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Willful Patent Infringement: Lingering Questions

A version of this article previously appeared in Landslide magazine (Vol. 14, Issue 4, June/July 2022), published by the ABA Intellectual Property Law Section.

Introduction

What are the minimum requirements to establish enhanced damages for patent infringement after the passage of the America Invents Act (AIA) and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Halo, and what evidence can be presented on this point? Post-Halo cases reveal areas of ambiguity and dispute. Some dispute involves willfulness theories falling close to the line between reckless conduct sufficient to establish willfulness and merely negligent conduct that is not willful. But a lingering ambiguity is how 35 U.S.C. § 298 may exclude from willful patent infringement certain conduct that might be considered reckless—and thus willful—in other areas of tort law. For whatever reason, § 298 has received little attention or treatment, which has even led to decisions contrary to that statutory provision.

A Brief History of Willfulness

Let us begin with some context for how willfulness has evolved in patent law.[i] Damages enhancement is governed by 35 U.S.C. § 284, even though the term “willful” does not explicitly appear there. In the early 1980s, the Federal Circuit established an affirmative duty of due care and an adverse inference of willfulness if the accused infringer did not both obtain advice of counsel and waive privilege to present an advice of counsel defense.[ii] Decades later, the Federal Circuit abolished the adverse inference in Knorr-Bremse.[iii] Then it abolished the affirmative duty of due care in Seagate, substituting a two-prong willfulness analysis requiring “objective recklessness” as a prerequisite.[iv] In the aftermath of those cases, the AIA introduced § 298, which prohibits use of the failure to obtain advice of counsel or make an advice of counsel defense to establish willfulness (or inducement).[v]

In 2016, the Supreme Court in Halo threw out the “objective recklessness” prerequisite, finding its “inelastic constraints” insufficient to allow courts to punish “the full range of culpable behavior.”[vi] The Court held that “culpability is generally measured against the knowledge of the actor at the time of the challenged conduct.”[vii] Therefore, “[t]he subjective willfulness of a patent infringer, intentional or knowing, may warrant enhanced damages, without regard to whether his infringement was objectively reckless.”[viii] The Court discussed how reckless conduct supports punitive damages where willful intent is required while merely negligent conduct does not, clarifying that “a person is reckless if he acts ‘knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable man to realize’ his actions are unreasonably risky.”[ix] The abrogated “objective recklessness” threshold had allowed classically reckless conduct to be exonerated by after-the-fact rationalizations, which meant that some reckless conduct was inappropriately shielded from punitive enhanced damages.[x]

Later Federal Circuit cases have interpreted Halo as abrogating the “objective recklessness” requirement in a relatively narrow way but leaving intact much other pre-Halo case law,[xi] which presents challenges for anyone trying to parse out the way older cases may have been abrogated only in part but are potentially still controlling as to other aspects. The Federal Circuit has maintained that “willfulness” is a question of intent involving the accused infringer’s state of mind that is for the finder of fact (jury) to decide,[xii] and knowledge of the asserted patent is a prerequisite to a finding of willfulness.[xiii] After willfulness is established, the question of enhancement of damages is then a question for the court (rather than jury) to decide[xiv]—though a willfulness verdict does not automatically entitle the patentee to enhanced damages.[xv] But a court’s discretionary moral judgment regarding enhancement does not depend on any preceding factual finding of a particular state of mind or level of intent of the infringer.[xvi]

District court decisions post-Halo have begun to explore the minimum requirements to plead and then introduce evidence of willfulness, though the Federal Circuit has not yet reached some of the new theories definitively. These various new theories address what it means to subjectively “have reason to know” that accused conduct presents an unreasonable risk of patent infringement in the absence of direct evidence that the accused party actually knew about the patent and that there was a high probability its conduct infringed, as well as the effect of the accused taking affirmative steps to avoid learning of such facts.[xvii]

New Theories of Willful Infringement

First, a number of district courts have found “willful blindness” to be an acceptable theory of willful patent infringement. Motiva from the Eastern District of Texas is perhaps the most widely known of these cases, holding that “[s]ince the Supreme Court has explained that willful blindness is a substitute for actual knowledge in the context of infringement, it follows that willful blindness is also a substitute for actual knowledge with respect to willful infringement.”[xviii] Willful blindness has two basic requirements: (1) the accused must subjectively believe that there is a high probability that a fact exists, and (2) the accused must take deliberate actions to avoid learning of that fact; these two requirements mean willful blindness has a limited scope that surpasses recklessness and negligence.[xix] To avoid dismissal, patentees must make “plausible” willfulness allegations regarding both requirements for willful blindness.[xx]

What has generated much discussion about willfulness theories relying on willful blindness is the role of “no patent review” corporate policies that (at least on paper) bar employees from reviewing competitor patents.[xxi] Yet the mere existence of such a “no patent review” policy is not per se sufficient to plead willful blindness for willful infringement unless there is also a plausible allegation that the accused party subjectively believed a high probability of patent infringement existed.[xxii] In practical terms, this means there must be something more than simply a blanket corporate policy that applies to any and all (competitor) patents and that “something more” must plausibly suggest a culpable state of mind with regard to infringement of the asserted patent.

