for copyright protection.  However, Congress affords limited protection for artistic elements in useful articles by providing that “pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features” of the “design of a useful article” are eligible for copyright protection as artistic works if those features “can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article.”  17 U.S.C. § 101.  Simple right?

Not so simple.  The federal courts have struggled to create a uniform standard for applying this provision of the Copyright Act.  At least nine different approaches have developed in the courts over the years, and the issue has challenged courts and scholars alike.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court tried to provide clarity as to when artistic elements in clothing are deemed to be separable and potentially protected by copyright law.  In Star Athletica, L.L.C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc., Varsity Brands obtained or acquired more than 200 U.S. copyright registrations for two-dimensional designs appearing on the surface of their cheerleading uniforms and other garments.  These designs are primarily “combinations, positionings, and arrangements of elements” that include “chevrons . . . , lines, curves, stripes, angles, diagonals, inverted [chevrons], coloring, and shapes.”  Varsity Brands sued Star Athletica, a competitor, for infringing Varsity Brands’ copyrights for the following designs:

The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve the widespread disagreement over the proper test for implementing Section 101’s separate identification and independent-existence requirements. Justice Thomas, writing for the majority,  held that a feature incorporated into the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright protection only if the feature (1) can be perceived as a two- or three-dimensional work of art separate from the useful article and (2) would qualify as a protectable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work—either on its own or fixed in some other tangible medium of expression—if it were imagined separately from the useful article into which it is incorporated.

The court stated that the issue depends solely on statutory interpretation.  For the first part of the test, the court need only be able to look at the useful article and spot some two or three-dimensional element that appears to have pictorial, graphic or sculptural qualities.  For the second part of the test, the court must determine that the separately identified feature has the capacity to exist apart from the utilitarian aspects of the article.  “The ultimate separability question, then, is whether the feature for which copyright protection is claimed would  have been eligible for copyright protection as a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work had it originally been fixed in some tangible medium other than a useful article before being applied to a useful article.”

While the court has set forth a new, national standard for separability, the application of that standard is not necessarily clear. In other words, while we know “The Devil Wears Prada,” it is also clear that “The Devil Is in the Details” when it comes to actually determining if the new standard is met.[1] In this case, the majority of the court found that the arrangements of lines, chevrons, and colorful shapes appearing on the surface of Varsity Brands’ cheerleading uniforms were separable features of the design of those cheerleading uniforms.  For the majority, the decorations were features having pictorial, graphic or sculptural qualities.  Additionally, the court determined if the arrangement of colors, shapes, stripes, and chevrons on the surface of the cheerleading uniforms were separated from the uniform and applied in another medium—for example, on a painter’s canvas—they would qualify as “two-dimensional . . . works of . . . art.”  The court further determined that imaginatively removing the surface decorations from the uniforms and applying them in another medium would not replicate the uniform itself.  Accordingly, the court held that the decorations were separable from the uniforms.

However, presented with the same facts, the dissenting justices (Justice Bryer, with Justice Kennedy joining) disagreed, finding that in applying the new standard for separability, the Varsity Brands’ designs could not “be perceived as . . . two- or three-dimensional work[s] of art separate from the useful article.”  The dissent found that the design features in the uniforms were not capable of existing independently of the utilitarian aspect of the object to which they relate.  “Looking at all five of Varsity’s pictures, I do not see how one could conceptualize the design features in a way that does not picture, not just artistic designs, but dresses as well. . . . Varsity, then, seeks to do indirectly what it cannot do directly:  bring along the design and cut of the dresses by seeking to protect surface decorations whose ‘treatment and arrangement’ are coextensive with that design and cut.”  By way of contrasting example, Justice Bryer found the cat in each of the lamps below to be both physically and conceptually separate, meeting the test:

Thus, while the standard has been clarified, the lower courts will be tasked with applying the standard with little guidance on how to do so, which is likely to be challenging if the Star Athletica decision is any indication.  Moreover, the Supreme Court did not decide if the Varsity Brands’ designs at issue in Star Athletica were copyrightable—just whether they were separable.  The court explicitly stated that it expressed no opinion on whether the uniform designs were sufficiently original to qualify for copyright protection or whether any other prerequisite of a valid copyright had been satisfied.  Therefore, the lower court, on remand, will have to determine if Varsity Brands’ designs are original enough to warrant copyright protection.

For more information, including the different and interesting issue that Justice Ginsburg’s concurring opinion raises, see the full opinion of Star Athletica, L.L.C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc. at https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/16pdf/15-866_0971.pdf.

