Archive for the ‘Contract Law’ Category

Oct
11

THE SECOND CIRCUIT’S RECENT DECISION IN HORROR, INC. v. MILLER – FRIDAY THE 13TH 40 YEARS LATER

This September 2021 decision addresses complex aspects of Copyright Law involving both copyright ownership issues and termination rights wherein the Creator of a work can reclaim rights in an originally assigned copyright 35-40 years after the work’s assignment.  The commentator has previously posted blogs discussing the importance of properly categorizing the work’s Creator as a work-for-hire under the Copyright Act.   Failure to do so may result in a situation wherein the plaintiff in a copyright infringement case may actually not be the owner of the registered copyright. Under such circumstances, a copyright infringement case may be dismissed because the plaintiff, as a non-owner, may not have standing to sue for copyright infringement.

The public policy underlying the Copyright Act’s termination right under 17 U.S.C. § 203 is to give Creators a second chance when the work they licensed or sold (assigned) becomes more valuable than anticipated. Improper classification of the Creator also impacts a Creator’s termination rights because the Creator of a work-for-hire cannot invoke a termination right. Disputes over termination rights often turn on an analysis of the nature of the Creator’s relationship to the work.

The defendant in Horror (Victor Miller) was the screenplay writer of the 1980 horror movie “Friday the 13th”.   The screenplay was created for Manny, Inc. which later transferred its copyright in Miller’s screenplay to Georgetown Productions, Inc.  It was Georgetown Productions that registered the screenplay as a work-for-hire.  The rights were later acquired by Horror, Inc.  In 2016, Miller notified both the “first” company which had retained his screenplay writing services decades before and Horror, Inc. that he planned to exercise his termination rights.

Horror filed an action in the U.S. District Court of Connecticut, seeking a declaration that the screenplay was a work-for-hire by an employee and not subject to termination. The district court disagreed with Horror’s position, finding that Miller had instead been an independent contractor and the screenplay did not qualify as a work-for-hire.  Horror appealed. The Second Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision.

Employment Status Analysis

In arriving at its “independent contractor” conclusion, the Second Circuit discounted the plaintiffs’ position that Miller had been an employee at the time he wrote the screenplay.  The plaintiffs’ argument focused on Miller’s membership in the Writers Guild of America (WGA) at the time he was hired to create the screenplay as grounds for his designation as an employee and the registered work’s classification as a work-for-hire.   Miller’s original agreement with Manny was conducted under a collective bargaining agreement governing WHA’s writers and signatory employers like Manny.

The Second Circuit concluded that Horror wrongly relied on labor law’s framework defining “employee.” Instead, Copyright law controls the analysis; its concept of employment is grounded in the “common law of agency” and serves different purposes from labor law.

The Second Circuit relied on the Supreme Court’s 1989 seminal case of Community for Creative Non-Violence v. Reid where the High Court laid out the scope of employment framework for establishing copyright ownership under 17 U.S.C. § 102.   In discussing CCNV, the Second Circuit noted that “the Copyright Act uses a more restrictive definition of employment” in order to protect authors whereas labor law construes employment broadly “to serve workers and their collective bargaining interests and establishing rights” including safety and pay rights.  Thus, Miller’s membership in the WGA and Manny’s status as a signatory employer to their collective bargaining agreement did not create an employment relationship that converted the screenplay into a work-for-hire.

In determining that Miller was an independent contractor who had the right to terminate Horror’s copyright, the Second Circuit considered CCNV’s enumerated factors for establishing whether the Creator of the work was indeed an employee:

  • Miller’s previous screenwriting employment and graduate degree in theater established his expertise and skill in screenwriting requiring little oversight/direction;
  • Manny, Inc. never provided Miller with typical employment benefits such as health insurance of paid vacation time;
  • Manny, Inc. never withheld or deducted any taxes or social security payments from the two lump sums he received for his screen-writing services.
  • Nothing in Miller’s employment agreement with Manny, Inc. could be construed as granting Manny the right to assign additional projects.
  • Miller was the only person credited as the screenplay writer.

