Mar
13

Patent Licensing Agreements: Ensuring They Won’t Thwart the Patentee’s Rights to Damages in a Later Patent Infringement Lawsuit

Attorneys often categorize themselves as either only transactional or only litigation attorneys. The fact is that legal documents, whether drafted by a transactional attorney specifically retained to draft an agreement or “grabbed off” the Internet, may become the subject matter” of a lawsuit, either directly as in a breach of contract claim or indirectly as where an agreement fails to properly address statutory requirements pertinent to the contact.   The latter situation is discussed in the Federal Circuit Court of Appeal’s Feb. 19, 2020 decision in Arctic Cat, Inc., v. Bombardier Recreational Products, Inc.

Arctic Cat is the owner of two patents directed towards thrust steering systems for personal watercraft (“PWCs”). Although it initially sold the inventions before the patents had issued, Arctic Cat later entered into a license agreement with Honda for several patents including the PWC patents.  Somewhere along the licensing negotiating process, the provision requiring Honda, as the licensee, to mark all licensed patented products with the applicable patent numbers was deleted.  The final version even expressly stated that Honda had no marking obligations.  This provision was contrary to the requirements of 35 U.S.C. § 287 and case law involving the interpretation of that statute.

Section 287(a) provides in pertinent part:

Patentees, and persons making, offering for sale, or selling within the United States any patented article for or under them, or importing any patented article into United States, may give notice to the public that the same is patented . . . by fixing thereon the word “patent” . . . . In the event of failure so to mark, no damages shall be recovered by the patentee in any action for infringement, except on proof that the infringer was notified of the infringement and continued to infringe thereafter, in which event damages may be recovered only for infringement occurring after such notice. Filing of an action for infringement shall constitute such notice.

The notice provision of § 287 does not apply to patents directed to processes or methods. Nor does it apply if a patentee never makes or sells a patented article; such a patentee may recover damages even absent notice to an alleged infringer.  On the other hand, the patentee who either directly sells the patented article or indirectly introduces into the market through a licensee, cannot collect damages until it either begins providing notice or sues the alleged infringer.  Any resultant damages are limited to the period after notification.  A patentee can cure the marking dilemma by beginning to mark (or have the licensee mark) its products in accordance with § 287.

The public policy behind § 287 is threefold: to (1) help avoid innocent infringement; (2) encourage patentees to give public notice that the article is patented; and (3) aid the public to identify whether an article is patented.   Arctic Cat at 8 citing Nike, Inc. v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 138 F.3d 1437, 1443 (Fed. Cir. 1998).   Failure of a patentee to inform the public that an article is patented is deemed problematic because of its potential to mislead others into believing they are free to make and sell an article that is actually patented and then finding themselves on the receiving end of a patent infringement lawsuit.

The statute also actually provides incentive to the patentee to sell marked products so as to maximize its damages in any subsequent patent infringement lawsuit by a “knowing” infringer. That is, the marking statute imposes notice obligations on the patentee.  Whether or not the alleged infringer may have had mere knowledge that unmarked patented articles were actually patented is irrelevant.  A patentee who does not comply with the marking statue cannot later claim entitlement to “willful infringement” damages without establishing that the alleged infringement had been put on proper notice.

The duty to mark is not limited to the patentee but is also imposed on any licensee or assignee. Arctic Cat at 6.   The licensing/assigning patentee has to demonstrate that it made reasonable efforts to ensure any third parties’ compliance with § 287 to the satisfaction of the court.  Inexplicably, the licensing agreement between Arctic Cat and Honda expressly stated that Honda had no obligation to mark the patented PWCs.   As such, in its later filed infringement lawsuit, Arctic Cat was in no position to argue that it had made reasonable efforts to ensure labeling.  The “wrong” provision included within the patent licensing agreement with Honda executed years before proved fatal from a damages maximization perspective.

And this begs the question:  Who drafted that licensing agreement and why was the original provision referencing marking deleted?  Did Arctic Cat’s authorized representative understand the implications of what he was signing?  Did its transactional attorney explain the consequences?

From our perspective, the Arctic Cat decision drives home the point that a faulty transactional agreement may well mess up a party’s rights in a future lawsuit.  Faulty agreements can range from unartful, overly verbose, and ambiguous wording to provisions that are inexplicably contrary to federal and/or state statutory requirements and public policy.  The latter should never happen at least when a transactional attorney is involved.  Any such attorney must have a thorough understanding of the legal area the agreement involves to determine how much latitude may be incorporated into the agreement without running afoul of governing law.  Failure to do so denotes sloppy work.

The commentator handles both legal disputes involving intellectual property rights including patents and drafts and negotiates complex licensing and assignment agreements.  In my opinion the preferred approach to drafting these and other types of agreements is to draft with an eye toward future litigation whether between the parties to the agreement or a third party as in the Arctic Cat case.  Such agreements should also be drafted by an attorney with experience in the subject matter.

Considering licensing your intellectual property? Contact us to see how we can provide value to you or your company from drafting the licensing agreement from scratch through negotiating the draft (or a previously existing draft) with the other party to the agreement.  Our services including taking care to explain the agreement in detail to our clients and providing a summary of the agreement’s provision to provide for ready reference.  

WE HOPE YOU FIND THE ARTICLE INSTRUCTIVE.  HOWEVER, THE INFORMATION PRESENTED IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE AND IS PROVIDED FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY.

© Troy & Schwartz, LLC 2020

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