Tag Archives: license

Supreme Court Upholds Brulotte Rule Preventing Post-Expiration Patent Royalties

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

In a 6-3 decision authored by Justice Kagan, the United States Supreme Court in Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment, LLC (No. 13-720) upheld the long-standing rule previously announced in Brulotte v. Thys Co., 379 U. S. 29 (1964), that patentees cannot charge royalties for the use of an invention after the patent covering the invention has expired. Justice Alito, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas, dissented and would have abolished the rule announced in Brulotte.

We previously discussed the Ninth Circuit’s decision in this case here.

Background

Web BlasterIn 1990, Kimble developed a web-shooting toy that allowed children to shoot foam strings from their hands like Spider-Man. He obtained a patent (U.S. Pat. No. 5,072,856) on his invention and offered it to Marvel Entertainment. Marvel declined, but soon afterwards came out with a similar toy. Kimble sued Marvel for patent infringement, and the parties ultimately settled the case. As part of the settlement, the parties entered into a license agreement that provided an up-front lump sum payment to Kimble along with a perpetual 3% royalty.

Some time later, Marvel discovered the Brulotte decision, which neither side was aware of during the settlement discussions, and moved for a declaration that its obligation to pay royalties expired when the patent expired. The district court, citing Brulotte, sided with Marvel, as did the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit, however, criticized the rationale of Brulotte, and the Supreme Court took up the case.

Analysis

The patent statute provides that patent owners have exclusive rights to the use and sale of their inventions for a limited period of time. Once that time expires, the invention falls into the public domain and can be used freely by anyone in this country.

The rule in Brulotte was announced as a way of preventing patent owners from extending their exclusive rights beyond the lifetime of the patent. The concern was that patent owners could use license agreements to force others to pay royalties long after the patent expired, which would artificially extent the lifetime of the patent.

Recently, economists have challenged the anti-competitive basis for the Brulotte ruling and noted that in some instances, allowing post-expiration royalties allows the user to obtain lower royalty rates (albeit spread out of a longer time), which can be pro-competitive behavior.

Justice Kagan, writing for the majority, ultimately decided that the principle of stare decisis controlled the outcome of the case. Brulotte was decided back in 1964 and represented the Court’s interpretation of the patent statute. In the case of statutory construction issues, the Court is disinclined to reverse itself without a significant reason for doing so. She noted that in the more than 50 years since the decision, Congress has not chosen to use its legislative powers to overrule this decision. She also noted that the economic concerns were far from conclusive.

The majority also noted that there were several ways that parties can construct license agreements that meet the limitations of Brulotte. For instance, parties can agree to spread out payments after the expiration of the patent, as long as the use/sale giving rise to the royalty occurred before the patent expired. Parties can also create hybrid agreements that include royalties for other intellectual property (such as trade secrets) if the royalty amount decreases after expiration of the patent.

In the end, the majority felt that there was not a sufficient reason to overrule Brulotte. Therefore, it affirmed the lower court’s rulings that the post-expiration royalties were barred.

The Dissent

The dissent took a different view. They felt that the economic rationale behind Brulotte was flawed and did not deserve deference. They also questioned the notion that Brulotte was decided by construing the patent statute. Instead, they felt that the decision was improper policymaking that should be overruled.

With respect to the particulars of the this case, they were concerned that the parties negotiated a resolution being unaware of the Brulotte rule, only to have Marvel come in afterwards and upset the prior agreed arrangement once it learned of Brulotte. Had the parties been aware of Brulotte during negotiations, they might have reached a different arrangement.

Conclusion

The Kimble decision does not change the state of the law. In a rather unusual move for the Supreme Court in the patent arena, they have maintained the bright-line rule that patent royalties based on actions that occur after a patent expires are not enforceable. Practitioners should be aware of this rule when crafting royalty agreements to structure them in a way to avoid this issue.

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Supreme Court Holds That Patentee Bears Burden of Persuasion on Infringement When Licensee Seeks a Declaratory Judgment

By: Joe Carnicella, intellectual property attorney with Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C.

We posted about this case in May 2013, and on January 22, 2014, the Supreme Court decided this matter.