[1] “The Devil Wears Prada” is a book written by Lauren Weisberger, a former personal assistant to Anna Wintour.  The character in the book and later in the successful movie based on the book, Miranda Priestly (played by Meryl Streep in the movie), is believed to be based upon Anna Wintour.

Supreme Court Kills Laches Defense to Patent Infringement

by: Robert Wagner, intellectual property attorney at the Pittsburgh law firm of Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C. ()

Supreme CourtOn March 21, 2017, the US Supreme Court, in a 7-1 decision in SCA Hygiene Products Aktiebolag v. First Quality Baby Products, LLC, Case No. 15-927, held that the equitable defense of laches no longer can be used as a defense to a claim of patent infringement. Justice Alito delivered the majority opinion, with Justice Breyer dissenting.

Laches is an equitable doctrine that bars a patent owner’s claim for damages in a patent infringement lawsuit if the patent owner waits an unreasonable amount of time before bringing suit against the accused infringer and that delay prejudices the accused infringer’s defense. This defense has existed for decades and its contours were defined by the Federal Circuit in its A.C. Aukerman Co. v. R. L. Chaides Construction Co., 960 F.2d 1020 (Fed. Cir. 1992) (en banc) decision.

However, with the Supreme Court’s decision in Petralla v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., 572 U.S. ___ (2014) decision that held that laches cannot bar a claim for damages for copyright infringement within the 3-year statute of limitations, the Court decided to address whether laches can still be a defense to a claim for damages for patent infringement.

In considering this, the Court looked to the history of laches-type defenses, and concluded that they exist as a judicially-created defense by courts of equity when there were no statutes of limitation.  However, “[w]hen Congress enacts a statute of limitations, it speaks directly to the issue of timeliness and provides a rule for determining whether a claim is timely enough to permit relief.” Therefore, because Congress created a 6-year statute of limitations for patent infringement, courts cannot override that statute of limitations with an equitable laches defense. Accordingly, the Court held that the laches defense is no longer applicable in patent infringement lawsuits.

The dissent and appellee pointed out that the patent statute of limitations is unusual and warrants the continuance of the laches defense. The limitations period for a patent infringement claim does not begin to accrue from the point of infringement or the point at which a patent owner has a “complete and present cause of action.” Rather, the limitations period works backwards from the time of the filing of the lawsuit–it only limits a patent owner’s ability to collect damages to the period 6 years before the filing of the lawsuit. In other words, it does not matter if the patent owner knows of the infringement for a period longer than the limitations period (e.g., 10 years ago), but chooses not to file suit until today. Under the patent statute, the patent owner can still bring suit, but it will only be limited to damages occurring in the prior 6 years. This statute of limitations is unlike virtually every other statute of limitations, which would bar such an untimely claim. The majority rejected this distinction out of hand without a clear explanation.

The dissent also pointed out that the majority’s decision creates a significant disincentive for patent owners (especially ones that do not compete with the accused infringer) to act quickly upon learning of infringement. Without the laches defense, a patent owner can sit back and wait until the time at which the most damages have occurred and then file suit. Previously, such a tactic would have run a significant risk that a court might uphold a laches defense and bar any recovery.

The dissent also argued that the majority’s reliance on Petralla is not warranted because of the significant differences between copyright and patent law. With copyrights, the owner must prove copying, whereas patent infringement is a strict liability offense. Therefore, delay will tend to work to the disadvantage of a copyright owner because the evidence of copying may tend to fade with time. On the other hand, a patent owner does not have to prove copying, so the passage of time tends to work in the patent owner’s favor. For example, evidence of prior art or the state of the art at the time of the patent application may become lost with time, which would make it harder for an accused infringer to successfully argue that the patented invention was obvious or anticipated.

As a practical matter, the laches defense was not often successful for accused infringers, but it created an important check against patent owners and encouraged them to timely bring lawsuits when they believed that their patent rights were infringed. It will be interesting to see how patent owners behave now that this check has been eliminated.

Pennsylvania Superior Court Rules Employer Owes No Duty to Protect Employee Data

 Kelly WilliamsKelly A. Williams, a shareholder at the Pittsburgh law firm of Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C.

In an apparent case of first impression, a divided three-judge panel of the Pennsylvania Superior Court recently held that an employer does not owe a legal duty to its employees to protect the employees’ electronically stored personal and financial information.  In Dittman v. UPMC, decided on January 12, 2017 (docket no. 971 WDA 2015), the Superior Court affirmed an opinion of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, PA (opinion by the Honorable R. Stanton Wettick, Jr.), sustaining defendant University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s (“UPMC”) preliminary objections to an employee class action suit.  The suit arose from a data breach of the employees’ personal information, which was provided to UPMC as a condition of employment.

