Blurred lines: copyright AFC tests

Blurred lines

The “Blurred lines” music copyright case went wrong because courts are not using modern abstraction-filtration-comparison (AFC) infringement tests.

Copyright covers creative expression but not ideas or information.  Many copyrighted works, however, are a mixture of creative expression and ideas/information.  This mixture gives courts headaches, and as a result, copyright litigation can be unpredictable.

For software copyright infringement cases, courts tend to use an “abstraction-filtration-comparison” (AFC) test. The AFC test was first introduced in the 1992 “Computer Associates v. Altai” case.  For this test, the court (i.e. the judge with expert help) first “abstracts” (analyzes) the work and determines what parts are “expression” (copyright protected) and what parts are ideas (copyright ineligible).  Then the court removes (filters out) the ineligible idea portions. If there are questions about what remains, the court can give the remaining “expression” portions to a jury to decide.

This test puts a lot of responsibility on the court to get things right and is hard to perform in practice, but at least it makes some sort of logical sense.  Throw out the ineligible stuff, and just look at the rest.

The AFC test was inspired by the earlier “Scènes à Faire” (Scenes a Faire) concept often used for literary and movie copyrights. As a quick example, if you want to write a Western novel or film, then horses, guns, salons, bandits and the like are considered essential ideas, and these would be tossed out in a copyright case involving a Western theme.

So what went wrong in the recent “Blurred Lines” music copyright infringement case? The song admittedly tried to capture the party atmosphere of Marvin Gaye’s earlier “Got to Give it Up” song, but the lyrics and music were quite different. Both had party noises and “cowbell”, but these were different party noises and different cowbell. In fact, Marvin Gaye’s copyright was for sheet music that didn’t cover party noises and cowbell at all.

The problem is that outside of software, older tests, such as “objective substantial similarity” and “total concept and feel” are still being used.  These older tests blur the distinction between creative expression and ideas and rely on an unskilled jury to magically sort things out.

To somewhat simplify the “Blurred Lines” case, the jury listened to music that contained a mixture of creative expression (different lyrics and music) and unprotected ideas (generic party noises and cowbell). To make matters worse, the jury instructions did not even tell the jury to try to distinguish between creative expression and copyright ineligible ideas.

So, not surprisingly, the jurors found infringement; most likely because both songs contained party noises and cowbell.  Never mind that these were not covered by copyright and that as far as the actual copyrightable lyrics and music went, the two songs were quite different.

This case is presently on appeal. Various copyright experts have suggested that the way out of this mess is to expand the use of the AFC test from computer software to other types of copyright cases as well. Unfortunately, the law works slowly. Until then, go easy on the cowbell at parties.

Intellectual property for cheerleaders

Cheerleader
Is the uniform decoration “functional”?

In Star Athletica v Varsity Brands, the Supreme Court ruled that copyrights can cover the industrial designs of clothing, 3D objects, and other useful (functional) things.

The boundaries between different areas of intellectual property, such as copyrights and patents, can be fuzzy.  Copyrights, among other things, cover artistic images and 3D sculptures on various media or “articles”, but the artistic feature must be able to exist separately from any functional (useful) part of the underlying media.

Copyrights v design patents: Copyrights require only minimal originality, are cheap, and last for generations. But, if you want to claim an ornamental design for a functional (useful) item, this falls into design patent territory. Design patents have a higher threshold for originality, are more expensive, and only last for 15 years.

Some things, such as clothing, and other 3D designs that combine artistic/ornamental and useful/functional aspects, fall into multiple areas, but not always as one might predict. Clothing “knock-offs” exist because the overall pattern or cut of clothing is conclusively (legally) presumed to be functional, hence copyright exempt. So this goes into the design patent bin. However artistic fabric patterns can be copyrighted.

