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.

Common law trademarks

Common law trademarks can shield against Federal trademarks
Common law trademarks can sometimes shield against Federal trademarks

Think that a Federal US trademark applies throughout the US? Not always. Welcome to the murky world of common law trademarks.

Under trademark law, certain types of legal rights, often called “common law trademark rights”, automatically (without any registration) go into effect as soon as someone starts using some sort of distinctive mark (word, logo) to identify a product or service that they are selling in commerce.

Common law trademarks are murky because it is often hard to determine who first used a particular mark to sell a particular product or service at a particular geographical location.

Sounds strange?  To better understand common law trademarks, think back to an earlier era when long distance communication was poor and most commerce was local. In earlier eras, Federal and state-level trademark registration systems were either non-existent or impractically hard to use.

Occasionally different merchants, located in geographically different areas and unaware of each other, would innocently start using confusingly similar marks for their local products and services. The problem might go undetected for years until one merchant eventually expanded into another’s geographic area. Customers would then get confused, and the merchants would file lawsuits.

It wasn’t fair to strip an innocent merchant of all rights to their mark.  As a compromise, at least for merchants who had been clearly acting in good faith, the courts would often award each merchant exclusive local trademark rights to their respective marks.  As a result, under common law, different merchants, operating in geographically different areas, could even legally use the same trademark.

Communications and transportation improved, and the need for a Federal level trademark system became apparent.  However Congress faced some problems: 1) due to Constitutional limitations, they believed that they lacked authority to phase out the older, state-level, common law system; 2) it wasn’t even a good idea to phase-out the older system because it was still very important to commerce. Congress’s solution was to acknowledge that the older system would continue to operate and to make the newer Federal trademark system “backward compatible” with the older common law trademark system.

The net effect is that although a Federal trademark normally gives exclusive rights throughout the US, there are some limited common law trademark exemptions or defenses, such as 15 U.S. Code § 1115 (b)(5) and (6).

Consider a merchant (company) who didn’t register a Federal trademark, but who was otherwise innocently using their mark in geographic region “A”.  Assume that this use was prior to the Federal trademark filing of a confusingly similar mark by another merchant, previously only selling in geographic region “B”.  Under 15 U.S. Code § 1115 (b)(5) and (6), the merchant in region “A” can argue “common law rights”, and with adequate proof keep using this mark in region “A”. The Federal trademark holder (the other merchant) will otherwise have full US rights outside of region “A”.

Halo and reckless infringement

The Halo decision
The Halo decision

The Halo decision; and how to avoid court-ordered punitive damages for culpable patent infringement (recklessly infringing known patents)

One problem that both startups and established corporations face is what to do in situations where their product might infringe on someone else’s patent.  If the corporation ends up in court, and a judge determines that the infringement was somehow unusually extreme (e.g. egregious), then the judge may punish the offender by awarding up to three times actual damages (punitive damages). This can severely damage or destroy the infringer.

But what is “unusually extreme”?  Is it when an engineer is worried about a particular patent, or a competitor sends a warning letter, but the company proceeds anyway?  How close does the product have to match the patent?

The law has been going back and forth on this.  Earlier the rules were strict. Then the rules became so lax that punitive damages were hardly ever awarded. Now, in the June 2016 case of Halo Electronics v. Pulse Electronics, SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) has clarified that the rules are somewhat in-between these two extremes.

In the Halo decision, SCOTUS clarified that what is relevant is “culpability”, which in essence is the state of mind of the person (actor) at the time of the conduct.  In a corporate setting, this is likely the state of mind of the decision makers at the time they either decided to launch the product, or decided to keep selling in the face of some knowledge of infringement.

In particular, the issue is one of acting recklessly (not like a normal person) and/or with willful misconduct while knowing that there was a patent infringement issue.  The court can determine this if the majority of the evidence supports this conclusion (i.e. preponderance of the evidence standard).

Getting advice of legal counsel:

Earlier, when the rules were strict, the courts, in essence, created a duty to get the advice of legal counsel before acting. However later, when the rules were lax, there was not much of a need for this.  Courts in this era set the threshold for punitive damages so high that such damages were almost never awarded.

Now, with the present rules, the situation is in-between.  Failure to get the advice of legal counsel does not automatically prove that a company acted recklessly. However getting advice before acting (e.g. launching a product) can help prove lack of recklessness. Timely advice can help establish that the company acted with normal caution, thus hopefully avoiding punitive damages.  But note that there is a timing issue:  the legal standard is the state of the mind at the time of the (infringing) conduct. SCOTUS is not impressed by legal arguments concocted afterwards.

Contractor ownership of IP

Agree on IP ownership in advance
Agree on IP ownership in advance

The ownership rules for copyrights, patents, and other IP vary depending on if the IP creator is an employee or an independent contractor.