The employees sued UPMC for negligence and breach of contract after their names, birth dates, social security numbers, tax information, addresses, salaries and bank information were stolen due to the data breach. Specifically, they alleged that UPMC failed to properly encrypt data, establish adequate firewalls and implement adequate authentication protocols to protect the information in its computer network.  All of UPMC’s 62,000 employees and former employees were affected by the breach.  Appellants consisted of two separate but overlapping classes.  One class alleged that the stolen information had already been used to file fraudulent tax returns and steal the tax refunds of certain employees.  The other class consisted of those who had not suffered this harm but alleged that they were at increased and imminent risk of becoming victims of identity theft crimes, fraud and abuse.

security-breach-image-2To determine whether a duty of care exists, the Pennsylvania courts look to five factors, none of which are determinative alone. Seebold v. Prison Health Servs., Inc., 57 A.3d 1232, 1243 (Pa. 2012); Althaus ex. rel. Althaus v. Cohen, 756 A.2d 1166, 1169 (Pa. 2000).  The five factors are:

  1. the relationship between the parties;
  2. the social utility of the actor’s conduct;
  3. the nature of the risk imposed and foreseeability of the harm incurred;
  4. the consequences of imposing a duty upon the actor; and
  5. the overall public interest in the proposed solution.

In Dittman, the court found that the first factor weighed in favor of finding a duty because the employer-employee relationship gives rise to duties on the employer.  The court next weighed the second factor against the third:  the need of employers to collect and store personal information about their employees against the risk of storing information electronically and the foreseeability of data breaches.  The court concluded:

While a data breach (and its ensuing harm) is generally foreseeable, we do not believe that this possibility outweighs the social utility of electronically storing employee information. In the modern era, more and more information is stored electronically and the days of keeping documents in file cabinets are long gone. Without doubt, employees and consumers alike derive substantial benefits from efficiencies resulting from the transfer and storage of electronic data. Although breaches of electronically stored data are a potential risk, this generalized risk does not outweigh the social utility of maintaining electronically stored information. We note here that Appellants do not allege that UPMC encountered a specific threat of intrusion into its computer systems.

Analysis of the fourth factor looks to the consequences of imposing a duty.  In this situation, the court considered that data breaches are widespread and that there is no safe harbor for entities storing confidential information.  It was also the court’s opinion that no judicially created duty of care is needed to incentivize companies to protect confidential employee information because other statutes and safeguards are in place to prevent employers from disclosing confidential information.  Thus, the court concluded that “it unnecessary to require employers to incur potentially significant costs to increase security measures when there is no true way to prevent data breaches altogether. Employers strive to run their businesses efficiently and they have an incentive to protect employee information and prevent these types of occurrences.”

Finally, the fifth factor looks to whether there is a public interest in imposing a duty.  The Superior Court found persuasive the reasoning of the trial court that imposing a duty here would greatly expend judicial resources and would result in judicial activism.  The Superior Court agreed with the trial court that the Pennsylvania legislature has considered the same issues and chose only to impose a duty of notification of a data breach.  “It is not for the courts to alter the direction of the General Assembly because public policy is a matter for the legislature.”

Weighing all five factors, the court held that the factors weighed against imposing a duty.  Judge Stabile filed a concurring opinion, which Judge Olson, the writer for the majority opinion, joined.  Judge Stabile agreed with the ruling but emphasized that the law in this area is quickly changing and that the ruling was based on the facts pled in that particular case.  One of the key facts for Judge Stabile was the fact that the employees had not alleged that UPMC was on notice of any specific security threat.  In a dissenting opinion, Judge Musmanno concluded that  allegations that UPMC failed to properly encrypt data, establish adequate fire walls and implement appropriate authentication protocols was sufficient to allege that UPMC knew or should have known that there was a likelihood data would be stolen.  Judge Musmanno also disagreed with the majority’s assumption that employers are sufficiently incentivized to protect employee data without a duty imposed upon them to do so.

The employees filed a motion for reconsideration and reargument on January 26, 2017.  Thus, the Superior Court’s January 2017 opinion may not be the final word on the issue.

security-breach-imageDittman is interesting in the world of data breach lawsuits because it does not address standing.  Many data breach defendants have relied upon the theory that plaintiffs lack standing to bring claims for data breaches where plaintiffs cannot prove actual harm from the breach.  Proof of actual harm can be challenging because evidence regarding the use of the stolen information may be difficult to find.  Here, standing was not discussed by the Superior Court.  In the trial court below, UPMC had argued that the claims against it should be dismissed on the grounds that the employees lacked standing to assert claims on behalf of employees who had not yet been injured.  UPMC also asserted that the employees’ negligence and breach of implied contract claims failed as a matter of law.  After oral argument on these issues, the trial court ordered both parties to file supplemental briefs on the issue of whether UPMC owed a duty to its employees with respect to the handling of their personal and financial data.  This ultimately proved to be the issue that the trial court and the Superior Court found to be determinative.