Which brings us to the cheerleaders, and the Supreme Court’s (SCOTUS) recently decided Star Athletica v. Varsity Brands case.  This teaches lessons that apply to other mixed artistic/functional things as well, such as 3D objects. So you folks with 3D printers, listen up!

Cheerleader uniforms have certain characteristic lines and colors, and Star Athletica copyrighted a number of these designs. Varsity Brands, possibly believing that fashion knockoffs are no big deal, copied them, got sued, and the case eventually made its way to SCOTUS.

Varsity had some interesting legal arguments – namely that the lines and colors were functional (no copyright) because they distinguished the uniform as a cheerleader uniform. However, SCOTUS didn’t buy it. They cited Mazer v Stein, an earlier 1954 SCOTUS case, where an artistic statute was ruled to have retained copyright protection even when used as a lamp base (made functional). Like this earlier case, SCOTUS ruled that if an otherwise copyrightable feature can be perceived as art separate from the useful article, then the feature can get copyright protection.

Unintended consequences?  So we can have an ornamental design for a functional item (design patent).  We can also have a useful item with an artistic feature (copyright); at least when the artistic feature can exist independently of the useful item. Confusing, and there may be some unforeseen economic issues. Although SCOTUS relied on the previous 1954 Mazar case, copyright laws have changed since 1954.  Copyright now automatically attaches to nearly everything and lasts nearly forever.

In any event, if you are planning on doing fashion knockoffs, be careful.  In fact, if you are any manufacturer planning on incorporating “an old art design” into a functional object, be careful.

Terminating copyright transfers

return
“Return”, by Ldavis (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Someone in your family write something years ago that was a hit? Copyright transfer termination laws might let you get this old copyright back.  

US copyright laws contain certain author-friendly provisions that allow independent (not working for hire) authors to eventually get their copyrights back.  The underlying idea is to give a second chance to young authors who may have entered into unfavorable copyright assignment (transfer) deals with various publishers.

For example, the 1976 copyright act (17 U.S. Code § 203, effective 1978) states that under certain situations (such as if written notice is given 2-10 years in advance), the rights to previously assigned copyrights can be retrieved by the author (or heirs) during a limited 5 year time window that starts 35 years after the initial assignment or publication.

Although since 1978, there have been other substantial changes to US copyright law (e.g. the “Sonny Bono” Copyright Term Extension act of 1998), this 1976/1978 era termination right still exists.

Indeed the concept of author termination rights predates the 1976/1978 copyright act.  Previous copyright acts, such as the 1909 US copyright act, had independent author termination rights as well.  For example, under the 1909 act (in effect until 1977), copyright terms were 28 years, and the author had the option to renew the copyright one time, for a total of 56 years.  During this first renewal period, under certain situations, the author could also terminate his original copyright assignments at 28 years. But no more.

The 1976/78 copyright act changed the copyright term (for works not made for hire) from 56 years to the author’s lifetime plus 50 years, and later the renewal requirement was also dropped. The 1976/78 copyright act changed the author termination rules for pre-1978 works. These days, for pre-1978 works, under 17 U.S. Code § 304, independent authors (or heirs of independent authors) are now given a five-year window, starting at 56 years, to get their copyrights back.

Sound complicated?  This is the simplified version; the reality is even more complex!  For example, what is a “work for hire?” For non-employees, it is a work that someone has commissioned you to do, and these days this commission agreement must be in writing.  However, in the pre-1978 era, companies would try to incorporate “work for hire” clauses into assignments from even non-commissioned authors. The courts did not always buy this, as per a famous Marvel comics case involving Captain America.  Like to get the rights to this?

These rules are so complex that you almost need a computer program to sort through the various options.  Fortunately, this has been done.  The Authors Alliance, in conjunction with Creative Commons, now offers online software designed to give authors at least a rough idea of the feasibility of terminating their earlier copyright assignments.  This software is available at rightsback.org.

Conley, Twombly, and Iqbal

Motion to dismiss denied!