Second, some courts have addressed other theories—distinct from “willful blindness”—that an accused infringer should have reasonably known about the asserted patent. For example, district courts are divided about whether actual knowledge of an unasserted family-related patent coupled with an allegation that the accused should have investigated that patent family to discover the asserted patent—such as a broader continuation or broadening reissue—is sufficient to support willfulness.[xxiii] At times, these other theories appear uncomfortably close to the old, abrogated affirmative duty of due care.[xxiv] These other theories seem less stringent and more expansive than willful blindness, partly because they fall close to the boundary between negligence and recklessness but also because decisions on these theories often contain little or no discussion of why the accused had reason to know that there was infringement of a later-issued patent and not merely reason to know that the later-asserted patent existed.[xxv]

Statutory Limits on Evidence of Willfulness under § 298

But what about § 298? A curious feature of many post-Halo willfulness cases is how little that section introduced by the AIA is discussed or even cited by courts when dealing with issues to which it directly relates, namely the relevance of evidence under the second Read factor: “whether the infringer . . . investigated the scope of the patent and formed a good-faith belief that it was invalid or that it was not infringed.”[xxvi] This is most troubling when courts proffer reasoning based on case law that was abrogated by § 298 (if not also by Seagate). Section 298 states:

“The failure of an infringer to obtain the advice of counsel with respect to any allegedly infringed patent, or the failure of the infringer to present such advice to the court or jury, may not be used to prove that the accused infringer willfully infringed the patent or that the infringer intended to induce infringement of the patent.”[xxvii]

There can be no question that § 298 excludes certain evidence from use to prove willfulness, including (1) the failure to consult an attorney and (2) the decision to maintain privilege over advice received from counsel. Yet an asymmetrical framework remains: the accused infringer is still free to obtain a legal opinion and later voluntarily present an advice of counsel defense based on that legal advice,[xxviii] but a “decision not to seek an advice-of-counsel defense is legally irrelevant under 35 U.S.C. § 298.”[xxix]

The key effect of § 298’s framework has to be that “having reason to know” for a (recklessness) willfulness theory must be limited to what the accused infringer reasonably should have known at the time without the assistance of counsel. The scope of the accused party’s (subjective) knowledge of the intricacies of patent law will vary considerably, though. For instance, lay parties might reasonably believe that broader later-issuing patents or reissues are not likely or that something like prosecution laches would apply to them.[xxx] This subjective knowledge may be difficult to even infer from circumstantial evidence in situations in which the accused did obtain advice of counsel but chooses not to waive privilege and not to make an advice of counsel defense based on that advice. And mere speculation on this point is generally inadequate. Moreover, as one district court held, attempts to suggest what the accused knew based on privileged communications not in evidence may be improper as a “disguised” attempt to circumvent the limits set forth in § 298.[xxxi] In a somewhat counterintuitive way, § 298 provides two distinct incentives to obtain advice of counsel because an accused party can either waive privilege in such advice and present an advice of counsel defense or maintain privilege and later potentially shield certain state of mind inquiries or inferences implicating that (maintained) privilege.[xxxii]

Does a Duty of Due Care Still Exist? And Does It Matter?

Seagate abrogated the affirmative duty of due care; but when Halo later abrogated the “objective recklessness” standard, a question arose as to the impact of Halo’s abrogation of the abrogation of the duty of due care.[xxxiii] The Federal Circuit has not explicitly weighed in on this point, and no Federal Circuit case since Halo mentions the term “duty of due care” at all. On the one hand, § 298 makes the existence or nonexistence of a judicially created duty of due care less important. But a real question remains about how patentee use of the second Read factor against an accused infringer may now be abrogated in whole or part. Can an accused party’s failure to conduct a nonlegal investigation of some sort regarding an asserted patent be used to establish willfulness today?

Worth mentioning at the outset is the Federal Circuit’s Broadcom case regarding induced infringement. There, despite the abolishment of the duty of due care, “[b]ecause opinion-of-counsel evidence, along with other factors, may reflect whether the accused infringer ‘knew or should have known’ that its actions would cause another to directly infringe, . . . such evidence remains relevant.”[xxxiv] This is not at all straightforward. At first blush, failure to meet an abolished/nonexistent duty of due care hardly seems relevant, logically if not legally. But in any event, the passage of § 298 abrogated precedent like Broadcom with regard to failure to obtain advice of counsel (or to present such a defense).[xxxv] But if the duty of due care only ever pertained to advice of counsel, then its abrogation (by statute or case law) might have left intact some separate due inquiry obligation under the second Read factor.[xxxvi]

