Magistrate Judge Jeffrey J. Keyes from the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota issued an important report and recommendation affirming the ability of patent attorneys to use copyrighted articles during patent prosecution (e.g., to submit them to the USPTO to fulfill disclosure requirements) as fair use.
In American Institute of Physics, et al. v. Schwegman Lundberg & Woessner, P.A. (No. 12-cv-00528), various publishers sued a law firm that had copied their copyrighted scientific articles in order to assess whether the articles were prior art and, if they were, sent copies to the USPTO to fulfill its obligation to disclose prior art. The publishers originally argued that any use by the law firm of these articles without payment constituted copyright infringement. However, they dropped their claims as to the firm’s (1) making copies to be sent to the USPTO, (2) sending copies to the USPTO, and (3) retaining one copy for its files. They continued their infringement claims as to the downloading of the articles, making other copies that existed in the firm’s files, and distributing the copies to its clients or others in the firm. The law firm argued that none of these actions infringed because of the fair use exception.
THE COURT’S DECISION
In assessing the applicability of the fair use defense, a court must consider (1) the purpose and character of the accused infringer’s use, (2) the nature of the copyrighted work, (3) the amount of used, and (4) the effect of the copying on the relevant market.
The Court determined that the nature and purpose of the firm’s use was different from that of the publishers. The publishers publish the works for the betterment of science and to allow other scientists to test and validate the authors’ findings. In contrast, the firm used the articles to satisfy a legal requirement of disclosure to assist the USPTO in determining whether an invention was new and novel. The Court further found that the intended audience for the two parties was different and did not overlap. The publishers’ audience was scientists, students, libraries, etc., whereas the firm’s audience was the USPTO and lawyers in the firm.
The Court also considered the nature of the articles to slightly favor the law firm. Because the articles were primarily factual and informational in nature, they fell a bit further from the creative types of expression more strongly protected by copyright law.
The Court looked at the amount of use and also concluded that, despite the copying of the entire article, this factor also favored the law firm. In order to satisfy its obligation of disclosure, the firm had to use the entire article. Thus, its entire use was consistent with its allowed purpose.
Finally, the Court looked to whether there were any other factors that might favor either party. It concluded that the law firm’s use was consistent with the overriding Constitutional basis for both the patent and copyright laws, which is to promote the progress of the science and useful arts. Such copying ultimately furthered this objective and the public good by assisting the USPTO in weeding out improper patents.
Ultimately, in weighing all of the factors, the Court concluded that the law firm’s use of the copyrighted articles was fair use and not copyright infringement.