Certain types of commissioned works may also qualify as a work-for-hire under the Copyright Act when the Creator is an independent contractor and not an employee but only if the Creator and the commissioning party have both signed an agreement stating that the work is a work-for-hire. Additionally, the work must fall into one of the Copyright Act’s nine enumerated classifications for this type of work-for-hire.  Screenplays are not one of the enumerated classifications. Here, the agreement between Manny and Miller never specified that the screenplay would be a work-for-hire.  Even if the screenplay would have qualified as one of the enumerated classifications, the absence of the required agreement eliminated any chance of establishing the screenplay as a work-for-hire under the “independent contractor” scenario.

As a result of the Second Circuit’s decision, Miller now has the right to terminate his copyright.  He will presumably try to negotiate a licensing agreement seeking royalties commensurate with the movie franchise’s success.

Comments

Copyrights enjoy a long lifetime but  nobody has a crystal ball.  Parties who are contemplating obtaining the rights to a copyrighted work(s) should consider the money-making potential with the knowledge that the work’s Creator (including his/her estate) could seek to terminate the copyright 35-40 years into the future. Parties who are acquiring the rights as a successor-in-interest should consider the possibility of termination and determine if the work was a bona fide work-for-hire: 1) by an employee; or 2) via a “work for hire” agreement signed by both the Creator/independent contractor and the hiring party for certain classifications of works.   Why?  Because a “true” work-for-hire is not eligible for termination.  On the other hand, independent contractors may not wish to have their work designated as a work-for-hire and instead assign the rights in return for monetary compensation to preserve their termination rights.

As the Horror decision shows, a registration which specifies a work as a work-for-hire does not necessarily make it so. Had this been a copyright infringement lawsuit brought by Horror against another party, chances are that an astute copyright infringement attorney would have challenged Horror’s ownership and standing as the owner of the registered copyright.  Why?  Because the Creator was never an employee.  Nor would the work  have likely qualified as a work-for-hire under the “independent contractor” alternative provided for under the Copyright Act.

Copyright law is complex even though at first blush it appears relatively simple due to the ease of completing a copyright registration application.  However, numerous pitfalls abound for the unwary and even the issuance of a registration does not mean that the registration is absolutely immune from problems as the Horror decision demonstrates.

Copyrights can be extremely valuable intellectual property assets.  Make sure you understand the pitfalls to avoid problems down the road where your ownership may be questioned or the Creator may have the right to exercise termination rights.   Contact us for a complimentary consultation on your copyright matters.

 

WE THANK YOU READING THIS BLOG AND HOPE YOU FOUND IT INFORMATIVE.  HOWEVER, THE CONTENT IS PROVIDED FOR INFORMATION ONLY AND DOES NOT CONSTITUTE LEGAL ADVICE OR AN ATTORNEY-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP.  

 

©2021

Troy & Schwartz, LLC

Where Legal Meets Entrepreneurship™

(305) 279-4740

 

 

Apr
17

The Next Frontier in Patent Law – Can Artificial Intelligence Qualify as an Inventor?

On April 5th, a federal judge in the U.S. District Court of Virginia heard summary judgment arguments on this very issue in Thaler v. Iancu.  Thaler brought this action to challenge the current legal definition of inventorship of patent applications after the United States Patent & Trademark Office had rejected two of his patent applications for failing to identify a person as inventor in non-compliance with the Patent Statute’s statutory requirements.  Instead, he had named an artificial intelligence (AI)-based system, DABUS, as the inventor and disavowed any notion of being named a sole or at least a joint inventor.  Thaler may well have brought as a test case given AI’s increasing role in R&D in industries ranging from the life sciences to chemistry to engineering.

The judge is expected to rule in favor of the USPTO on the basis of the patent statute’s definition of inventor which states:  “The term “inventor” means the individual or, if a joint invention, the individuals collectively who invented or discovered the subject matter of the invention.”  Any change in the definition of inventor to include AI will require intervention by Congress.

The issue is not, however, as simple as expanding the definition to include the AI.  For example, an Inventor must contribute to the conception of the invention.  As the Manual for the Procedure for Examining Patents (MPEP) states, “[t]he threshold question in determining inventorship is who conceived the invention.  Unless a person contributes to the conception of the invention, he is not an inventor.”  MPEP § 2019.

In understanding the legal definition of inventorship, it is important to understand that the inventor is not required to reduce the invention to practice.  “Difficulties arise in separating members of a team effort, where each member of the team has contributed something, into those members that actually contributed to the conception of the invention, such as the physical structure or operative steps, from those members that merely acted under the direction and supervision of the conceivers.”  MPEP § 2019 citing a 1991 case from the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences.