In today’s world, the distinction between employee and independent contractor is often blurred, but legally, these two forms of working are very different.  As a result, whether you are working as an employee or independent contractor, or hiring employees or independent contractors, it is good to be aware of how these different types of work engagements impact IP ownership rights.

These laws can vary from state to state.  Consider California. Generally, work done by an employee for an employer, at the employer’ request, does belong to the employer. However the IP assignment process is not always automatic (patents, for example, generally need to be assigned to the employer in writing).

One of the reasons why California has a booming high-tech economy is that California labor code sections 2870-2872 mandate (with certain exceptions) that work that does not relate to an employer’s business (and is done with the California employee’s own time and materials) generally belongs to the employee. However, this section of California law may not protect independent contractors.  So if you are an independent contractor, you may want to negotiate this.

US copyright law (writing, art, software, etc.) also distinguishes between employees and contractors. For employees, copyright ownership for works made for the employer typically goes to the employer. However for independent contractors, absent a signed written agreement (such as a work made for hire agreement) that copyright ownership is being transferred, often ownership remains with the independent contractor.  So if you are hiring an independent contractor, absent a written agreement, just because you paid for something doesn’t automatically mean that you own it!

How to distinguish an employee from an independent contractor?  Generally, the difference is the amount of control.  For an independent contractor, whoever is paying can control the work result, but generally not how the work is done.  By contrast, even an employer who gives his employees freedom still has the legal right to specify how the work is done.

Regardless of work arrangement, it is always a good idea to work out the issues of who is going to own what in writing and in advance.  For employees, spell this out with a proprietary information and inventions agreement. For independent contractors, negotiate and sign an agreement on these issues before starting work.  This topic often comes up in due diligence.

Sending Alice to Planet Blue

Planet Blue -- Neptune perhaps?
Planet Blue — Neptune perhaps?

Forget “patent invalid because abstract”, the Planet Blue decision finds the real issue is preemption, and non-preemptive software claims are not abstract.

As previously discussed, in recent years the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) issued a series of confused rulings such as the “Alice” and “Mayo” decisions.  SCOTUS ruled that “abstract” inventions were not patentable, but didn’t define “abstract”, thus making the issue very subjective and bringing much confusion to software and biotech patents.

Fortunately, perhaps realizing that they did more harm than good, SCOTUS has recently started to decline further cases of this type.  They are apparently now leaving it to the Federal Circuit (the court right below SCOTUS) to clean things up.

Over the past few months, the Federal Circuit has initiated a number of damage control efforts, including their “Enfish”, “Bascom”, and “Rapid Litigation” decisions.  Now with another case, “Mcro, Inc. v. Bandi Namco Games, we have still more damage control. (Mcro calls itself “Planet Blue”, so we will call this the “Planet Blue” decision.)

The “Planet Blue” patent involved some improved methods of lip synchronization for animated cartoons, and their claims covered some novel but general rules to do this.  A lower court had originally invalidated these as being abstract, but the Federal Circuit reversed and said that the claims were OK.

As per their earlier Enfish decision, the Federal Circuit did not simply assume that software is “abstract” (under Alice step 1).  Instead, they asked the broader question, why is “abstract” a problem anyway?  As they interpreted it, “The concern underlying the exceptions to § 101 is not tangibility, but preemption.”  [Emphasis added]

Some history about patents and “preemption”: Back in1853 Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph, tried to get a claim for the use of electromagnetism for any method of printing characters or signs. However, this particular claim omitted any other details. The 1853 SCOTUS said “no”, because claims where “it matters not by what process or machinery the result is accomplished” (e.g. are preemptive) are not going to be allowed.

In Planet Blue, the Federal Circuit (possibly giving up on the more recent rulings as being hopelessly confused), has essentially gone back to the 1853 Morse case for some coherent guidance.  The Federal Circuit ruled that with regards to the Planet Blue claims, “The claim uses the limited rules in a process specifically designed to achieve an improved technological result in conventional industry practice… Claim 1 of the ’576 patent, therefore, is not directed to an abstract idea.” In other words, this passes Alice “step 1”, and you get a free “get out of abstract patent eligibility rejections” card.

The big win here is that “preemption” is a more objective issue, and by changing the analysis from “abstract” to “preemption”, we remove a lot of randomness from the patent process. To me, this looks like an important ruling, and good news for software patents, biotech patents, and indeed all types of patents.

Sovereign Immunity, Tribes, & IPR

tribal lands
Tribal lands in the US

A strange way to help immunize US patents from IPR attack has recently emerged – the “sovereign immunity defense”.