The Dittman v. UPMC opinion may be found at:  http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=17833965968674892500&q=dittman+v.+upmc&hl=en&as_sdt=6,39&as_vis=1.

Fed Circuit Reverses Finding of Indefiniteness of “Visually Negligible” Term

by: Robert Wagner, intellectual property attorney at the Pittsburgh law firm of Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C. ()

Inventors often use generalized language in patent claims when they are dealing with concepts that are not easy to quantify. This generalized language can create issues in litigation, when a defendant argues that the claims are so imprecise as to be indefinite. The Federal Circuit recently addressed such an issue in Sonic Technologies Co., Ltd. v. Publications International, Ltd. (Case No. 2016-1449). In that decision, the Court, in a unanimous opinion written by Judge Lourie, held that the trial court erred when it concluded that the term “visually negligible” rendered the claim indefinite.

Background

Sonic Technologies owned a patent that described a system and method for using a “graphical indicator” to encode information on the surface of an object that could be read by an “optical device.” Sonic recognized that such a general concept was not new–for example bar code readers have been in existence for decades–but the novel twist was that the “graphical indicator” was essentially imperceptible to the naked eye. The claims required that the “graphical indicator” be “visually negligible.”

16-1449-opinion-1-3-2017-1

Defendants argued that the term “visually negligible” was too subjective and did not provide reasonable guidance on its meaning. Sonix argued that the term was sufficiently definite in light of the specification, which discussed how the “graphical indicator” did not interfere with an observer’s view of item, in contrast with a bar code, which obscures the content below it.

The trial court agreed with defendants and found that the term “visually negligible” was indefinite and the claims were invalid. Sonic appealed to the Federal Circuit, which reversed, finding that the term was sufficiently definite.

indefiniteness standard

Under 35 U.S.C. § 112, ¶ 2, the claims of a patent must particularly point out and distinctly claim the subject matter of the invention. Supreme Court precedent requires that “a patent’s claims, viewed in light of the specification and prosecution history, inform those skilled in the art about the scope of the invention with reasonable certainty.” (citing Nautilus v. Biosig Instruments, Inc., 134 S.Ct. 2120 (2014)) Because, absolute precision is not required to meet this standard, courts frequently have allowed more generalized language, especially where the specification provides guidance in interpreting the language.

The Federal Circuit looked at the prior cases and concluded that “visually negligible” was not so uncertain as to render the claims indefinite. It contrasted other cases that dealt with terms that were purely subjective, such as “aesthetically pleasing,” with this one. The specification indicated that an indicator was “visually negligible” when it could not readily be seen by the naked eye and provided examples of such indicators. This specificity was sufficient in the Federal Circuit eyes. Moreover, the Court looked to the extension prosecution history (with multiple reexaminations), which indicated that the Patent Office was able to determine the meaning and scope of the term without issue.

The Court ultimately concluded:

Our holding in this case does not mean that the existence of examples in the written description will always render a claim definite, or that listing requirements always provide sufficient certainty. Neither does the fact that an expert has applied a contested claim term without difficulty render a claim immune from an indefiniteness challenge. As always, whether a claim is indefinite must be judged “in light of the specification and prosecution history” of the patent in which it appears. . . . We simply hold that “visually negligible” is not a purely subjective term and that, on this record, the written description and prosecution history provide sufficient support to inform with reasonable certainty those skilled in the art of the scope of the invention. The examiner’s knowing allowance of claims based on the term that is now questioned, plus the acceptance of the term by both parties’ experts, force us to the conclusion that the term “visually negligible” is not indefinite. Accordingly, we reverse the district court’s conclusion that the asserted claims are invalid as indefinite.

En Banc Federal Circuit Clarifies On Sale Bar Standard

by: Robert Wagner, intellectual property attorney at the Pittsburgh law firm of Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C. ()

Federal CircuitIn The Medicines Co. v. Hospira, Inc. (Nos. 2014-1469 and 2014-1504), the Federal Circuit issued an en banc decision clarifying when a product made pursuant to a “product-by-process” claim is on sale for purposes of 35 U.S.C. § 102(b) under the pre-AIA standards. In a decision written by Judge O’Malley, the Court held that to be on-sale, the product must have been the subject of a commercial sale or offer for sale that bears the “general hallmarks” of a sale under § 2-106 of the UCC.