Can AI spontaneously conceive of an invention without any human input or is it actually being directed to reduce a human-inputted concept to practice?  Under this scenario, AI cannot be an inventor even if the definition for inventor is expanded to include AI.

Additionally, assignment of patent rights is a common practice.  Generally, any scientist or engineer employed by a company is required to execute and assignment of any patent rights resulting from his or her endeavors to the company-employer.  The company generally files the patent application as the assignee wherein the inventors must always be named.  Another common patent assignment scenario is one where the inventor, as the patent owner, assigns another person, often a business entity, to commercialize the patent.   Patent licensing is another common business transaction surrounding issued patents.   These routine contractual business transactions will clearly become complicated if AI is allowed to be named as an inventor.  Why? Because the party to an agreement must have the requisite intent to enter into the agreement.   Can AI have that requisite invent to assign its patent rights or enter into a licensing agreement?

Other considerations include:  1) An AI machine’s ability to have standing to sue or be able to testify as the inventor in a patent infringement lawsuit; 2) Ownership rights in any resulting patentable invention if the AI machine was designed by an independent person and purchased by the inventor.  Here, any purchase contracts should unequivocally state that any resulting patentable technology resulting from the usage of the AI machine belongs to the purchaser of that machine.  But what if the AI machine is named as the inventor?  The point is that any such contracts involving AI must be carefully tailored to anticipate possible scenarios.

This commentator is not in favor of having AI named as an inventor perhaps because of a bias in favor of the human brain as the ultimate source of creativity and ingenuity.  Instead, Congress should first address the upheaval in intellectual property law caused by simply bad court decisions in U.S. patent law concerning patent eligibility under § 101 and just this month, the questionable application of the fair use doctrine in a copyright law case.  Click here for a link to the blog on the copyright case.  There is also no question that human ingenuity is what created AI in the first place and that AI is here to stay.

As an alternative to complicating the patent law business transactions that are so essential to acquiring investment funding and commercially exploiting patented inventions, a separate statute for thoughtfully addressing the unique aspects of AI-involved inventions is suggested.  This suggestion of a separate patent classification has precedent through plant patents and design patents – types of patents that are separate and distinct from utility patent applications, the very type of patent application at issue in the Thayer case.

THANK YOU FOR YOUR INTEREST IN THIS BLOG.  AS USUAL THE CONTENT IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY AND IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE.

 

Intellectual property law is a complex area of the law.  Contact us at 305-279-4740 for a complimentary consultation on protecting your inventions, creative works, brands, and proprietary information through patents, copyrights, trademarks and trade secrets or our litigation services involving intellectual property disputes.   We represent both individuals and business entities.  Our mission is to serve innovators and creators in protecting the fruits of their hard work and ingenuity through our Client Services Creed:  Conscientious, Rigorous, Energic, Empathetic, and Diligent legal services. 

 


© 2021 by Troy & Schwartz, LLC

 

 

 

Apr
03

COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT OF CONTENT EMANATING FROM INTERNET RSS FEEDS

In MidlevelU, Inc. v. ACI Information Group, Case No. 20-10856 (11th Cir. Mar. 3, 2021) (Pryor, J.), the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals addressed copyright infringement issues involving Internet technology.  The case originated in the Southern District Court of South Florida, a court which is likely to increasingly be the venue for “high tech” intellectual property cases as a result of the influx of technology companies to South Florida.  The case is of interest because: 1) it involved an implied license defense in the context of RSS feeds; and 2) the issue as to whether non-registered works could be considered in determining statutory damages for registered works.

Case Background

MidlevelU published a free blog designed to attract potential customers in the midlevel healthcare market. MidlevelU made the full text of its blog articles (instead of only headlines and article summaries) available in an RSS feed. ACI is a content aggregator that subscribed to the blog’s RSS feed. ACI copied and published more than 800 entries from MidlevelU’s blog by including those articles in a curated index of abstracts and full-text articles of academic blogs. ACI had no license agreement with MidlevelU.