First, the Supreme Court held that the Federal Circuit did not lack subject-matter jurisdiction.  Because federal courts determining declaratory judgment jurisdiction often look to the “character” of the declaratory judgment defendant’s “threatened action,” which in this case, the threatened hypothetical action would constitute the licensor terminating a license and bringing suit for infringement under federal patent laws, the declaratory judgment action would arise under federal patent laws.

Second, the Supreme Court held that when a licensee seeks a declaratory judgment against a patentee that its products do not infringe the licensed patent, the patentee bears the burden of persuasion on the issue of infringement.  The Supreme Court based this ruling on three settled legal propositions: (1) a patentee ordinarily bears the burden of proving infringement; (2) the operation of the Declaratory Judgment Act is only procedural leaving substantive rights unchanged; and (3) the burden of proof is a substantive aspect of a claim.

By way of background, the United States Supreme Court granted cert. to hear argument on whether, in a declaratory judgment action brought by a licensee, the licensee has the burden to prove that its products do not infringe the patent, or whether the patentee must prove infringement.  Medtronic Inc. (licensee) licensed a patent from Mirowski Family Ventures LLC (patentee / licensor) relating to a device used to stop imminent heart failure.  Medtronic subsequently created new products and then filed a declaratory judgment action claiming that its new products do not infringe the patent.  The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals held that Medtronic bears the burden of proving that its products do not infringe Mirowski’s patent.  Medtronic argued that the U.S. Supreme Court should overturn the Federal Circuit’s ruling, which Medtronic argued is inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s decision in MedImmune, Inc. v. Genetech, Inc., 549 U.S. 118 (2007).  In MedImmune, the Supreme Court ruled that a patent licensee that believes that its products do not infringe the patent is “not required . . . to break or terminate its . . . license agreement before seeking a declaratory judgment in federal court that the underlying patent is . . . not infringed.”  According to Medtronic, the Federal Circuit’s opinion undercut the MedImmune decision because it caused a licensee to take on the significant burden and cost of a presumption that its products infringe.  In turn, Mirowski argued that this case is distinguishable from MedImmune because the licensing agreement at issue specifically required Medtronic to file a declaratory judgment action if a dispute arose.  Mirowski submitted that the Federal Circuit correctly decided that, based specifically on the contract terms between the parties, Medtronic should bear the burden of proving that it should be let out of the contract for the new products.

Ninth Circuit Holds Royalty Agreement Unenforceable

by: Robert Wagner, intellectual property attorney at Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C. ()

Web BlasterA recent decision from the Ninth Circuit in Kimble v. Marvel Enterprises Inc., No. 11-15605, highlights the problems parties can have when they enter into license agreements involving patents where the royalty payments extend beyond the life of the patents. In general, hybrid licensing agreements (those having inseparable patent and non-patent fights) are unenforceable beyond the expiration date of the patent unless either (a) there is a discounted royalty rate after the expiration date or (b) there is some clear indication that the royalty rate was not driven by leverage created by the patent rights. See Brulotte v. Thys Co., 379 U.S. 29 (1964). The rationale is that to hold otherwise would improperly extend the lifetime of the patent.

In Kimble, the inventor met with Marvel about his patented idea for a toy that children could use to mimic Spider-Man’s ability to shoot webs from his hands by shooting foam string from a glove. Kimble claimed the parties reached an oral agreement that Marvel would compensate Kimble if it used his ideas. Marvel then created a toy called the “Web Blaster” that was similar to what Kimble suggested. Marvel did not compensate Kimble, however.

Kimble sued for both patent infringement and breach of contract. The parties ultimately settled the case, with Marvel paying a lump sum to Kimble along with a perpetual 3% royalty on Marvel’s sales of these products. Eventually, the parties had a falling out regarding what products were covered by the agreement and the amounts due to Kimble.

The Court found that the agreement was a hybrid licensing agreement encompassing both patent and non-patent rights. Because there was no discount in the royalty rate post-expiration and there was no clear indication that the royalty rate was not subject to the leverage created by the patent, the post-expiration royalties were per se unenforceable.

The Ninth Circuit was not pleased to reach this result, however. It believed that the Supreme Court’s rule in Brulotte is “counterintuitive and its rationale is arguably unconvincing.” Nonetheless, it recognized that it was bound by this decision and that national uniformity on these issues is important.

The Kimble and Brulotte decisions highlight the importance of carefully considering the terms and duration of any licensing agreement that encompasses patent rights. Care must be taken to determine when any patent rights expire, what a royalty rate is based on, and how the two interact. With proper care ahead of time, problems like these can be avoided.