Background

The case involved an Abbreviated New Drug Application in which Hospira sought FDA approval to sell a generic drug before expiration of two of the patents-in-suit, which claim pH-adjusted pharmaceutical batches of a drug product used to prevent blood from clotting. The patents arose out research involving a similar drug not covered by the patents.

In late 2006 MedCo paid a company (Ben Venue) to manufacture three batches of the drug according to the patented process. The three batches were manufactured by the end of 2006 and had a value of over $20 million (even though it cost substantially less to manufacture them). The three batches were placed in quarantine pending FDA approval. The batches were finally released from quarantine in August 2007, which was after the July 27, 2007 critical date.

Hospira claimed that the patents were invalid under § 102(b) for being on-sale prior to the critical date because of the contract between MedCo and Ben Venue to manufacture the three batches. The district court disagreed, finding that the MedCo-Ben Venue sale was a contract for manufacturing services, and not a commercial sale under § 102(b).

The three-judge panel of the Federal Circuit reversed, finding that the contract did trigger the on-sale bar. The entire Federal Circuit then took up the issue en banc to clarify the on-sale bar standard. The en banc Federal Circuit determined that there was no invalidating prior sale for purposes of § 102(b).

Federal Circuit Clarifies On-Sale Bar Standard

Whether the on-sale bar applies is a question of law based on factual findings, so the lower court’s factual findings were reviewed with deference, but the ultimate legal question was reviewed de novo by the Federal Circuit.

The Court traced the history of the on-sale bar and how it was first codified in the Patent Act of 1836, before its final incarnation (for purposes of these patents) in the Patent Act of 1952. Under § 102(b) an inventor is not entitled to a patent if the invention was on sale in the United States more than one year prior to the date of the patent application.

In Pfaff v. Wells Electronics, Inc., 525 U.S. 55 (1998), the Supreme Court clarified the proper analysis of the on-sale bar, and held that courts should employ a two-part test: (1) was the claimed invention the subject of a commercial offer for sale, and (2) was it ready for patenting at that time? Ready for patenting means either it was reduced to practice or there were sufficient drawings or descriptions to allow one or ordinary skill in the art to practice the invention.

The en banc Federal Circuit focused on the first prong of the Pfaff test–was the invention the subject of a commercial offer for sale? The Court determined that it must answer this question by looking what those in the commercial community would understand as being a sale or offer for sale, and that the UCC was a good resource for answering that question.

Under the UCC, “[a] sale is a contract between parties to give and to pass rights of property for consideration which the buyer pays or promises to pay the seller for the thing bought or sold.” Under this standard, the Federal Circuit did not consider MedCo’s contract with Ben Venue to be a commercial sale because (1) only manufacturing services were sold to MedCo, not the invention, (2) the inventor retained title to the invention and Ben Venue was not entitled to sell the product to others, and (3) stockpiling standing alone does not trigger the on-sale bar.

Here, the patents claimed a product by process, not the process itself. So, the contract to manufacturing the drug was not a contract to purchase the product itself. The Court also found meaningful that Ben Venue lacked title to the batches–MedCo always maintained title in them. Without a transfer a title, the Court was disinclined to find that a sale of a product had occurred. In addition, MedCo and Ben Venue had a confidentiality agreement. While not conclusive, this factor also weighed in favor of the Court finding that a sale had not occurred. Finally, the Court did not find that stockpiling a product was sufficient activity to trigger the on-sale bar because that activity fell into the category of actions that amount to preparations for sales.

Conclusion

Taken together, the Federal Circuit found that there was no commercial offer for sale or sale for purposes of § 102(b) under the pre-AIA standard. This decision will provide some additional clarity and direction for what constitutes a potentially invalidating sale of goods.

SCOTUS Gives Guidance Regarding Attorney Fee Awards in Copyright Cases

by: Kelly A. Williams, a shareholder at Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C.

SupremeCourtImage_1On June 16, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion on awarding attorneys’ fees in copyright cases for the first time in two decades and issued the first copyright case in two years. The case is Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons Inc., case number 15-375.  Section 505 of the Copyright Act provides that a district court “may  . . . award a reasonable attorney’s fee to the prevailing  party.”  The issue presented to the Supreme Court was whether a court, in exercising that authority, should give substantial weight to the objective reasonableness of the losing party’s position.  The court held that it should but that courts must also give due consideration to all other circumstances relevant to granting fees.  It further held that the district courts retain discretion, in light of those factors, to make an award of attorneys’ fees even when the losing party advanced a reasonable claim or defense.