After discovering the ACI’s activities, MidlevelU registered 50 of its most recent articles for copyright protection with the US Copyright Office. Registration of a copyrighted work is a prerequisite for a commencing a copyright infringement lawsuit in all federal courts since the Supreme Court’s March 2019 holding in Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com.   MidlevelU also sent ACI a cease-and-desist letter demanding that its content be removed from ACI’s index. ACI removed the content from the index and coded links to index entries for MidlevelU’s articles so that they would redirect to the MidlevelU’s website. Months later, MidlevelU discovered that, although its content was no longer available on the index website, it still appeared in the website repositories of university libraries. These entries credited ACI as the content’s publisher and directed visitors to view the blog’s full-text content in the “subscribers only” section of the blog aggregator’s (ACI’s) website.

MidlevelU sued ACI in the Southern District of Florida alleging copyright infringement of the registered articles. ACI asserted an implied-license defense.  Under the implied license doctrine, the alleged infringer argues that he had permission to use the copyrighted material even though there is no clear contract; a license may be implied where a judge or jury believes that the opposing parties would have made a contract if they turned their minds to it.  Copyright law has adopted a similar approach in terms of licenses to use a copyright work if it seems like the parties would have created a license under the circumstances. An implied license, if it exists, must, by definition, be non-exclusive because U.S. copyright law requires exclusive licenses to be in writing.

The 11th Circuit’s Holding

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of judgment as a matter of law against an alleged copyright infringer on its implied-license defense, finding that a blog operator’s publication of entire articles through a really simple syndication (RSS) feed does not give rise to an implied license without substantial evidence showing an intent to grant a license.  The decision is of interest because of its a discussion of Latimer v. Roaring Toyz, Inc. , a 2010 decision by the 11th Circuit, which set forth a test for establishing implied licenses in work-for-hire situations.  Relying on Latimer, the district court had concluded that ACI did not have an implied license.

The 11th Circuit found that the district court read Latimer too broadly by applying its holding outside of the work-for-hire context, but the Court nevertheless affirmed the district court’s decision because a jury could not have reasonably inferred from the evidence that the MidlevelU impliedly granted a license to ACI. The Court noted that it had never held that the Latimer test was the only way to prove an implied license. An implied license may arise from circumstances outside of work-for-hire situations: “Creating material at another’s request is not the essence of a license: an owner’s grant of permission to use the material is.”

ACI’s arguments to try and establish an implied license were found to be disingenuous because only when an owner clearly manifests consent to use copyrighted material is a non-exclusive implied license created.  Citing Field v. Google, Inc., a 2006 Nevada district court which involved copyright infringement allegations in the search-engine web crawler context, ACI argued that an implied license arose because the MidlevelU did not code its website to tell aggregators such as itself not to copy or display its content.  In other words, ACI blamed the blogger for not proactively warning aggregators to not copy or display content.

Without deciding whether Latimer was correctly decided, the 11th Circuit rejected ACI’s theory. The Court reasoned that although the ACI relied on a “web crawler” case, it failed to produce any evidence that it actually used a web crawler to collect the blog’s content. Rather, the evidence showed that ACI collected content by grabbing it through the blog’s RSS feeds.  “Implied permission to enter through a front door (web crawler) does not also imply permission to enter through a back window (RSS feed).”

Similarly, the Court found that MidlevelU’s affirmative steps to disseminate the full text of its articles through its RSS feed—rather than only summaries or headlines—did not give rise to an implied license. ACI failed to introduce evidence of, for example, an industry practice that would allow a jury to infer that disseminating content through an RSS feed without restrictions implies permission to copy and publish that content on another website.

The only evidence before the jury related to personal use of RSS-distributed content. This evidence constituted testimony that MidlevelU set up its RSS feed to make its content easier for readers to access, and testimony that RSS is used as an alternative to a web browser to read content—i.e., an RSS feed stores the articles received from a website, and a human then reads the articles through an RSS reader. The Court rather sarcastically explained that “[i]mplied permission to enter the front door to shop (read content through an RSS reader for personal purposes) does not imply permission to enter and throw a party (sell computer-generated summaries paired with [software] showing the full-text content).”

The Court also found that the district court did not err by instructing the jury that it could consider unregistered articles in its calculation of statutory damages for the registered works; the district court did not abuse its discretion by denying the aggregator’s motion for a new trial on the basis of the jury’s statutory-damages award; the district court did not err by failing to consult with the register of copyrights about the alleged fraud on the copyright office; and aggregator is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law on its fair-use defense.