IPR attacks: Since the America Invents Act (ACA) went into effect in 2013, a popular way to invalidate patents has been to challenge them in Inter Partes Review (IPR) proceedings. IPR proceedings are a USPTO (Federal) Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) proceeding where challengers can argue that a given patent is not novel, or is obvious, in view of various published prior art.

Sovereign Immunity: The Eleventh Amendment to the US Constitution reads: “The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.”

Background: The University of Maryland (UMD) owned patent 7,635,386, covering a method of repairing cardiac valves. In May 2017, UMD successfully overcame an IPR challenge by arguing that UMD, as part of the State of Maryland, was therefore immune from the PTAB and IPR under the Eleventh Amendment (Sovereign Immunity).

OK… maybe so. Certainly UMD was able to cite various cases supporting their view. PTAB agreed and dismissed the challenge.

They did what? Allergan PLC, a multinational pharmaceutical company with its own patents to protect, decided to push this concept to the limit.  Allergan sold some of their patents to the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe (located in New York) and then immediately licensed the patents back again. In September 2017 Allergan then argued that since this tribe is also a sovereign government, “the tribe’s” patents also had sovereign immunity to IPR challenges!

Well, points for creativity! I don’t think anyone has ever thought of this angle before. Certainly the tribe was very happy to supplement its Casino business.

We will have to see how this plays out.  In terms of sovereignty, the tribes’ legal status, “domestic dependent nations”, is best described as “it’s complicated”. Has Allergan invented a new form of “patent laundering“? Patent law just took a bizarre turn.

While the courts sort this one out, enjoy the enclosed map of the continental US, showing the larger tribal lands in color. Are these the new frontier in creative patent law strategies?

Patents and national security

Spike, logo of national security satellite NROL61

Filing a patent with national security implications? Check your filing receipt for a foreign filing authorization before filing outside the US.

After you file a US patent application, the USPTO will send you a filing receipt. On page two of this receipt, you will usually find the words: “If Required, Foreign Filing License Granted: [date]”.

What does this mean? Welcome to the interesting rules involving patents and national security.

Under the Invention Secrecy Act of 1951, the US government has the right to classify patent applications that, in the opinion of the USPTO, may pose a threat to the security of the US. In effect, the USPTO subjects every new patent application to at least a cursory security review. Think of it as a patent application TSA (airport style) inspection.

The vast majority of all applications will pass through the security review quickly, and those that pass will get the “Foreign Filing License Granted” clearance. But occasionally, something catches the interest of the national security review staff. For example, I can pretty much guarantee that a patent application for “Improved methods for detecting stealth aircraft” will get a very careful national security review!

What if you are planning to also file your invention outside the US? Doing a foreign patent filing without proper advance approval is much like trying to jump a TSA line. Folks get excited, and unfortunate things may happen. At a minimum, you could easily lose the US patent rights on your invention.

The amount of security review can vary depending upon world events. For example, after 9/11, it appears as if an unusually large amount of scrutiny took place. Scrutiny may also vary according to what areas of technology are considered sensitive at any given time.

So the take-home lesson, which is particularly relevant for US inventors of patent applications with potential dual-purpose civilian/military uses, is to look for that “Foreign Filing License Granted” small print before filing outside the US. Alternatively, if there has been a delay, file a PCT application through the USPTO, rather than filing directly outside the US.

Rapid Litigation: Biotech patent win

Cleaning up a legal mess
Rapid Litigation v Cellzdirect: Federal Circuit cleaning up a patent mess

In Rapid Litigation v Cellzdirect, the Federal Circuit has further cleaned up the patent eligibility mess caused by SCOTUS’s Alice and Mayo decisions.

In 2012 and 2014, the Supreme Court (SCOTUS), which wanted to invalidate a few pesky financial and medical diagnostics patents, decided to use legal “nuclear weapons” rather than legal “fly swatters“.  The SCOTUS legal nuclear weapons were the now infamous two-step “abstract material” patent eligibility test.  Step 1 of this test is summarized below:

Step 1) Determine if the patent is directed to “abstract” subject material.  If not then congratulations, the patent passes this test and is patent eligible.  

SCOTUS refused to define “abstract material”. This allowed the USPTO and the lower courts to run amok and start randomly invalidating patents. This, in turn, started to damage US biotech and software startups, which need patents to get funding, as well as for protection from larger competitors.

The Federal Circuit, one step below SCOTUS, and charged with cleaning-up patent law, waited several years for SCOTUS to correct itself, to no avail.  However, their recent (mid-2016) series of patent eligibility decisions, first Enfish, then Bascom, now Rapid Litigation (Celsis) v Cellzdirect suggest that the Federal Circuit is now getting serious about damage control.