Tending to complicate matters here are cases reaching conclusions plainly contrary to § 298, or reaching conclusions as to the boundaries and implications of that section without meaningful explanation. For instance, one district court ruled that “failure to produce . . . an opinion for trial can be considered as a factor in the jury’s determination of willfulness.”[xxxvii] Astoundingly, that court discussed old cases without any reference to their abrogation, and its ruling ended up permitting use of statutorily barred evidence for willfulness.[xxxviii] Moreover, a nonprecedential Federal Circuit decision discussed the second Read factor and found that a lack of investigation of asserted patents provided some evidence of willfulness, reaching that conclusion without discussing legal relevance limits under § 298.[xxxix]

Justice Breyer’s concurrence in Halo suggested that a nonlawyer analysis of an asserted patent might be enough to show a lack of willfulness,[xl] though the majority opinion was silent about that scenario. But that very issue came up in a district court case that held a willfulness verdict to be supported by evidence that “years of lucrative infringing sales [occurred] after failing to respond to the . . . licensing letter with a minimally adequate analysis of whether a license would be necessary,” which the court said was not prohibited by § 298 because the jury was instructed to disregard such matters, although the accused did try to present evidence of a nonlawyer invalidity analysis that the court excluded at trial.[xli] This illustrates the problem of courts too often suggesting what is in effect an adverse inference in jury instructions and then trying to immediately unring the bell by stating that no adverse inference of willfulness is permitted.

Yet a contradiction often remains. A more defensible formulation is that a jury’s inferences of knowledge of the asserted patent and of infringement can support a willfulness finding in the absence of countervailing evidence. That is, an accused infringer simply runs a greater risk of a willfulness finding if no advice of counsel defense or the like is pursued to rebut willfulness allegations because a jury can properly infer minimally sufficient knowledge and intent even in the absence of direct evidence on those points, and this does not require going so far as to assign any probative value to a failure to act. There is an important difference between willfulness being inferred from unrebutted circumstantial evidence and the failure to act (e.g., to investigate or seek legal advice) itself being treated as positive evidence of willfulness.

It is fair to distinguish the possibility of the accused making a nonlawyer analysis or inquiry defense to a charge of willfulness from an affirmative duty to do so. On its face, § 298 bars patentees from arguing about failures to obtain or present “advice of counsel” evidence.[xlii] But nothing in the literal text of § 298 bars evidence of a failure to conduct a lay investigation of an affirmative claim of infringement. Yet excluding evidence of nonlawyer investigations or analyses by the accused runs against Justice Breyer’s Halo concurrence, if not also the implicit framework of § 298.

In these senses, the question of what evidence is relevant and what, if any, quasi “duty of due care” investigation/analysis requirement remains under the second Read factor becomes significant. While cases have relied on investigative failures to support willfulness, the reasoning and justifications for such conclusions are often shaky at best or simply stated in a confusing manner. Courts will need to sort this out more definitively. But, for their part, patent litigation counsel need to be more consciously aware of these issues so they can be raised and argued when appropriate.

Key Takeaways

  • Post-Halo, the Federal Circuit applies a two-step process to claims for enhanced patent infringement damages under § 284: willfulness is initially a question for the finder of fact, and then subsequent enhancement, if any, is at the court’s discretion.
  • Failure to obtain or present an opinion of counsel cannot be used to prove willfulness, though obtaining an opinion can still be valuable to rebut charges of willful infringement; however, the value or necessity of nonattorney patent infringement and validity investigations is not yet clear.
  • “Willful blindness” has been accepted by many district courts as a willfulness theory, but at the outset it requires plausible pleadings about the accused’s subjective belief that there was a high probability that the asserted patent both existed and was infringed and that the accused took deliberate actions to avoid learning of those facts; “no patent review” policies may or may not meet all of those requirements.
  • District courts are divided over whether willfulness can be plausibly supported by a failure to monitor or investigate a patent family after learning about an unasserted patent in that family (in the absence of affirmative avoidance of facts akin to willful blindness).
  • Relevance limits under § 298 have often been overlooked by courts but should be considered for evidentiary objections and motion practice.
Photo of Austen Zuege

Austen Zuege is an attorney at law and registered U.S. patent attorney in Minneapolis whose practice encompasses patents, trademarks, copyrights, domain name cybersquatting, IP agreements and licensing, freedom-to-operate studies, client counseling, and IP litigation. If you have patent, trademark, or other IP issues, he can help.


[i]. See, e.g., Brandon M. Reed, “Who Determines What Is Egregious? Judge or Jury: Enhanced Damages after Halo v. Pulse,” 34 Ga. St. U. L. Rev. 389, 393–96 (2018).

[ii]. Underwater Devices Inc. v. Morrison-Knudsen Co., 717 F.2d 1380, 1389–90 (Fed. Cir. 1983) (“Where . . . a potential infringer has actual notice of another’s patent rights, he has an affirmative duty to exercise due care to determine whether or not he is infringing,” including “the duty to seek and obtain competent legal advice from counsel before the initiation of any possible infringing activity.”).

[iii]. Knorr-Bremse Systeme Fuer Nutzfahrzeuge GmbH v. Dana Corp., 383 F.3d 1337, 1345–46 (Fed. Cir. 2004) (en banc) (“Although there continues to be ‘an affirmative duty of due care to avoid infringement of the known patent rights of others,’ the failure to obtain an exculpatory opinion of counsel shall no longer provide an adverse inference or evidentiary presumption that such an opinion would have been unfavorable.” (citation omitted)).