Regarding the statutory damages award which totaled over $200,000, the 11th Circuit emphasized that the hundreds of unregistered blogs could be used to support a finding of willful infringement.   Regarding the court’s failure to consult with the register of copyrights, whether or not a district court must consult with the Register of Copyrights on a matter involving the defendant’s allegations of fraud on the copyright office, the process generally requires the district court to grant the defendant’s motion to submit the matter to the copyright office.

Finally, ACI’s actions over the years hardly constituted fair use.  The Fair Use Doctrine authorizes the copying of both published and unpublished works without obtaining permission under the following “guideline” scenarios:

  • Connection with criticism or comment on the work.
  • In the course of news reporting.
  • For teaching purposes.
  • As part of scholarship or research activity.

Defendants in Internet Copyright Infringement cases often allege Fair Use as a defense as did ACI.  Each situation is evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Here, the 11th Circuit stated that “[c]opying an entire work militates against Fair Use.”  Substantial copying occurred because ACI provided substantive access to its subscribers to the full text-content of the plaintiff’s blogs through iFrames.  MidlevelU at 29.

Comments

This case is a well-deserved win for the blogger.  The courts will continue to tackle copyright infringement against the backdrop of Internet technology which makes copyright infringement easier than ever before.  It is recommended that content creators register at least some of their works within 90 days of publication so that they will be the beneficiary of certain statutory benefits including statutory damages.  Here, the plaintiff chose statutory damages in lieu of having to prove actual damages (which can be extremely difficult to do) because she had met the 90 day window.   Otherwise, she would have had to prove her actual damages.  We presume she was also awarded attorney fees and costs at least to some extent as the statute allows if the 90 day window is met.   This decision also paves the way to use unregistered works to help establish a reasonable damages for infringement of registered works especially where the infringement was willful.

THANK YOU FOR YOUR INTEREST IN THIS BLOG.  AS USUAL THE CONTENT IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY AND IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE.

 

Intellectual property law is a complex area of the law.  Contact us for a complimentary consultation on protecting your inventions, creative works, brands, and proprietary information through patents, copyrights, trademarks and trade secrets or our litigation services involving intellectual property disputes.   We represent both individuals and business entities.  Our mission is to serve innovators and creators in protecting the fruits of their hard work and ingenuity through our Client Services Creed:  Conscientious, Rigorous, Energic, Empathetic, and Diligent legal services. 

© 2021 by Troy & Schwartz, LLC

9415 SW 72nd Street, Suite 119, Miami, Florida 33176

Ph: (305) 279-4740

 

 

 

Jan
13

NON- DISCLOSURE AGREEMENT WORDING:  THE POTENTIAL TO IMPACT THE OUTCOME OF A PATENT-INFRINGEMENT LAW SUIT

These days, Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) templates are readily available on-line, often free-of-charge, making them an attractive alternative for many.  The problem with these templates is they are not necessarily applicable to the contracting parties’ unique circumstances and/or do not properly anticipate dealings between the parties. A poorly drafted, one-size-fits-all NDA can make or break a patent-infringement case many years into the future.   These assertions are supported by the Dec. 7, 2020 decision in Sionyx, LLC v. Hamamatsu Photonics K.K. by the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC).

In Sionyx, the CAFC concluded that the district court mistakenly concluded that it lacked authority to compel the transfer of ownership of foreign patents from Hamamatsu Photonics, K.K. (Hamamatsu) to Sionyx, LLC (Sionyx).  Moreover, the lower court abused its discretion in distinguishing between the U.S. and foreign patents at issue in the case. The CAFC affirmed the district court on most other issues, including that Hamamatsu breached its non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with Sionyx, and that Sionyx was entitled to co-inventorship and sole ownership of the U.S. patents, as well as damages and an injunction.

The decision is largely based on the NDA signed by the parties in 2006.  This blog discusses the decision and emphasizes that an NDA can have consequences years later.  As the decision demonstrates, had the NDA lacked certain wording, Sionyx may well not have prevailed.

Background

In 1998, Professor Eric Mazur and his student, James Carey, discovered a novel process for creating “black silicon.” The two inventors filed a provisional patent application on May 25, 2001, from which U.S. Patent 8,080,467 ultimately issued, among other patents. Four years later in 2005, the inventors founded Sionyx and met with Hamamatsu – a company that produces silicon-based photodetector devices – a year later.  The two companies entered into an NDA to share confidential information for the purpose of “evaluating applications and joint development opportunities of pulsed laser process doped photonic devices.”