“Abstract” is just as undefined for biotech as it is for software, but for biotech, it seems have more of a “natural law-ish” flavor.  Arguably a technologically illiterate approach since everything involves natural laws, but alas SCOTUS has no STEM majors.

Fortunately, some Federal Circuit judges are STEM majors, and they have the power to do at least some damage control by providing official interpretations/clarifications of SCOTUS decisions. Here they clarified that in step 1, “directed to” is not the same thing as “involving”.

The patent in this case, 7,604,929, was about an improved method of freeze storing liver cells (cryopreservation of hepatocytes).  Before the patent, everyone in the field believed that freezing damages living cells, and that multiple freeze-thaw cycles should be avoided.  The inventors discovered that some hepatocytes were resistant to this problem, and used this discovery to invent an improved hepatocyte cryopreservation method.  This method first freeze-thawed the cells, then used a density gradient to select for the freezing resistant cells, and then refroze these resistant cells again, producing very freeze resistant hepatocytes.

An earlier court had ruled this patent invalid by arguing that discovering that some hepatocytes could survive multiple freeze-thaw cycles involved a “law of nature”. However, the Federal Circuit pointed out that “involved” isn’t enough grounds to invalidate a patent, because the ‘929 methods also claimed other steps, such as using density gradients.  So “directed to” is more than just “involves“.

This Federal Circuit decision makes it harder to invalidate biotech patents, at least in the most common cases where the claims also have other steps in addition to the “natural law” steps.  The fact that the ‘929 claims were relatively simple helps to further clarify the legal issues.

Bascom: another Alice software win

Bascom - fish delivering mail
Bascom – fish delivering mail

The Bascom court decision helps software patents by suggesting that step 2 of the Alice test should follow established obviousness rules.

US software patents got another win from the Federal Circuit Court this week.  This court, which has a Congressional mandate to clarify patent law, made an important clarification to the Alice (software patent killer) “abstract subject matter” test in the Bascom v AT&T case (Bascom).

As you may recall from our last “Enfish” episode, the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) “Alice” decision created a judge-ordered incoherent two-step test that any given patent must pass in order to be patent eligible under 35 USC 101 rules.  To simplify:

Step 1) Determine if the patent is directed to “abstract” subject material.  If not then congratulations, the patent passes this test.  

Step 2) But if the patent is found to be “abstract” in step 1, then determine if the patent contains “something extra” beyond just “abstract” subject material.  If there is nothing extra, then reject the patent as being “abstract”.   

The Federal Circuit is one step down from SCOTUS.  The Federal Circuit doesn’t have enough clout to overrule SCOTUS, but does have enough clout to overrule the USPTO and the lower courts.  More importantly, the Federal Circuit has both the clout and mandate to “clarify” SCOTUS decisions.

The USPTO and the lower courts were often ignoring Alice step 1 and just assuming that a patent had “abstract” subject matter. The previous Federal Circuit “Enfish” decision pointed out that this was improper.  By contrast, the newer Federal Circut “Bascom” case is now clarifying that another common practice, just asserting that the patent fails Alice step 2 because it lacks an undefined “something extra”, isn’t right either.

More specifically, in Bascom, the Federal Circuit pointed out that based on earlier SCOTUS decisions (e.g. Mayo v. Prometheus, which SCOTUS used for “Alice”), Alice step 2 tests if the claim is “well-understood, routine or conventional”.  According to the Federal Circuit’s interpretation, SCOTUS was probably thinking about something similar to an obviousness test.   The Federal Circuit also pointed out that there are well-established rules for establishing obviousness, which the USPTO and the lower courts were (also) ignoring.

Specifically, the Bascom case was an appeal of a lower court decision that had earlier found the Bascom patent claims to be “abstract” and therefore invalid.  The lower court’s arguments (in simplified form) were that the Bascom patent claim language words described conventional computer pieces, and therefore the Bascom claims failed Alice step 2 due to lack of “something more”.  

In Bascom, the Federal Circuit Court, after “clarifying” Alice by pointing out that SCOTUS’s Alice step 2 resembled an obviousness test, then pointed out that the lower court had failed to follow established rules to determine obviousness (35 USC 103 rules).  These 35 USC 103 rules require that the combination of the pieces and the motive for combining the pieces also be considered.  Here conventional pieces, arranged in a non-conventional way, are often not obvious.

The Federal Circuit then looked at the Bascom claims, determined that they were not obvious, and (again somewhat simplifying) therefore had “something more” that satisfied step 2 of the Alice test.  They then overruled the lower court and found the Bascom patent to be “not abstract” and therefore valid under 35 USC 101.

If this holds up, the Bascom decision could almost bring some sanity to the Alice test.  Stay tuned…