[iv]. In re Seagate Tech., LLC, 497 F.3d 1360, 1371 (Fed. Cir. 2007) (en banc).

[v]. 35 U.S.C. § 298; see also Carson Optical Inc. v. eBay Inc., 202 F. Supp. 3d 247, 260–61 (E.D.N.Y. 2016) (§ 298 applies if the action is commenced on or after January 14, 2013); Halo Elecs., Inc. v. Pulse Elecs., Inc., 579 U.S. ___, ___, 136 S. Ct. 1923, 1936–37 (2016) (Breyer, J., concurring).

[vi]. Halo, 136 S. Ct. at 1933–34.

[vii]. Id. at 1933.

[viii]. Id. (citing Octane Fitness, LLC v. ICON Health & Fitness, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 1749, 1757 (2014)).

[ix]. Id.

[x]. Id. at 1932–35.

[xi]. E.g., WBIP, LLC v. Kohler Co., 829 F.3d 1317, 1341 (Fed. Cir. 2016); WesternGeco L.L.C. v. ION Geophysical Corp., 837 F.3d 1358, 1362 (Fed. Cir. 2016), reinstated, 913 F.3d 1067, 1075 (Fed. Cir. 2019); see also Halo, 136 S. Ct. at 1934–35.

[xii]. WBIP, 829 F.3d at 1341; Exmark Mfg. Co. v. Briggs & Stratton Power Prods. Grp., LLC, 879 F.3d 1332, 1353 (Fed. Cir. 2018) (“[T]he entire willfulness determination is to be decided by the jury.”); Eko Brands, LLC v. Adrian Rivera Maynez Enters., Inc., 946 F.3d 1367, 1377–79 (Fed. Cir. 2020).

[xiii]. WBIP, 829 F.3d at 1341; see also SRI Int’l, Inc. v. Cisco Sys., Inc., 930 F.3d 1295, 1310 n.6 (Fed. Cir. 2019) (when willfulness began is a factual issue).

[xiv]. Seventh Amendment questions remain regarding holdings that a jury cannot determine egregiousness of conduct. Compare WBIP, 829 F.3d at 1341 n.13, and Eko, 946 F.3d at 1378, with Halo, 136 S. Ct. at 1933 and n.*. See also United States v. Murdock, 290 U.S. 389, 394 (1933) (“willfulness” is a set of states of mind), overruled in part on other grounds by Murphy v. Waterfront Comm’n of N.Y. Harbor, 378 U.S. 52 (1964); Howard Wisnia & Thomas Jackman, “Reconsidering the Standard for Enhanced Damages in Patent Cases in View of Recent Guidance from the Supreme Court,” 31 Santa Clara High Tech. L.J. 461, 473–76 (2015). Yet punitive enhancement is a discretionary moral judgment, not a factual question. See Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S. 30, 52 (1983).

[xv]. Halo, 136 S. Ct. at 1933; Presidio Components, Inc. v. Am. Tech. Ceramics Corp., 875 F.3d 1369, 1382 (Fed. Cir. 2017).

[xvi]. But questions arise where the Federal Circuit appears to suggest that certain levels of intent can support willfulness but not enhanced damages, which seems contrary to Halo. See SRI Int’l, Inc. v. Cisco Sys., Inc., 14 F.4th 1323, 1329–30 (Fed. Cir. 2021); see also Austen Zuege, “The Federal Circuit’s Standard for Enhanced Damages,” blue over gray (Oct. 12, 2021). This apparent discrepancy might allow courts to moot a jury’s willfulness finding. See Schwendimann v. Arkwright Advanced Coating, Inc., No. 11-cv-820, slip. op. at 50 (D. Minn. July 30, 2018).

[xvii]. See, e.g., Bos. Sci. Corp. v. Nevro Corp., 415 F. Supp. 3d 482, 495 (D. Del. 2019).

[xviii]. Motiva Pats., LLC v. Sony Corp., 408 F. Supp. 3d 819, 837 (E.D. Tex. 2019) (citing Global-Tech Appliances, Inc. v. SEB S.A., 563 U.S. 754, 769 (2011)).

[xix]. Global-Tech, 563 U.S. at 769–70; Motiva, 408 F. Supp. 3d at 837 (“By definition, willful avoidance requires more than mere recklessness—and Halo holds that recklessness alone is enough to show willful infringement.”).

[xx]. Bos. Sci., 415 F. Supp. 3d at 494–95; Nonend Inventions, N.V. v. Apple, Inc., No. 2:15-cv-466, 2016 WL 1253740, at *3 (E.D. Tex. Mar. 11, 2016), adopted, No. 2:15-cv-466, 2016 WL 1244973 (E.D. Tex. Mar. 30, 2016).

[xxi]. E.g., Charlotte Jacobsen et al., “Does Willful Blindness Beget Enhanced Patent Damages?,” Law360 (Feb. 28, 2020).