Kirtsaeng, who was from Thailand, came to the U.S. to go to Cornell University.  While there, he discovered John Wiley & Sons, an academic publishing company, sold virtually identical, English language textbooks in the U.S. and Thailand, but sold them at a much cheaper price in Thailand.  He had family and friends in Thailand buy the books, ship them to him in the U.S. and sold them at a profit.

Wiley sued Kirtsaeng for copyright infringement, claiming Kirtsaeng’s sale of the books violated its exclusive right to distribute its textbooks.  Kirtsaeng invoked the “first sale doctrine” as a defense, which enables the lawful owner of a book (or other work) to resell or otherwise dispose of it as he or she wishes.  Wiley countered that the first sale doctrine did not apply to books manufactured abroad.  The circuit courts were split on the issue, and the issue went up to the Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court agreed with Kirtsaeng and held that the first sale doctrine does allow the resale of foreign made books.

Kirtsaeng went back to the district court and sought $2 million in attorneys’ fees as the prevailing party pursuant to section 505.  The District Court denied the motion, relying on Second Circuit precedent that gave “substantial weight” to the “objective reasonableness” of Wiley’s infringement claim.  The rational for that approach was that the imposition of a fee award against a copyright holder with an objectively reasonable—although unsuccessful—litigation position will generally not promote the purposes of the Copyright Act.  The District Court and the Second Circuit, on appeal, agreed that Wiley’s position was reasonable.  They also found that the other factors to be considered did not outweigh the reasonableness finding.   These non-exclusive factors were set forth in Fogerty v. Fantasy Inc., 510 U.S. 517 (1994).  In that case, the Supreme Court identified the non-exclusive factors as the frivolousness of the case, the loser’s motivation, the objective unreasonableness of their case, and considerations of compensation and deterrence, all of which are to be applied in a manner that’s faithful to the purposes of the Copyright Act.

In Kirstaeng, the Supreme Court explained that objective reasonableness can be only an important factor in assessing fee applications—not the controlling one.  District courts must take into account a range of considerations beyond the reasonableness of litigating positions.  Thus, a court may award fees even though the losing party offered reasonable arguments.  The Supreme Court cited as an example the situation where a court orders fee-shifting because of a party’s litigation misconduct, or the court decides to deter repeated instances of copyright infringement (i.e. copyright infringement “trolls”).  “Although objective reasonableness carries significant weight, courts must view all the circumstances of a case on their own terms, in light of the Copyright Act’s essential goals” (for instance—enriching the general public through access to creative works).

The Supreme Court concluded that the Kirstaeng matter should be remanded to the District Court because it appeared that the court had put too much emphasis on the “reasonableness” question.  Thus, the Supreme Court ordered the remand to ensure that the District Court evaluates the motion consistent with the analysis that it set forth—giving substantial weight to the reasonableness of Wiley’s litigating position, but also taking into account all other relevant factors.

Supreme Court Again Rewrites Patent Law on Enhanced Damages

by: Robert Wagner, intellectual property attorney at the Pittsburgh law firm of Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C. ()

SupremeCourtImage_1In a continuing trend of rejecting bright-line rules and multi-faceted tests created by the Federal Circuit, the Supreme Court last week issued an opinion in Halo Electronics, Inc. v. Pulse Electronics, Inc., (No. 14-1513) in which the Court unanimously vacated and remanded the Federal Circuit’s decision affirming the District Court’s decision not to award enhanced damages under the Federal Circuit’s precedent in In re Seagate Technology, LLC, 497 F.ed 1360 (Fed. Cir. 2007) (en banc). The Court found that the Seagate test was too rigid and did not give trial courts sufficient discretion to award enhanced damages under 35 U.S.C. § 284. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the decision for the Court.

Background

The Patent Act provides that the Court “the court may increase the damages up to three times the amount found or assessed.” 35 U.S.C. § 284. In response to this language, the Federal Circuit has created various tests for courts and litigants to following, culminating with its most recent pronouncement in Seagate. Under the Seagate test, “a patentee must show by clear and convincing evidence that the infringer acted despite an objectively high likelihood that its actions constituted infringement of a valid patent,”without regard to “[t]he state of mind of the accused infringer.” This objective prong is not satisfied if the accused infringer later developed a reasonably defense at trial, even if that defense was not known or relied on during the time of the infringing conduct.