Conley, Twombly, and Iqbal are different standards of proof to successfully initiate patent litigation. This varies between the states.  Consider this when incorporating your company.

From the standpoint of patent litigation, “Conley, Twombly, and Iqbal” are attorney speak for how much “meat” a patent infringement complaint must have in order to not get quickly tossed out of court under a motion to dismiss [rule 12(b)(6)]. So if you ever receive a patent infringement complaint, or plan to institute a patent infringement complaint, these names will become important to you.

Historically, it was very difficult for the average person to initiate litigation. In earlier centuries, pleading had to follow strict “code pleading” rules, where even minor defects could cause otherwise good cases to be tossed out of court.  In rebellion to this, in the 1930’s, when the modern Federal Rules for Civil Procedure were first established, the thinking was that everyone should be able to have their day in court. To do this, the standards for the initial pleading were set at a low “short plain statement” level (1957 Conley v. Gibson case).  So it didn’t take much to start a Federal lawsuit. The legal theory here was that deficiencies in the initial filing could be easily corrected by subsequent discovery motions. Justice for the masses – this would be great!

Fast forward to 2007 and the legal situation was actually not so great. The Federal courts were clogged with cases. Discovery motions notoriously chewed up large amounts of time and money, sometimes on the basis of initial pleadings that were a bit “thin”.

In the 2007 Bell Atlantic Corp. v Twombly case, the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) took it upon itself to raise the standards for pleading.  As rephrased by SCOTUS in the later (2009) Ascroft v. Iqbal case: “…only a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives a motion to dismiss… While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations. When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.  Note the term “plausible”. It means “reasonable” or “believable”. This is where the standards get tightened, because the old standard was “possible”.

In practice, the court will initially assume that the complaint facts are correct, but then examine various alternative scenarios to see if there are plausible alternatives that are legally OK. For example, in the original Twombly case, collusion between telecommunications carriers was alleged. Facts showing that different carriers behaved in a similar manner were given, but no evidence of actual collusion was presented.  Here the “plausible” alternative scenario was that each was just independently protecting their own tuff without improper collusion. So the 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss was upheld.

Similarly, prior to Twombly, it did not take much to start a patent infringement lawsuit.  Just fill out a “Form 18” giving the patent number, an assertion of infringement, and a few other minor details and this was good enough.  In theory, after Twombly, standards should now be higher, but…

Ten years later, and due to intervening Federal Circuit rulings that encouraged continued use of “Form 18”, this higher standard is only now slowly trickling down to patent litigation. There are still significant inconsistencies between different states and different Federal District Courts. Before 2017, this didn’t matter as much because for patent infringement, a company could be sued anywhere.  But now, since the 2017 TC Heartland case, a company is usually sued in its state of incorporation.

So at present, we have a new and interesting situation where a company can apparently lower the risk of patent infringement lawsuits by incorporating in a state where the Federal Courts have higher standards.

35 USC 287: Marking inventions

Remember to mark your products!

To avoid damaging your patent rights, mark your products with patent numbers. The law covers devices but not methods, so marking software is a bit tricky.

You probably have noticed that some products are marked with the word “patent” and a list of patent numbers. These are usually written in small type somewhere on the product or on its packaging. If you (as a patent holder) are planning to start producing your own patented products, what happens if you don’t include this marking?

Because it is hard to tell what is and isn’t patented, Congress passed the 35 USC 287 statute (Federal law) to protect the public from accidental patent infringement. The law holds that absent such marking, your ability to recover past damages from an infringer can be very limited.  For example, past damages may only extend back to the time that you first sent a notice letter to the infringer. This law also covers your patent licensees (who often forget such markings) as well, so remember this for license negotiations.  Otherwise, your licensee could end up damaging your rights.

Although traditionally actual patent numbers had to be marked on the product, a few years ago it became OK to just use “virtual marking”. Here, just marking “patent or pat”, followed by a publically accessible web page address, is enough.  Virtual marking has advantages, but make sure the web page is actually “up”.

