Written opinions of counsel are gaining renewed interest as a valuable tool for avoiding enhanced damages for willful patent infringement following the Halo decision. A written opinion may set forth the factual and legal basis for finding a third party patent not infringed, invalid, and/or unenforceable. However, to be effective, the timing of the opinion may be critical.
The United States Supreme Court today overturned a $400 million verdict in a highly-publicized and long-waged patent battle between Apple and Samsung. Samsung Elcs. Co., Ltd. v. Apple Inc., 580 U.S. __ (Dec. 6, 2016). In doing so, it addressed design patents for the first time in 130 years and held that damages in design patent cases do not necessarily need to be based upon the profits made from a whole end product sold to a consumer, but may be limited to a component of that product. Nonetheless, the Court’s unanimous opinion, penned by Justice Sotomayor, may raise more questions than it answers.
Since the Supreme Court decision in Halo Electronics v. Pulse Electronics came down earlier this year (as previously discussed here), district courts across the country have been grappling with the high court’s new standard for determining willful infringement and awarding enhanced damages in patent cases. In the District of Massachusetts, only one case to date has interpreted this new standard, Trustees of Boston University v. Everlight Electronics Co., Ltd.
Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in the case of Halo Electronics, Inc. v. Pulse Electronics, Inc., once again changing patent law by loosening the standard by which district courts may award enhanced damages under 35 U.S.C. § 284. In so doing, the Court discarded the two-part test set forth by the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in In re Seagate Technology, LLC, 497 F.3d 1360 (Fed. Cir. 2007). The so-called Seagate test first requires that the patentee show by clear and convincing evidence that an infringer’s actions were objectively unreasonable. If this burden is met, the patentee must then prove that the infringer subjectively knew or should have known that its actions risked infringing a valid patent. If a patent holder is able to meet both prongs of the test, any enhancement of damages is subject to the discretion of the district court. Appellate review of such determinations involves a tripartite standard, in which the determination of objective recklessness is reviewed de novo, the determination of subjective knowledge is reviewed for substantial evidence, and any award of enhanced damages is reviewed for abuse of discretion.
To date, the Supreme Court has granted certiorari (commonly referred to as cert) to five patent-related cases this term, which will result in three oral arguments likely to be decided before the end of the term. Two of the cases were consolidated into a single argument, while another case was subject to a Grant-Vacate-and-Remand (GVR) order, meaning the previous decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) has been vacated by the Supreme Court and the case must be reconsidered by the CAFC. There are also over 20 pending Petitions for Writ of Certiorari, which may result in additional patent matters being heard by the Court this term.
Most patent owners are aware that under 35 U.S.C. § 154(d), publication of a United States patent application confers provisional rights to the patent owner. The provisional rights allow an owner to collect damages for infringement of issued claims dating back to the date of publication provided that the claims are substantially similar to the claims that are included in the published application. It can often be difficult for a patent owner to prove that issued claims are substantially similar to published claims. However, even if a patent owner is able to prove claim similarity from publication to issuance, a further obstacle to collect pre-issuance damages was solidified by the Federal Circuit recently in Rosebud LMS v. Adobe Systems—the statutory requirement of actual notice. In the recent Federal Circuit decision, the Court found that constructive notice was insufficient to meet the actual notice requirement under 35 U.S.C. § 154(d), and that instead a patent owner must prove the infringer was actually aware of the patent at issue.
On October 19, 2015, the Supreme Court consolidated and granted certiorari in Halo Electronics, Inc. v. Pulse Electronics, Inc., et al. and Stryker Corporation, et al. v. Zimmer, Inc., et al., both of which concern enhanced patent infringement damages under 35 U.S.C. § 284. At issue in both cases is the question of whether the Federal Circuit is correct in requiring a willfulness finding under the rigid, two-part Seagate test to award enhanced damages. Under Seagate, finding willfulness requires the patentee to prove that an infringer acted “despite an objectively high likelihood that its actions constituted infringement” and that such risk was known, or should have been known, to the infringer. The question of this test’s propriety is particularly ripe given the Supreme Court’s decision in Octane Fitness, LLC v. ICON Health & Fitness, Inc. during its last term, where a similarly rigid test for imposing an award of attorney’s fees was rejected in favor of a more flexible and discretionary determination.
Last week, a sharply divided Federal Circuit, acting en banc (6-5), decided SCA Hygiene Products Aktiebolag v. First Quality Baby Products, LLC to the delight of accused infringers. Laches remains a defense to damage claims in patent infringement cases, even for damages sustained within six years before filing suit, despite the Supreme Court’s decision last year in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., which eliminated that defense for damage claims in copyright cases. The Federal Circuit also overruled prior precedent and held that laches may bar prospective injunctive relief. As a result, patent owners should put alleged infringers on notice and not wait to pursue their claims.
Maximizing the protection and value of intellectual property assets is often the cornerstone of a business's success and even survival. In this blog, Nutter's Intellectual Property attorneys provide news updates and practical tips in patent portfolio development, IP litigation, trademarks, copyrights, trade secrets and licensing.