If the patentee can demonstrate objective recklessness, it must show by clear and convincing evidence that the risk of infringement “was either known or so obvious that it should have been known to the accused infringer.” If the patentee meets this subjective prong, the court is entitled to award enhanced damages.

The Supreme Court Rejects this 2-step Process

While initially recognizing that “[t]he Seagate test reflects, in many respects, a sound recognition that enhanced damages are generally appropriate under § 284 only in egregious cases,” it found that the test “is unduly rigid, and it impermissibly encumbers the statutory grant of discretion to district courts.”

In particular, the Court was troubled by the fact that an accused infringer could avoid enhanced damages in cases where it intentionally ignored the patentee’s patent if its lawyers could later develop a reasonable defense during litigation that was never relied on previously. Under the Seagate test, a patentee could never get past the first objective prong.

Having said that, the Court also stressed that enhanced damages should still be the exception, and not the rule. It traced the history of enhanced damages and noted that they were typically reserved for egregious cases and were “vindictive or punitive” in nature. The Court cautioned that a trial court’s discretion to grant enhanced damages is not boundless and that the Federal Circuit is in a unique position to evaluate the exercise of that discretion based on its long history of dealing with patent cases.

Finally, the Court rejected a clear and convincing evidentiary standard for proving entitlement to enhanced damages. Under § 284, only a preponderance of the evidence is necessary to obtain enhanced damages.

The Court concluded by stating:

Section 284 gives district courts the discretion to award enhanced damages against those guilty of patent infringement. In applying this discretion, district courts are “to be guided by [the] sound legal principles” developed over nearly two centuries of application and interpretation of the Patent Act. . . . Those principles channel the exercise of discretion, limiting the award of enhanced damages to egregious cases of misconduct beyond typical infringement. The Seagate test, in contrast, unduly confines the ability of district courts to exercise the discretion conferred on them. Because both cases before us were decided under the Seagate framework, we vacate the judgments of the Federal Circuit and remand the cases for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Justice Breyer’s Concurrence

While agreeing with the majority’s opinion, Justice Breyer wrote separately to caution that awards of enhanced damages should be made only in egregious circumstances.

He also noted that an award of enhanced damages requires conduct beyond simple knowledge of a patent by the infringer. Justice Breyer explained that there are several legitimate reasons why an infringer may be aware of a patent that do not rise to the level of willful misconduct required. He also noted that opinions of counsel of non-infringement or invalidity are not required to defeat a claim for enhanced damages. For one thing, they can be extremely expensive and can deter legitimate innovation or otherwise upset the proper balance between the patent laws and promoting the progress of the science and useful arts.

Finally, he noted that enhanced damages are not a mechanism for compensating patentees for litigation expenses or other infringement-related costs. There are difference statutory provisions that address those concerns.

Conclusion

This is yet another case in which the Supreme Court has struck down a bright-line rule or multi-faceted test developed by the Federal Circuit. The Federal Circuit has tended to create these rules and tests in an effort to provide more clarity and certainty in the patent arena, even if these rules and tests lack a strong statutory basis. In contrast, the Supreme Court seems less concerned about clarity and certainty, and is more concerned in treating the patent laws like any other area of the law. It has repeatedly rejected efforts by the Federal Circuit to treat the patent laws as somehow different than other laws or not bound by the same rules and procedures. The Halo decision is another decision that brings the patent laws closer to the rest of the law.

DTSA Cases Being Filed: Defend Trade Secrets Act 2016

Posted by: DTSALAW.Com and DefendTradeSecretsAct.Lawyer Henry M. Sneath, Esq. – Chair of the Intellectual Property Practice Group at Pittsburgh, Pa. law firm Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C. (PSMN® and PSMNLaw®). Mr. Sneath is also an Adjunct Professor of Law at the Duquesne University School of Law teaching Trade Secret Law, Trademark Law and the Law of Unfair Competition. He may be contacted at hsneath@psmn.com or 412-288-4013. See Websites www.psmn.com or www.DTSALaw.com.

The new DTSA federal civil remedy statute is already generating lawsuits being filed in Federal Courts. Two suits were recently filed in the Southern District of Florida with jurisdiction being claimed pursuant to the Defend Trade Secrets Act 2016 (DTSA). One case was also filed in the Northern District of Texas. See links to the cases below. In each Florida case, the plaintiff not only claimed trade secret misappropriation under the DTSA, but also under the Florida UTSA state statute (FUTSA). The Texas case brings claims under DTSA and the TUTSA along with pendent state law claims. This may become the trend as the DTSA and state statutes modeled after the Uniform Trade Secret Act describe trade secrets and misappropriation somewhat differently and provide, in some cases, different remedies. The differences in “definitions” between DTSA and the UTSA are not major, but they may make a difference if either is left out of a complaint filed in federal court.  We will monitor this trend and post in the future on new filings.

