With the House and Senate passing versions of the America Invents Act that will reform the patent laws as we know them, I thought it would be interesting to look back at how patent false marking litigation burst onto the scene in 2010 and how it appears to be flaming out now in 2011. In the last two years, the patent world has been abuzz with claims of false marking brought by individuals against some of the largest companies in America. There were fears that this litigation would result in monstrous penalties where there was little “wrongful” action. As typically happens, these fears appear to have been overblown. While certainly a headache for those companies that were sued and for those companies that have gone to great lengths to verify compliance with the statute, the result seems to be more of a short-term inconvenience.
History of False Marking Law
False patent marking has been around for a long time, first appearing in the Patent Act of 1842, which prohibited the false marking of products with the intent to deceive the public with a fine of not less than $100. Later, in 1952, Congress changed the statute to impose a penalty of not more than $500 per offense:
(a) Whoever, without the consent of the patentee, marks upon, or affixes to, or uses in advertising in connection with anything made, used, offered for sale, or sold by such person within the United States, or imported by the person into the United States, the name or any imitation of the name of the patentee, the patent number, or the words “patent,” “patentee,” or the like, with the intent of counterfeiting or imitating the mark of the patentee, or of deceiving the public and inducing them to believe that the thing was made, offered for sale, sold, or imported into the United States by or with the consent of the patentee; or Whoever marks upon, or affixes to, or uses in advertising in connection with any unpatented article, the word “patent” or any word or number importing that the same is patented for the purpose of deceiving the public; or Whoever marks upon, or affixes to, or uses in advertising in connection with any article, the words “patent applied for,” “patent pending,” or any word importing that an application for patent has been made, when no application for patent has been made, or if made, is not pending, for the purpose of deceiving the public– Shall be fined not more than $500 for every such offense.
35 U.S.C. § 292(a). Prior to 2009, courts interpreting these statutes held that the penalty should not be imposed for each article falsely marked, but rather should be imposed for the decision to falsely mark a product line. See, e.g., London v. Everett H. Dunbar Corp., 179 F. 506 (1st Cir. 1910). As a result, there was little incentive for a litigant to bring a false marking claim and few cases were filed.
Pequignot v. Solo Cup and Forest Group v. Bon Tool
In 2007, things began to change. Matthew Pequignot, a patent attorney, filed suit against Solo Cup for falsely marking its plastic cup lids with expired patent numbers. Pequignot argued that the prior holdings were incorrect and that penalties should be imposed per article. Because there were potentially over 21 billion cups that were falsely marked, Solo Cup theoretically faced more than $10 trillion in potential penalties under Pequignot’s interpretation.
As the case was winding its way through the courts, the Federal Circuit heard an appeal in an unrelated case Forest Group, Inc. v. Bon Tool Co., 590 F.3d 1295 (Fed. Cir. 2009) that would ultimately spark a huge new cottage industry. Forest Group had a patent covering stilts commonly used in construction and sued Bon Tool for infringement of its patent. Bon Tool counterclaimed, alleging that Forest Group falsely marked its stilts. The court found that (1) Bon Tool did not infringe; (2) Forest Group had falsely marked some of its stilts and fined it $500 for a single offense of false marking; and (3) the case was not exceptional, so the court did not award attorney fees. Bon Tool appealed the last two findings, and the Federal Circuit determined that the fine under the false marking statute applies to each article falsely marked, not the decision to mark as the district court had held. (The Federal Circuit affirmed the decision not to award attorney fees). On remand, the district court imposed a fine of $180 for each of the 38 stilts that were falsely marked. Thus, the case that lit the false marking industry on fire and resulted in thousands of subsequent lawsuits was ultimately over a $6,840 fine.
Forest Group Launches a Thousand Suits
From 2007 to 2009, only 47 false marking cases had been filed in federal courts, but after the December 28, 2009 decision in Forest Group, patent attorneys and litigants stormed court houses across the country, filing almost 1,500 cases in the next year and a half. Given the potential $500 per article fine, companies that mass produced products were understandably concerned about facing potentially huge liability for wrongly marking their products.
Because false marking is a qui tam action and the statute appeared to authorize anyone to file suit, there was no need for patent attorneys to find clients who had been actually injured by the alleged false marking. Instead, patent attorneys were filing suit on their own or creating their own corporations to file suit against alleged false markers. The lawsuits tended to focus on products that had expired patent numbers, rather than products that were marked with inappropriate, but still valid, patent numbers. The reason was obvious—there was no need to go through the costly exercise of proving that the patent did not cover the product when the patent had expired. One could immediately jump to the question of whether the product was falsely marked with the intent to deceive the public.
Two later decisions by the Federal Circuit only intensified the flames sparked by the Forest Group decision. In Pequignot v. Solo Cup Co., 608 F.3d 1356 (Fed. Cir. 2010), the Court confirmed that marking a product with an expired patent number fell within the scope of the false marking statute (although it affirmed the judgment against Pequignot because he could not prove that Solo Cup acted with an intent to deceive). And, in Stauffer v. Brooks Brothers, Inc., 619 F.3d 1321 (Fed. Cir. 2010), the Court confirmed that anyone had standing to bring suit under the false marking statute, even if they did not suffer any direct personal injury.
The Federal Circuit appeared to be showing no inclination to beat back this fire. All indications were that a new form of patent “trolling” litigation was here to stay.