The NDA stipulated that a party receiving confidential information “shall maintain the information in strict confidence for seven years after the expiration of the agreement, after which the receiving party may use or disclose the confidential information.”  Commentator’s emphasis. The NDA also said that the receiving party of confidential information acknowledged that the disclosing party claims ownership of the information and all patent rights “in, or arising from” the confidential information.  Commentator’s emphasis.   The NDA also required that all confidential information received must be returned within 30 days of the termination of the agreement.  The term of the NDA was three years.

Hamamatsu and Sionyx worked together for about two years, at which time Hamamatsu said it wished to develop its products alone. Surprisingly, Sionyx did not request the return of any confidential information from Hamamatsu.  Hamamatsu began developing its own products and emailed Sionyx in 2009 to alert the company that it would be releasing a new photodiode at an upcoming exhibition that it did not believe infringed Sionyx’s IP or breached the confidentiality obligations. Hamamatsu then filed Japanese patent applications for photodetector devices and later filed in several other countries, including the United States, claiming priority to the Japanese patents.

One of Simony’s customers alerted the company to Hamamatsu’s U.S. patents five years later, in 2014.  When discussions between the two company’s failed, Sionyx sued Hamamatsu in the District of Massachusetts for (1) breach of contract; (2) unjust enrichment; (3) infringement of the ’467 patent; and (4) the equitable relief to transfer the foreign to Sionyx and name Carey as an inventor.

District Court Declines to Transfer Foreign Patents

A jury found in favor of Sionyx, awarding almost $800K for breaching the NDA in February 2009, when it first referred to Sionyx’s confidential information in an internal report, and almost $600K in damages for unjust enrichment. The jury also found that Carey should be added as a co-inventor to the U.S. patents. At the post-trial motion stage, the district court then granted Sionyx sole ownership of the disputed U.S. patents, injunctions on Hamamatsu’s accused products practicing those patents and the ’467 patent, pre- and post-judgment interest on damages for breach of contract, and pre-judgment interest on damages for unjust enrichment. The court denied Sionyx’s motions for ownership of the disputed foreign patents because it was uncertain that it had jurisdiction to grant ownership of foreign patents and because Sionyx had failed to adequately identify the foreign patents for which it was requesting ownership.

Sionyx appealed the district court’s decision to refrain from transferring the foreign patents.  The CAFC agreed with Sionyx, holding that “the evidence that established Sionyx’s right to sole ownership of the Disputed (Hamamatsu) U.S. Patents also applies to the Disputed Foreign Patents.” The decision added:

As we discussed above with respect to the Disputed (Hamamatsu) U.S. Patents, we agree that the jury’s findings compel the conclusion that those patents arose from Sionyx’s confidential information and that Hamamatsu has not shown that it contributed [its own] confidential information entitling it to joint ownership. And because the Disputed U.S. Patents claim priority from Hamamatsu’s Japanese patent applications, the Japanese applications must be for the same inventions as the Disputed U.S. Patents. See 35 U.S.C. § 119(a). Thus, Hamamatsu’s Japanese patent applications and any applications claiming priority from the Japanese applications in other countries must also have arisen from Sionyx’s confidential information.

Simply put, the CAFC found that Hamamatsu’s Japanese and U.S. patents emanated from Sionyx’s confidential information which Hamamatsu became privy to under the terms of the 2005 NDA.  According to the court, Hamamatsu itself never provided its own confidential information to Sionyx, which might have justified joint inventorship of the patent with Cary as the jury had concluded.

Abuse of Discretion Standard

Accordingly, Sionyx was entitled to sole ownership of the Japanese applications and any foreign applications claiming priority therefrom. The CAFC further explained that “it is well established that courts have authority to compel parties properly before them to transfer ownership of foreign patents, just as they would any other equitable remedy,” since such an order is “an exercise of the court’s authority over the party, not the foreign patent office in which the assignment is made.” As such, the district court abused its discretion in distinguishing between the two groups of patents.