To prevent inadvertent loss of rights, it may seem safer to always err on the side of marking, but don’t overdo it.  There is a different law, 35 USC 292, designed to protect the public against false patent marking. So the general rule of thumb is to try to provide adequate patent notice, but avoid being deceptive.

35 USC 287 has some “bugs” and “features”

Bugs: Untended consequence — the law somewhat favors patent trolls. A patent holder who doesn’t produce anything (and hence has nothing to mark) can still recover past damages from up to six years earlier.

Features: Because it is hard to affix a mark to a method, 35 USC 287 generally doesn’t apply to methods patents.

But what about software and software implemented inventions? Software patents often contain a mixture of methods claims and device claims. However, software typically runs on (or is stored in) some sort of physical object. So is software covered by 35 USC 287 or not?  If so, what to mark, and how to mark it? What about websites and apps?

The courts have not been consistent here, and the law is still evolving. However, a fair number of court cases have required marking. It is safest to assume that patent marking is likely required, and then examine legal aspects as they apply to the specifics of your situation.

Selling patents

Selling patents is a bit like selling a house

For selling patents, try to create a family of commercially useful patents that are hard to design around and legally strong.  Know your market!

Although patents are best used to help inventors and startups attract funding and protect their products from copycats, sometimes the barriers to commercialization are just too high. Thus occasionally, alternative patent monetization approaches, such as sales, licensing, or litigation; may be a potential alternative. Here I discuss selling patents in a non-litigation context. Licensing and litigation will be discussed in later articles.

Your patents need to have good commercial potential, or else the game stops right here. The considerations include potential market size, market share, and value added by the patents.  The patents have to be “strong” (e.g. not easily invalidated on the basis of prior art, and not have a lot of loopholes).

To understand selling patents, consider the subject from the standpoint of a potential corporate purchaser. With the exception of “blocking patents” (which are relatively rare), for any given single patent, the corporate technologists will usually say “no problem, we can design around it”, and the corporate legal counsel will usually say, “no problem, we will come up with non-infringement/invalidity arguments”. Given this “no problem” input, if there is only one patent, the corporate decision maker will often decide to “risk it”, and if so, there will be no sale.

By contrast, when the corporate purchaser considers multiple patents, the assurances of the technologists and legal counsel decrease.  Technologist assurances that “we can design around it” become more guarded. Legal counsel, realizing that it may have to challenge multiple patents, will add up the potential costs and risks of multiple potential court cases, and also be less reassuring.  This is why, even for the strongest patents, most patent sales take place in the context of a family of related patents.

Patent valuation, and comparables: Although you may be tempted to put your pinky in your mouth and say “one hundred billion dollars”, market realities should be considered.  Just as there are real estate “comps” (average selling prices of houses in a neighborhood) and real estate valuation schemes, so there are “patent comps” and various techniques to measure patent valuation. Corporate purchasers have to justify their expenses to their upper management or their board of directors.  This justification becomes harder as the patent price moves outside of typical comps and valuation schemes. So it is important to be aware of these comps and valuation schemes, and set your expectations and negotiating strategies accordingly.

Selling methods: There are various methods of selling patents, including direct corporate deals (the traditional method), online auction sales, sales using brokers, and sales to NPE (non-practicing entities – formerly big, lately less active). As in any financial transaction, it is helpful to try to position yourself to negotiate from a position of strength (e.g. have financial means to walk away from bad deals) and to approach the transaction in an informed manner.

Medical procedure patents

tux surgeon
Patents on surgical methods?

Under Federal law 35 USC 287(C), US physicians and other medical practitioners have a limited immunity to certain types of medical procedure patents.

US patent laws allow patents for inventive methods (such as procedures), devices (such as gadgets), and compositions of matter (such as drugs). But should we allow medical procedure patents to be used against medical practitioners?