[xxii]. Nonend, 2016 WL 1253740, at *3; VLSI Tech. LLC v. Intel Corp., No. 18-cv-966, 2019 WL 1349468, at *2 (D. Del. Mar. 26, 2019); Ansell Healthcare Prods. LLC v. Reckitt Benckiser LLC, No. 15-cv-915, 2018 WL 620968, at *7 (D. Del. Jan. 30, 2018).

[xxiii]. Compare Vasudevan Software, Inc. v. TIBCO Software Inc., No. C 11-06638, 2012 WL 1831543, at *3 (N.D. Cal. May 18, 2012) (“requisite knowledge of the patent allegedly infringed simply cannot be inferred from mere knowledge of other patents,” such as “the [parent] patent, or, more generally, [the plaintiff’s] ‘patent portfolio’”), and Maxell, Ltd. v. Apple Inc., No. 5:19-cv-00036, slip op. at 9-10 (E.D. Tex. Oct. 23, 2019) (dismissing willfulness allegation based only on knowledge of application and not ultimately issued patent or knowledge of allowance of application), with SIMO Holdings Inc. v. Hong Kong uCloudlink Network Tech. Ltd., No. 1:18-cv-05427, slip op. at 7–9 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 29, 2019) (rejecting Vasudevan), and Oxygenator Water Techs., Inc. v. Tennant Co., No. 20-cv-358, slip op. at 8–13 (D. Minn. Aug. 7, 2020), and SiOnyx, LLC v. Hamamatsu Photonics K.K., 330 F. Supp. 3d 574, 609 (D. Mass. 2018).

[xxiv]. E.g., Schwendimann, No. 11-cv-820, slip. op. at 42 (duty of due care remains abrogated); Biedermann Techs. GmbH & Co. KG v. K2M, Inc., 528 F. Supp. 3d 407, 429 n.17 (E.D. Va. 2021) (noting abrogation issues and not intending to impose duty of due care; allegations were similar to willful blindness).

[xxv]. E.g., Oxygenator Water Techs., No. 20-cv-358, slip op. at 8–13 (passing over willful blindness to find failure to monitor/investigate willfulness theory plausible); Meridian Mfg., Inc. v. C & B Mfg., Inc., 340 F. Supp. 3d 808, 844 (N.D. Iowa 2018). But see Halo, 136 S. Ct. at 1936 (Breyer, J., concurring) (“‘[W]illful misconduct’ do[es] not mean that a court may award enhanced damages simply because the evidence shows that the infringer knew about the patent and nothing more.”).

[xxvi]. Read Corp. v. Portec, Inc., 970 F.2d 816, 827 (Fed. Cir. 1992), abrogated in part on other grounds by Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 517 U.S. 370, 116 (1996).

[xxvii]. 35 U.S.C. § 298.

[xxviii]. Omega Pats., LLC v. CalAmp Corp., 920 F.3d 1337, 1353 (Fed. Cir. 2019); Ultratec, Inc. v. Sorenson Commc’ns, Inc., No. 13-cv-346, 2014 WL 4976596, at *2 (W.D. Wis. Oct. 3, 2014).

[xxix]. SRI Int’l, Inc. v. Cisco Sys., Inc., 930 F.3d 1295, 1309 (Fed. Cir. 2019); see also Halo, 136 S. Ct. at 1936–37.

[xxx]. See Cancer Rsch. Tech. Ltd. v. Barr Labs., Inc., 625 F.3d 724, 728–32 (Fed. Cir. 2010).

[xxxi]. Oil-Dri Corp. of Am. v. Nestle Purina Petcare Co., No. 15-C-1067, slip. op. at 5–6 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 8, 2019).

[xxxii]. See id. In contrast, enhanced damages were affirmed where the infringer delayed obtaining advice of counsel for years. Arctic Cat Inc. v. Bombardier Recreational Prods. Inc., 876 F.3d 1350, 1371 (Fed. Cir. 2017). There, legal advice was (eventually) obtained and privilege waived, but the delay was held against the infringer.

[xxxiii]. See supra note xxiv.

[xxxiv]. Broadcom Corp. v. Qualcomm Inc., 543 F.3d 683, 699 (Fed. Cir. 2008) (holding that “failure to procure . . . an opinion [of counsel] may be probative of [subjective] intent”).

[xxxv]. 35 U.S.C. § 298.

[xxxvi]. See SRI Int’l, Inc. v. Advanced Tech. Labs., Inc., 127 F.3d 1462, 1464–65 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (“[T]he primary consideration is whether the infringer, acting in good faith and upon due inquiry, had sound reason to believe that it had the right to act in the manner that was found to be infringing.” (emphasis added)). Broadcom is still cited without mentioning its statutory abrogation. Omega Pats., 920 F.3d at 1352–53. Compare Broadcom, 543 F.3d at 699, with 35 U.S.C. § 298.

[xxxvii]. Visteon Glob. Techs., Inc. v. Garmin Int’l, Inc., No. 10-cv-10578, slip op. at 13–17, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 109564 (E.D. Mich. Aug. 18, 2016).

