2010 gave us a number of important decisions in the intellectual property field. The Bilksi decision regarding the patentability of business methods was eagerly awaited from the Supreme Court. In addition, the Federal Circuit issued a number of key decisions involving false marking, the written description requirement, patent misuse, and patent term extensions.
Bilksi v. Kappos—130 S.Ct. 3218 (2010)
Bilski was one of the most anticipated cases of the year. The Supreme Court considered whether business method patents are patentable subject matter under the Patent Act. As the Court is want to do, it did not substantially clarify the standards. Nonetheless, three key points emerged from this decision.
1. Business method patents are not per se unpatentable subject matter, although they still might be (or should be) difficult to get.
2. The Federal Circuit’s machine or transformation test for patentability under § 101 is not the sole test, although it is still a very useful clue for determining whether a process meets the requirements of § 101. Few processes that do not meet this test would be patentable.
3. The three previous exceptions to the broad standards of patentability under § 101 still exist—laws of nature, physical phenomena, and abstract ideas are not patentable.
American Needle, Inc. v. National Football League—130 S.Ct. 2201 (2010)
American Needle was a non-exclusive National Football League Properties (NFLP) licensee for certain apparel that bore NFL team insignias. In December 2000, the NFL decided to only grant exclusive licenses, and American Needle did not receive one. American Needle sued, claiming that the NFL’s licensing practices violated § 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act. The Seventh Circuit found no violation, but the Supreme Court reversed.
While not a purely IP case, this case is at the intersection of IP and antitrust laws. The NFL claimed that the NFLP was a joint venture that was formed to develop, license, and market NFL IP rights. Section 1 of the Sherman Act prohibits concerted action that restrains trade. The key inquiry in this case was whether the NFL acts as a single decisionmaker in the IP licensing arena or whether the NFLP brings together independent decisionmakers. The Court concluded that while the NFL may in some areas act like a single decisionmaker (for scheduling, rules, etc.), in the IP arena each team is pursuing its own interests and directly competing against the other teams. Thus, the decision by the NFLP to issue exclusive licenses was concerted action that deprived the marketplace of independent action by each team and thus could state a claim for a violation of § 1 of the Sherman Act. The Court noted that a joint venture could be governed by antitrust laws in some aspects of its business, while not in others. The Court remanded to the lower courts to address the substance of the claims.