What is a medical procedure patent? Some historical examples include 1) a new and improved method of making surgical incisions on patient corneas; 2) the first medical use of ether (first anesthetic); 3) the first use of ultrasound for fetal gender evaluation.

Public policy here is a bit uncertain.  We don’t want our physicians to be afraid to try new procedures.  In fact, we want them to use the best procedures possible. But if we don’t financially reward innovation (through patents), then this could stifle further medical progress.  So in the US, and indeed throughout the world, almost everyone is debating this basic question: should medical procedure patents be allowed, or not?

Over about the last 100 years in the US, the pendulum has swung back and forth between “no” and “yes”. Our present 1997 era law, as described by 35 USC 287(C), is somewhere in the middle.  In what is a bit of a strange compromise, the US generally allows medical procedure patents but doesn’t always let you enforce them!  So unless you are aware of this unusual rule, you might accidentally end up getting a medical patent of little value because the law might not let you enforce it.

The trick to avoiding this unfortunate situation – having a medical procedure patent that lacks value due to restrictions on enforcement, is to consider 35 USC 287(C) and write claims that limit the impact of this strange exception.

The good news, from the standpoint of inventors and startups, is that the enforceability carve-out aspects of this law are quite narrow. Patents for devices and compositions of matter are just fine and can still be enforced. Further, under the patent legal rule of “contributory infringement“, you may also still be able to enforce against manufacturers who are teaching use of their products for your patented medical procedure.

So in practice, US rules regarding medical procedure patents are not all that restrictive. The trick is that if you are trying to patent a new medical procedure, think a lot about what devices or medical supplies might be needed to implement your new procedure.  Claim them, and when you get to writing the medical procedure claims, think about contributory infringement as well.

Thales patent eligibility ruling

HMD display
Not the Thales Head Mounted Display!

A recent Federal Circuit case, Thales Visionix Inc. v United States, continues the process of restoring sanity to the ongoing “Alice” patent eligibility mess.

As previously discussed, since the Supreme Court’s 2014 “Alice” decision, patent law has been burdened with an unworkable “is it abstract?” test for patent eligibility. This test is similar to a medieval test to determine witches:  Step 1:determine if the test subject is a witch abstract”;  Step 2:if so, does the witch float? is there something more?”

The Federal Circuit, charged with cleaning up patent law, has been slowly chipping away at this nonsense. In two earlier cases (Enfish and Rapid Litigation), the Federal Circuit established at least a few reasonable step 1 rules (such as read the entire claim), and now we have another.

Thales Visionix had a patent on a motion-tracking Head Mounted Display (HMD).  This patent claimed a HMD arrangement of inertial sensors and signal processing elements, used in the F-35 fighter jet. Any enemy pilot blown up by this HMD system might not consider this to be “abstract”, but a lower US court was not so easily impressed. They used their own “Alice: it’s abstract” weapon to shot down the HMD patent.

In the absence of rules (the Supreme Court thoughtfully declined to provide any), lower courts have often used a type of “guilt by association” logic, where if a given patent claim has some elements in common with another claim previously ruled to be abstract, then that claim is also abstract. The lower court argued that the Thales patent claims were abstract because the claims allegedly “used mathematical equations (previously determined to be abstract) for determining the relative position of a moving object to a moving reference frame”.

However the Federal Circuit disagreed.  They determined that just because a claim contains a patent ineligible (abstract) concept (e.g. mathematical equations) does not mean that the entire claim is (step 1) “abstract.” Rather, the question is if the patent ineligible concept (math, natural law) is being used to improve some other technique. If so, then the claim as a whole is not abstract. This is similar to their earlier, more biotech-focused, ruling in the Rapid Litigation case.

So as a medieval logic analogy, just because a woman has a cat does not automatically mean that the woman is a witch, if the cat is unusually good at catching mice. If improved mouse catching can be shown, the step 1 conclusion is that the woman is not a witch. There is no need to go on and subject the poor woman to a step 2 “witch float” test.  This is good, because there is a high casualty rate at step 2.