[xxxviii]. Compare id., with 35 U.S.C. § 298.

[xxxix]. WCM Inds., Inc. v. IPS Corp., 721 F. App’x 959, 970, 970 n.4 (Fed. Cir. 2018) (nonprecedential) (questioning cases suggesting no duty to predict what claims will issue from a pending patent applicable because prosecution histories are now normally publicly available); see also SIMO Holdings, No. 1:18-cv-05427, slip. op. at 5–7; 35 U.S.C. §§ 154(d), 284.

[xl]. Halo, 136 S. Ct. at 1936 (Breyer, J., concurring); see also Schwendimann, No. 11-cv-820, slip. op. at 42–43; Idenix Pharms. LLC v. Gilead Scis., Inc., 271 F. Supp. 3d 694, 699 (D. Del. 2017). But see SSL Servs., LLC v. Citrix Sys., Inc., 769 F.3d 1073, 1092 (Fed. Cir. 2014) (excluding lay testimony of belief in invalidity and noninfringement to rebut willfulness).

[xli]. Milwaukee Elec. Tool Corp. v. Snap-On Inc., 288 F. Supp. 3d 872, 886–88, 890–91 (E.D. Wis. 2017) (citing SSL, 769 F.3d at 1092).

[xlii]. Section 298 might only bar this evidence to initially prove willfulness but not its use in a subsequent enhancement determination.

Categories
Copyrights Patents Q&A Trade Secrets Trademarks

What Should I Do If Another Business is Infringing My IP?

An appropriate response to infringement (or misappropriation) will depend on which type(s) of intellectual property (IP) rights are involved.  While some forms of infringement can be enforced by the government, prosecutors rarely take up disputes between competitor businesses. This leaves it up to the IP owner to pursue a civil remedy. Therefore, the first step is generally to conduct your own investigation to ascertain your IP ownership rights, ascertain the identity of the infringing party or parties, preserve evidence of the infringement, and perform a legal analysis to confirm that the conduct in question is prohibited by law. Following an investigation, a cease & desist (demand) letter could be sent, a lawsuit initiated, or possibly other action taken.

Tip: Consider implementing a proactive monitoring program to search for and identify potential infringement of your IP. No one else will identify infringement for you.

As part of your initial investigation of infringement, the legal analysis should consider:

  1. do you have a chain of title to the IP (that is, can you prove ownership)?
  2. does the conduct fall within the scope of your enforceable exclusive rights or is the conduct permitted by law (such as a “fair use” under copyright law)?
  3. did the other party have permission?
  4. what jurisdiction(s) is the infringer located in?
  5. what remedies are available for the type of infringement involved? 

Following an initial investigation, which should be performed with the assistance of a knowledgeable attorney, it is common to send a cease & desist or other demand letter.  This puts the infringer on notice of the claim of infringement, which can remove innocent infringer defenses going forward, trigger the accrual of damages, etc.  A letter might be sent to a publisher, distributor, web host, etc. as well, which can have significance under safe harbor provisions for some types of IP.  If a letter is ineffective, or simply not desired, litigation or certain non-litigation action should be considered. 

As to litigation, patent and copyright actions are handled exclusively by U.S. federal courts and generally require having a patent or copyright registration (at least for copyrightable United States works) before filing suit.  Trademark, trade secret, cybersquatting, and false advertising actions can sometimes be brought in either federal or state court.  A trademark registration is not required to bring suit in the U.S.  A statute of limitations or equitable limits may apply, such as a 3-year limit for copyright infringement claims and a 6-year limit on back damages for patent infringement. 

Remedies may be available outside of courts as well, though often without monetary recovery.  For example, administrative agencies such as Customs & Border Protection and the International Trade Commission can block or exclude importation of infringing goods, and a copyright small claims action may be available.  Online platforms and marketplaces may also have their own IP dispute resolution procedures and mandatory arbitration (e.g., UDRP, URS) may apply to domain name disputes. 

With some exceptions, many IP rights are generally enforceable on a jurisdictional or territorial basis.  If infringement implicates activities in another country, the available remedies and requirements to pursue a claim can vary widely and you may need to consult competent foreign legal counsel. 

Many IP disputes reach settlements, though it cannot be assumed that parties will be able to reach a pretrial settlement.  When considering bringing an infringement or misappropriation suit, bear in mind that awards of attorney’s fees are not always available or likely.  The cost to pursue an IP lawsuit might exceed the monetary recovery, though the benefits of stopping infringement or misappropriation may still be worth the unrecoverable expenses of a suit in some situations. 

Photo of Austen Zuege

Austen Zuege is an attorney at law and registered U.S. patent attorney in Minneapolis whose practice encompasses patents, trademarks, copyrights, domain name cybersquatting, IP agreements and licensing, freedom-to-operate studies, client counseling, and IP litigation. If you have patent, trademark, or other IP issues, he can help.

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Patents Q&A

What is Prosecution History Estoppel?