The CAFC denied Sionyx’s motion for fees under 35 U.S.C. § 285 on cross-appeal, declined to address the issue of willfulness, and affirmed the following findings by the district court: a) Hamamatsu breached the NDA; b) Sionyx is entitled to the damages and pre-judgment interest awarded by the jury, as well as post-judgment interest at the statutory rate for its breach of contract and unjust enrichment claims; c) Carey is a co-inventor of Hamamtsu’s U.S. Patents; Sionyx is entitled to an injunction prohibiting Hamamatsu from practicing its U.S. Patents for breach of the NDA; and d) Sionyx is entitled to an injunction prohibiting Hamamatsu from practicing its 467 patent.

Conclusions

The outcome may well have been different had the NDA not “directed” the ownership of all future patents emanating from Sionyx’s confidential information to Sionyx.   Furthermore, any resulting patent relying on confidential information emanating from both parties should have designated both Cary and an Hamamtsu inventor as joint inventors no matter where the patent applications were filed.  Inventorship does not, however, mean that the inventor(s) is also the owner(s) of the patent.  Generally, R&D and engineering personnel who work for companies assign any patent rights they may have over to their employer-company (e.g., Hamamtsu).  Or, where inventors establish a business entity, the inventors often assign their patent-related interests over to the company as part of their capital contribution.  (e.g., Sionyx).

As this case illustrates, an NDA can be a critical factor in determining patent (and other IP) ownership.  An NDA should be tailor-made for the particular situation at hand with particular emphasis on protecting the disclosing party which is often an individual inventor or a small start-up company.  Anticipate problems into the future since patents in particular can take several years to issue meaning that infringement lawsuits, patent ownership disputes, etc. may occur many years down the road.  It is also important that the disclosing party take steps consistent with protecting its confidential information upon early termination of the NDA or expiration by time.  For example, it is not clear why Sionyx did not insist on the return of all its confidential information when Hamamatsu indicated negotiations were over.

Take Home Points

1. Do not presume a generic NDA template will adequately protect your interests.  An NDA should reflect the parties’ particular situation and the nature of their business relationship under which confidential information may be disclosed.

2. Know and follow the procedures required of you and your company in the NDA as the Disclosing or Receiving Party.

Contact Susan at 305-279-4740 on matters related to your NDA to ensure it addresses potential scenarios consistent with the particular circumstances involving the contracting parties.   We are here to serve you and answer your questions related to intellectual property & business law in both transactional matters and litigation.  Check her reviews at AVVO.com where she has received Client’s Choice Badges for both 2019 and 2020.  She is a registered patent attorney.

WE THANK YOU FOR READING THIS BLOG AND HOPE YOU FOUND IT INFORMATIVE.  HOWEVER, THE CONTENT IS PROVIDED FOR INFORMATION ONLY AND DOES NOT CONSTITUTE LEGAL ADVICE.

 

©2021

Troy & Schwartz, LLC

Where Legal Meets Entrepreneurship™

(305) 279-4740

 

 

Sep
27

DON’T LET A FAULTY SPECIMEN UNDERMINE THAT TRADEMARK APPLICATION!

 Posted by Susan Dierenfeldt-Troy, Esq.

Troy & Schwartz, LLC

Where Legal Meets Entrepreneurship™

Have a question on specimens for your filed trademark application after reading this blog? We can help ensure the specimens you file will meet the USPTO’s requirements so that your registration will actually issue if the other requirements are met. Our trademark law legal services include: prosecuting trademark applications;  representing clients before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board; and representing clients in trademark infringement lawsuits.

 Call us at 305-279-4740 (Miami, Florida) for a complimentary consultation.

So your proposed trademark has met the USPTO’s two threshold requirements for registration:  1) there is no likelihood of confusion with existing registered marks; and 2) the mark is not merely descriptive or generic.  Nevertheless, the examining attorney has refused registration because the applicant’s provided specimens, required for demonstrating usage of the mark in commerce, do not meet the USPTO’s requirements.   This commentator has previously blogged on this topic and is doing so again because there seems to be a lot of confusion over the importance of specimens to the trademark registration process.

Indeed, as a trademark attorney, I have found that specimens are often the most misunderstood requirement for obtaining a registered trademark.  That’s why our firm’s trademark legal services involve advising clients about specimen requirements from the get go.  At times, we have advised clients to modify their specimens before we submit them to the USPTO in a 1A application.  For intent-to-use applications where specimens are not filed with the application but will be required if the mark receives a Notice of Allowance (a preliminary approval of a pending specimen) we work with clients to ensure that they will have suitable specimens commensurate with USPTO requirements for “goods” marks and “services” marks when the Statement of Use is filed.  This may include reviewing the Client’s website and recommending layout changes so “specimen” screen shots will meet the USPTO’s specimen requirements.  Additionally, we ensure that all submitted specimens clearly identify the applicant as the provider of the goods/services, another essential specimen requirement.