Patent demand letters

Frustrated patent troll
Frustrated patent troll

Patent demand letters are stressful.  Before responding or ignoring, evaluate infringement, patent prosecution history, ownership, and litigation history.

Has your startup received a “demand” letter asserting that you are infringing on a patent?  Although real infringement of valid patents does occur, and some of these letters are legitimate, many demand letters are sent in less than 100% good faith. The sender may be betting that the startup will settle quickly to avoid litigation costs, regardless of the actual merits of the situation.

Don’t immediately contact the sender, and don’t ignore the letter either.  Instead, calm down and evaluate the facts, preferably with the help of a patent attorney.  Is there a plausible infringement problem or not?  How to tell the difference?  A few common methods are discussed below.

To start, get: 1) a copy of the issued patents discussed in the demand letter, 2) the USPTO prosecution history of these patents, and 3) information about the allegedly infringing product.  If the letter doesn’t provide actual issued patent numbers, or if the letter only cites patent application numbers, the probability that the letter is bogus becomes higher.

Look at the independent claims for each patent (claim 1 is not always the broadest claim), and see if your allegedly infringing product infringes the entire wording of any independent claim. If so, look at the relevant dependent claims for more detail. If the letter argues contributory infringement, combine your product with the other accused product for this analysis, and check if your marketing literature is promoting this combination.

The patent prosecution history for the patents in question, usually downloadable from the USPTO, can be very relevant. This history will often reference if the patent has been used in litigation before; if the patent has been reevaluated by either reexamination or the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB); and if the patent applicant had to make significant concessions during the patent prosecution history.

The patent’s USPTO assignment records can be used to better understand the relationship between the sender and the actual patent owner of record. This is often obfuscated. What is this relationship, and is the purported patent owner the real patent owner?

If there is a history of litigation, check it out. Patent litigation usually takes place in Federal Courts.  This is usually available through PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) and a number of other sources. Has the patent owner been filing a lot of lawsuits and then settling before the court reaches a decision, or does the patent owner usually win?

There are many other issues that can be explored as well, but this type of information can help you and your attorney better evaluate what your next steps should be.

Patent claim charts

Patent claim chart, with one row not matching
Patent claim chart, with one row not matching

Think that someone is infringing on your patent?  Worried you are infringing, or want to show a patent reads on prior art?  Analyze with patent claim charts.

The basic idea behind a patent claim chart is to first break a given patent claim down into a series of smaller sections, and then to determine if each smaller section matches a corresponding aspect of a target of interest. This target may be a potentially infringing product or service, another patent, or even a public domain product or service (to try to show that a patent may be invalid).

Patent claim charts usually follow a row and column table format.  One column contains various sections from a claim of interest, spread out over a number of rows.  Another column contains various aspects of a target of interest, also spread out over a number of rows.  Rows containing sections from the claim column are compared with rows containing aspects from the target column.

If can be shown that every row from the claim column exactly matches up to one or more rows from the target column, then this suggests that claim does describe the target. Note, however, that although every claim row must match with a target row, there is usually no reverse requirement that every target row match-up with a claim row.

Sounds simple, but the devil is in the details.  Since patent claim charts are often part of an adversarial process, each side may feel under pressure to “slant” their claim charts in a way that favors their particular position.

Claim charts can be slanted in many ways.  One of the most common ways is to write the chart in a way that skips over important details, often by not breaking the claim down into small enough sections.

Some of the comparisons may not be accurate.  Also, remember that individual claim terms can sometimes be misleading because they may have been defined in the text of the patent application (or during prosecution), in a somewhat unexpected way.

So read and write claim charts with caution and skepticism.  Don’t use sloppy claim charts to initiate any legal action.  Of course, don’t blindly accept claim charts from others without doing your own independent analysis.