Prosecution history estoppel can arise when the patentee relinquishes subject matter during the prosecution of the patent—that is, during examination of a patent application at the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO)—either by amendment or argument. A narrowing amendment made to satisfy any requirement for patentability (under 35 U.S.C. §§ 101-103, 112, 161, or 171) may give rise to an estoppel.  When it applies, prosecution history estoppel will prevent a patentee from relying on the Doctrine of Equivalents to establish infringement based on the particular equivalents surrendered. A given claim limitation might be given only its literal scope (as properly construed) but no more. This policy allows competitors to rely on prosecution history estoppel to ensure that their own devices/processes will not be found to infringe by equivalence

The Basic Rule

The Doctrine of Equivalents is an equitable doctrine created by courts long ago. It is premised on language’s inability to capture the essence of innovation, allowing some protection beyond the literal scope of a claim where the claimed invention and the accused product or process are equivalent.  Its purpose is to “temper unsparing logic” that “would place the inventor at the mercy of verbalism and would be subordinating substance to form” and it evolved in response to situations where accused infringers attempted to “practice a fraud on a patent” by introducing “minor variations to conceal and shelter the piracy.” However, there is a tension between such concerns and the need for patents to put the public on notice of what a patent does and does not cover.

Prosecution history estoppel is about interpreting patent claims by reference to the history that led to their grant. It limits the patentee’s ability to establish infringement by equivalence to help provide certainty to competitors about the enforceable scope of a U.S. patent. Accordingly, the Doctrine of Equivalents is not available where prosecution history shows the inventor was able to capture equivalent differences in words but chose narrower language. The patentee cannot later recapture what was previously surrendered under the guise of the Doctrine of Equivalents. Where the original patent application once embraced the purported equivalent but the patentee narrowed his claims to obtain the patent or to protect its validity, the patentee cannot assert that he or she lacked the words to describe the subject matter in question. 

Estoppel Can Arise Through Amendment or Argument

Prosecution history estoppel can arise two ways: (1) by making a narrowing amendment to the claim (amendment-based estoppel) or (2) by surrendering claim scope through argument to the patent examiner (argument-based estoppel). These two possibilities are discussed in turn.

How Amendment-Based Estoppel Can Arise

The first way that prosecution history estoppel can arise is by way of a narrowing amendment to a claim during prosecution. The question of what constitutes a narrowing amendment will depend on the context of a particular patent claim. But a classic example is adding words that narrow the limitations of a claim to avoid a prior art reference cited in a rejection in an office action. As another example, which is less intuitive, courts have said rewriting a dependent claim in independent form is an amendment adding a new claim limitation, which constitutes a narrowing amendment that may give rise to an estoppel. 

How Argument-Based Estoppel Can Arise

Argument-based estoppel arises when the prosecution history evinces a “clear and unmistakable” surrender of subject matter. Argument-based estoppel most often arises when the patentee tries to convince a patent examiner that the claims of an application recite something different from the prior art. For instance, a patentee may have argued that a claim term has a meaning that is narrow enough to avoid a disclosure or teaching in a cited prior art reference. In such a situation, the patentee will likely be estopped from later asserting that the Doctrine of Equivalents encompasses what was previously argued to be outside the scope of the claimed invention. Such arguments are treated like an acknowledgement that the patentee knew the meaning of the claim language and deliberately chose narrower language in order to obtain a patent.

Scope of the Estoppel

Though prosecution history estoppel can bar a patentee from challenging a wide range of alleged equivalents used by competitors, its reach requires examination of the particular subject matter surrendered. Even where prosecution history estoppel applies, the scope of the estoppel is not always absolute. These inquiries differ somewhat between amendment-based estoppel and argument-based estoppel.

Scope of Amendment-Based Estoppel

The scope of amendment-based estoppel depends on the claim language at issue and the reason for the amendment. For instance, where the reason for the amendment was not related to avoiding the prior art, it does not necessarily preclude infringement by equivalents of that element. But an amendment to clarify the recitation of the claimed invention to satisfy definiteness requirements for patentability would give rise to an estoppel, even though there was no prior art reference prompting the change. Also, cancellation of a claim can give rise to estoppel with regard to any the claim(s) that remain. However, the reason for an amendment is often not clear from the prosecution history.

When no explanation for an amendment is provided, there is a rebuttable presumption that the Doctrine of Equivalents is not available at all.  When the purpose underlying a narrowing amendment cannot be determined—and hence a rationale for limiting the estoppel to surrender of only particular equivalents—it is presumed that the patentee surrendered all subject matter between the broader and the narrower language.  But that presumption of the amendment-based estoppel can be overcome for a particular equivalent when (1) the equivalent in question was unforeseeable at the time of the application, (2) rationale underlying the amendment bears no more than a tangential relation to the equivalent in question, or (3) the patentee could not reasonably be expected to have described the insubstantial substitute in question. 