Supreme Court to Hear Argument on Patent Licensee’s Burden of Proof

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By: Joe Carnicella, intellectual property attorney with Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C.

On May 20, 2013, the United States Supreme Court granted cert. to hear argument on whether, in a declaratory judgment action brought by a licensee, the licensee has the burden to prove that its products do not infringe the patent, or whether the patentee must prove infringement.

Medtronic Inc. (licensee) licensed a patent from Mirowski Family Ventures LLC (patentee / licensor) relating to a device used to stop imminent heart failure.  Medtronic subsequently created new products and then filed a declaratory judgment action claiming that its new products do not infringe the patent.  The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals held that Medtronic bears the burden of proving that its products do not infringe Mirowski’s patent.

Medtronic has requested that the U.S. Supreme Court overturn the Federal Circuit’s ruling, which Medtronic has argued is inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s decision in MedImmune, Inc. v. Genetech, Inc., 549 U.S. 118 (2007).  In MedImmune, the Supreme Court ruled that a patent licensee that believes that its products do not infringe the patent is “not required . . . to break or terminate its . . . license agreement before seeking a declaratory judgment in federal court that the underlying patent is . . . not infringed.”  According to Medtronic, the Federal Circuit’s opinion undercuts the MedImmune decision because it causes a licensee to take on the significant burden and cost of a presumption that its products infringe.

In turn, Mirowski has argued that this case is distinguishable from MedImmune because the licensing agreement at issue specifically required Medtronic to file a declaratory judgment action if a dispute arose.  Mirowski believes that the Federal Circuit correctly decided that, based specifically on the contract terms between the parties, Medtronic should bear the burden of proving that it should be let out of the contract for the new products.

Federal Circuit Finds License Negotiations Discoverable

By: Joseph R. Carnicella, IP Associate with Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C.

In In Re MSTG, Inc., Misc. Doc. No. 996, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 7092 (Fed. Cir. April 9, 2012), the Federal Circuit found that license negotiations between a patent holder and its licensees relating to reasonable royalties and damages are not protected by a settlement negotiation privilege.

MSTG sued various cell phone service providers claiming infringement of two patents.  MSTG eventually settled with all but one of the defendants (AT&T), wherein most defendants entered into settlement agreements and were granted licenses under the patents-in-suit and other patents owned by MSTG.  MSTG also licensed the patents-in-suit to a technology consortium around the same time period.

As part of the litigation, the amount of a reasonable royalty was a primary issue to the extent AT&T was found to infringe the patents-in-suit.  AT&T sought discovery into the negotiations of the settlement agreements and argued that such information was relevant in calculating a reasonable royalty.  MSTG’s damages expert offered an opinion relating to a reasonable royalty based on comparable licenses, industry survey results, and other published rates for similar technology.  The expert reviewed but discounted the pertinent license agreements on the grounds that the royalty rates were “litigation related compromises” and not comparable to a hypothetical negotiation between MSTG and AT&T.  AT&T then moved to compel the license agreements reviewed by the expert as well as the underlying negotiations.  The magistrate judge determined that the negotiation documents could disclose reasons why the parties reached the royalty agreements, which could provide guidance on whether such licenses could be considered in a calculation of a reasonable royalty between MSTG and AT&T.  The district court denied MSTG’s objections and agreed with the magistrate judge.

MSTG petitioned the Federal Circuit for a writ of mandamus, and the district court’s discovery order was temporarily stayed pending review.  MSTG asserted that, under Rule 501 of the Federal Rules of Evidence, the Federal Circuit should create a new privilege in patent cases that would prevent discovery of litigation settlement negotiations related to reasonable royalties and damages.  The Federal Circuit analyzed the relevant rules of procedure, rules of evidence and case law and concluded that settlement negotiations related to reasonable royalties and damage calculations are not protected by a settlement negotiation privilege.  Also, MSTG asserted that the district court abused its discretion by ordering the production of negotiation documents underlying the settlement agreements.  The Federal Circuit agreed with AT&T that, because the expert offered opinions that went beyond the four corners of the settlement agreements, MSTG could not deny discovery of that same information to AT&T.  The Federal Circuit did not address whether such settlement negotiation materials would be admissible in front of a jury.