Interestingly, while both Florida cases seek injunctive relief in the complaint’s claims for relief, neither docket shows the filing of a separate Motion for TRO, Preliminary Injunction or motion for other injunctive relief. The Dean case brings only trade secret misappropriation claims under the DTSA and the FUTSA state statute. The Bonamar case brings claims under DTSA and FUTSA and a number of pendent State Law claims that you would expect to see in an employment related, non-disclosure, breach of covenants/contract case. In the Texas case, the plaintiff has filed an emergency motion for TRO under both state and federal law and a hearing is set for May 26, 2016. The motion and brief are linked below. Here are links to the cases on our website.

Florida Cases: Bonamar v. Turkin and Supreme Crab ; Dean V. City of Miami Beach et al

Texas Case: UPS v. Thornburg (Complaint) ; UPS v. Thornburg (Emergency Motion for TRO) ; UPS v. Thornburg (Brief in Support of Motion for TRO)

Sneath, Henry 2012 headshot

Henry M. Sneath, Esq. 412-288-4013 hsneath@psmn.com

Judge Determines That Star Trek Copyright Suit Against Fan Film Anaxar Can Proceed

by: Robert Wagner, intellectual property attorney at the Pittsburgh law firm of Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C. ()

Last week, Judge Klausner from the US District Court for the Central District of California denied a fan film producer’s motion to dismiss a copyright infringement lawsuit brought by Paramount Pictures and CBS Studio, which own the copyrights in the Star Trek franchise. The case present some interesting issues regarding the interplay between copyright holders and fans that attempt to create works inspired by or based off of more famous works. The case is pending in Los Angeles and is captioned Paramount Pictures Corp. v. Axanar Productions, Inc. (No. 2:15-cv-09938-RGK-E).

Background

Star Trek is one of the most successful science fiction creations of the last fifty years. Created by Gene Roddenberry and first aired on television in 1966, Star Trek chronicles the adventures of humans and aliens in the future as they venture through space. The original television series has spawned numerous feature Enterprisefilms and television series, in addition to creating a huge and devoted fan base. The fan base is noted, in particular, for recreating and reenacting characters and scenes from the franchise, as well as creating new works based on the characters and events portrayed in the television series and movies. This lawsuit arose out of one such effort by a group of fans to create a movie based on a scene from the original television series when Captain Kirk meets one of his heroes, Garth of Izar, and discusses Garth’s victory against the Klingons in the battle of Axanar. Defendants created a script, received funding through various sources, and released a short film based on the Battle of Axanar that is a preview of their anticipated longer film. Plaintiffs filed suit claiming that Defendants’ efforts violated numerous copyrights that they own in the Star Trek franchise.

Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint

In plaintiffs’ amended complaint, they set forth numerous examples of what they contend are infringing features or elements of defendants’ work, which include such things as various characters, alien races, costumes, settings, starships, logos, plot points, dialogue, and themes, some of which are shown below (Anaxar on the left, and plaintiffs’ on the right).

Uniform Comparison

Klingon Comparison

Starship Comparison

Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss

Defendants moved to dismiss the lawsuit on various grounds–that plaintiffs had failed to provide sufficient notice of what actions constituted infringement, that Paramount lacked standing to sue, that the allegations were not sufficient under the Twombly standard, that the various elements identified by plaintiffs were not protectable, that the claims were premature because the film had not been released, and that plaintiffs’ efforts amount to impermissible prior restraint.

Klingon Ship Comparison

The Court rejected all of these arguments at this procedural stage, noting (with a nod to the Star Trek franchise) that “[a]lthough the Court declines to address whether Plaintiffs’ Claims will prosper at this time, the Court does find Plaintiffs’ claims will live long enough to survive Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss.”

Klingon Amicus Brief

One of the more interesting aspects to this case was an amicus brief filed by the Language Creation Society. In its amended complaint, plaintiffs asserted that the Klingon language itself was protected by copyright. The Language Creation Society argued that the copyright laws do not protect a language itself. The Judge did not address this point in the opinion on the motion to dismiss, but this issue is an interesting one presented in a novel form. The amicus brief is a particularly good read, as it is interspersed with quotes and phrases in the Klingon language.Klingon Quote

Conclusion

The case is far from over, but it is an interesting window into the difficulties (both legal and otherwise) that a successful copyright owner faces in trying to creatively and economically control its works.