A Conversation on Patent Eligibility

Earlier this fall, I had the opportunity to do a webinar conversation with Bob Stoll, former Commissioner for Patents at the USPTO and current partner at Drinker Biddle in Washington, D.C.  Our wide-ranging discussion lasted for just over one hour. You can access the entire recording, free, at Patent Eligibility in a Time of Patent Turmoil.

What follows is a bit of our conversation to whet your appetite.

STOLL: As someone very interested in the patent arena and getting the standards correct, I’ve been really worrying about things. I think we are in a very confusing state at the moment. I think that the courts are actually undermining patent eligibility in many different areas. And the irony seems to be, Gene, that the Supreme Court and now this Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit seem to be not considering the fact that the United States is leading in many of these emerging technologies and specifically thinking about software and diagnostic methods and personalized medicine and gene sequences….

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Collateral Estoppel Prevents Reexam Claim from being Enforced

On November 19, 2014, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued a decision in e.Digital Corporation v. Futurewei Technologies, Inc. e.Digital appealed from a judgment of non-infringement made by the U.S. Federal District Court for the Southern District of California. The district court based its determination of non-infringement on the fact that e.Digital was collaterally estopped from seeking a construction of a claim limitation in e.Digital’s U.S. Patent Nos. 5,491,774 and 5,839,108 different from another court’s previous construction of the same limitation in the ’774 patent.

The Federal Circuit, with Judge Moore writing and joined by Judges O’Malley and Reyna, held that the district court correctly applied collateral estoppel to the ’774 patent, but improperly applied the doctrine to the unrelated ’108 patent.

To understand the ruling in this case one must first look at the prior case that construed the critical claim. Previously, in a litigation in the United States Federal District Court for the District of Colorado, e.Digital asserted claims 1 and 19 of the ’774 patent. The ’774 patent discloses a device with a microphone and a removable, interchangeable flash memory recording medium that allows for audio recording and playback. Asserted claims 1 and 19 recited “a flash memory module which operates as sole memory of the received processed sound electrical signals.” The district court construed the sole memory limitation to require “that the device use only flash memory, not RAM or any other memory system” to store the “received processed sound electrical signals.” The district court based its construction on the written description of the ’774 patent and its determination that the use of RAM had been disclaimed during prosecution. With this claim construction decided, the parties stipulated to a dismissal of the case with prejudice.

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FTC Stops Deceptive Patent Demand Letters

In a move reminiscent of the action taken earlier this year by NY Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, the Federal Trade Commission last week  announced that MPHJ Technology Investments, LLC, agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that they used deceptive sales claims and phony legal threats in letters that accused thousands of small businesses around the United States of patent infringement. As is typical for FTC settlements, the proposed consent order was published in the Federal Register and public comments have been solicited. The proposed consent order will be subject to public comment for 30 days, continuing through December 8, 2014, after which the Commission will decide whether to make the proposed consent order final. Interested parties can submit written comments electronically or in paper form. Although the FTC will accept these comments, in my experience, when an enforcement settlement has gotten to this stage, we can expect the proposed settlement to become final.

The settlement with MPHJ is the first time the FTC has taken action using its consumer protection authority against a patent assertion entity (PAE). Perhaps most significantly, in the announcement of the settlement, the FTC acknowledged that patents promote innovation, which is a simple enough truth. Still given recent FTC inquiry into the industry, this statement from the Obama Administration could signal that the FTC will take actions only against outliers and not the bulk of the industry, which operates legitimately to enforce valid patents.

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Willful Infringement Center Stage at Federal Circuit

The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit recently issued a unanimous panel decision in Halo Electronics, Inc. v. Pulse Electronics, Inc. This decision may have more far-reaching implications for patent reform than any other decision reached by any court in recent memory. The issue of particular interest in this case was willful infringement, and in a concurring opinion, Judges O’Malley and Hughes wrote that the majority was constrained by the Federal Circuit’s precedent in In re Seagate and Bard Peripheral Vascular v. W.L. Gore, but that recent Supreme Court decisions call into question the continued viability of that precedent. As such, Judges O’Malley and Hughes urged the Federal Circuit to reconsider en banc the standard for awarding enhanced damages under 35 U.S.C. 284.

The case came to the Federal Circuit on an appeal by Halo Electronics, Inc. (“Halo”), who appealed from multiple decisions of the United States District Court for the District of Nevada. First, Halo appealed the granting of summary judgment that Pulse Electronics, Inc. and Pulse Electronics Corp. (collectively “Pulse”) did not sell or offer to sell within the United States the accused products they manufactured for delivery to buyers outside the United States. Second, Halo also appealed the granting of summary judgment that Pulse did not directly infringe Halo’s U.S. Patents 5,656,985 (the “’985 patent”), 6,297,720(the “’720 patent”), and 6,344,785 (the “’785 patent”) (collectively “the Halo patents”). Finally, Halo appealed the holding that Pulse’s infringement of the Halo patents with respect to certain accused products that Pulse sold and delivered in the United States was not willful.

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Failure to Argue Waives Infringement on Proper Claim Construction

Recently, the Federal Circuit issued a decision in CardSoft v. Verifone, in which the Court overturned the district court’s claim construction. Overturning a district court’s claim construction is hardly unusual, and perhaps more typical than it really should be. What was unique about this particular case was that the Federal Circuit also went on to rule that CardSoft had waived any argument that the defendants had infringed under the correct claim construction, as a matter of law.

CardSoft filed this patent infringement suit in March 2008 against VeriFone, Inc., VeriFone Systems Inc., and Hypercom Corp. (collectively, “Defendants”), asserting infringement of U.S. Patent Nos. 6,934,945 (“the ’945 patent”) and 7,302,683 (“the ’683 patent”). The district court held a Markman hearing in July 2011 and conducted a jury trial in June 2012. The jury determined that certain of the Defendants’ devices infringed claim 11 of the ’945 patent and claim 1 of the ’683 patent and that these claims were not invalid. The Defendants moved for a new trial and for judgment as a matter of law, but the district court denied both motions.

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