The specimen requirement is no joke.  Between Sept. 17 and Sept. 23, 2020, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“Board”) affirmed the decisions by three USPTO examining attorneys who had all refused registration on unacceptable specimen grounds for three different trademarks.  All three applicants ended up spending a lot on legal fees only to be denied registration of their marks upon appeal.  The following summarizes the three decisions and the commentator’s practice tips.

The case: In re Iguana Yachts.    Here the mark was a “goods” mark with following description: “Boats; amphibious vehicles; professional boats, and professional amphibious vehicles in the fields of security, military rescue, and transport of goods and people.”  The submitted specimens comprised a banner, a business card, and a website extract with a “custom build quote form.”   The Board concluded that there was no evidence that the banner or business card were displayed or distributed at tradeshow, i.e. the specimens were not actually used in interstate commerce as point-of-sale displays.  Likewise, there was no evidence as to how the quote form was used to actually place orders on the website for the specified goods.  In essence, the provided specimen were mere advertisements.  Advertisements may be suitable for service marks but are never suitable for goods marks.

Practice Tip.   Ensure that a specimen submitted for a good(s) is not mere advertising.  If the specimen represents a point-of-sale display, a customer must have either the ability to buy the good right there or to be able to place an order for the good associated with the mark.  That is, the specimen must show how the mark is being used in interstate commerce by the applicant.  The mark must also be displayed prominently to ensure that a potential customer identifies the mark with the good.   Here, perhaps the website could have been easily amended to provide for a website-related point of sale display before the specimen was ever submitted to the USPTO.   All specimens must also specify the applicant as the provider of the goods/services.  This requirement is in keeping the trademark law’s focus on the consumer – the consumer has the right to know who is providing the good/service under the mark.

The case:  In re Charlie’s EnterprisesEnergy, LLC.     Here the slogan mark was for food goods:  “Peas, fresh; Vegetables, fresh.”  The specimen consisted of “[a] picture of the proposed slogan in use on a semi-trailer wrap.”  Additionally, the mark presented in the application did not match the display on the truck.   The applicant argued that the wrap was a form of packaging.   Indeed, packaging can serve as a goods specimen as long as it shows the mark AND the source of the goods, generally the manufacturer or distributor.  Here the Board held that a trailer wrap is not a common packaging for vegetables even though a trailer wrap may be a common way of displaying the mark associated with bulk goods (such as lumber).

Practice Tip.  Ensure that the submitted specimen is the type commonly used for the particular good.  Additionally, ensure that the specimen’s mark and the mark shown in the application are equivalent.  All specimens must also show the source of the goods as the following decision again demonstrates.   Perhaps this registration could have been saved if the trailer wrap had at least showed the applied-for mark in its entirety.  However, if the goods being transported were sealed in packages for sale at, e.g., a grocery store, a photo showing the packaging with the required info would likely have been accepted.

The case: In re Systemax, Inc.    This case involved the situation where the specimens submitted for a service mark application failed to show an association between the mark and the application’s recited services. The specified services were for “holding company service, namely, providing business management, business administration, and human resource management services to subsidiaries and affiliates.”  The applicant submitted copies of annual reports and website screen shots which failed to show an association between the mark and the recited holding company services.   As such, the Board agreed with the examining attorney and the mark was not registered.  This commentator notes that any website screen shot being submitted as a service mark specimen should clearly show the mark on each and every page where a description of the service is presented.  Additionally, the applicant, as the service provider, should be readily discernable.  Annual reports, invoices, business plans, and the like are not specimens for trademark registration services.

Practice Tip.  This case is a perfect example of how any thorough trademark attorney will first carefully review the applicant’s website before submitting any screenshots as specimens.  If deficiencies are found, the attorney should advise the client to amend the layout of the website and/or the content before screen shots are submitted as specimens.

 

THANK YOU FOR YOUR INTEREST IN THIS BLOG.  AS USUAL THE CONTENT IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY AND IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE.

May you and your loved ones stay safe & be well during these challenging times.


© 2020 by Troy & Schwartz, LLC

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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