Scope of Argument-Based Estoppel

The scope of argument-based estoppel is based on the scope of particular arguments made during prosecution. Unlike amendment-based estoppel, there is no presumption-and-rebuttal approach. Rather, the question is how far argument-based estoppel applies in the first place, if at all. The question is whether there was a clear and unmistakable argument-based surrender of particular subject matter. Courts have said that simple arguments and explanations to the patent examiner do not surrender an entire field of equivalents. But any arguments can still surrender some equivalents, even if they do not surrender all possible equivalents. This is very context-dependent. The key to this inquiry is whether a competitor would reasonably believe that the patentee’s argument had surrendered the relevant subject matter.

However, courts have said that any clear assertions made during prosecution in support of patentability, whether or not those assertions were actually required to secure allowance of a claim, may still create an argument-based estoppel. Also, once an argument is made regarding a claim term that creates an estoppel, that estoppel will apply to that term in other claims in the patent too.

Prosecution Disclaimer

Prosecution disclaimer is a separate but related concept. Rather than relating to the availability of the Doctrine of Equivalents to establish infringement, prosecution disclaimer or disavowal can limit the proper construction of a claim’s literal scope. Thus, it may affect whether or not literal infringement is found—prior to any consideration of the Doctrine of Equivalents. For example, it can arise when a patentee makes arguments during prosecution about how the pending claims differ from the prior art. This is meant to prevent patentees from opportunistically taking different (and broader) positions in court when asserting infringement than when obtaining the patent in the first place. Statements made during the prosecution of family-related applications, even foreign counterparts, may sometimes result in prosecution disclaimer as well.

Questions about prosecution disclaimer pertain to proper claim construction. Claim terms are presumed to carry their full and customary meaning unless the patentee unequivocally imparted a novel meaning to those terms either in the patent application itself (called acting as her own lexicographer) or expressly relinquished claim scope during prosecution. Just as with argument-based estoppel, prosecution disclaimers must be “clear and unmistakable” in order to limit claim scope. An ambiguous statement during prosecution will not limit a claim term’s ordinary meaning.

An important difference between prosecution disclaimer and prosecution history estoppel is when they are taken into account. Prosecution disclaimer is a matter of claim construction. That is something courts do as a first step in patent infringement analyses, without reference to the specific product or process accused of infringement. In contrast, the Doctrine of Equivalents is bound up with the subsequent comparison of the accused product or process to the asserted patent claims as properly construed. Prosecution history estoppel is a question of whether a patent owner is permitted to invoke the Doctrine of Equivalents in particular ways in the second part of infringement analysis, after claim construction. But if literal infringement is found—despite any prosecution disclaimer—there is no need to reach the Doctrine of Equivalents.

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Austen Zuege is an attorney at law and registered U.S. patent attorney in Minneapolis whose practice encompasses patents, trademarks, copyrights, domain name cybersquatting, IP agreements and licensing, freedom-to-operate studies, client counseling, and IP litigation. If you have patent, trademark, or other IP issues, he can help.

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Patents Q&A

What Types of Patent Infringement Are Possible?

At a most basic level, patent infringement in the U.S. involves making, using, selling, offering for sale, importing into the USA a patented invention without authorization. Although there are some additional grounds for infringement that may apply in some other circumstances. All grounds for infringement fall into two general categories: direct infringement and indirect infringement. These categories refer to who is being accused and whether they are directly responsible or instead indirectly or partly responsible. There are multiple types of infringement under each category. These include literal or Doctrine of Equivalents infringement, and, for indirect infringement, active inducement of infringement, contributory infringement, and certain activities related to components for export from the USA. Each of these provisions, set forth in § 271 of the U.S. patent laws, is taken up further below.

Direct Infringement

Direct patent infringement means that an accused party is directly responsible for infringement a patent. Direct infringement requires that each and every limitation (or element) of at least one claim of an asserted patent is met either literally or under the Doctrine of Equivalents. If a limitation of a given patent claim is not present in the accused product or process, either literally or equivalently, then that claim is not infringed.

There are two ways of finding infringement that differ in terms of how the accused product or process relates to the scope of the claim(s) of the asserted patent:

  • Literal Infringement
  • Infringement Under the Doctrine of Equivalents

Literal Infringement

Literal infringement means that the accused product or process falls within the scope of the asserted claim(s) as construed by a court. Under U.S. law, infringement analysis is a two-step process. It involves, first, construing the claims to ascertain their meaning to a person of ordinary skill in the art and to resolve any ambiguities or disputes over that meaning, and, second, comparing the accused product/process to the properly construed claim(s). Literal infringement is present when the accused infringer meets each and every limitation (or element) of an asserted patent claim exactly, as properly construed. Any deviation from the claim (as properly construed precludes a finding of literal infringement.

The sorts of things that can constitute direct literal infringement include the following:

  • making (that is, manufacturing) the patented invention in the USA (35 U.S.C. § 271(a))
  • using the patented invention in the USA (35 U.S.C. § 271(a))
  • offering to sell the patented invention in the USA (35 U.S.C. § 271(a))
  • selling the patented invention in the USA (35 U.S.C. § 271(a))
  • importing the patented invention into the USA (35 U.S.C. § 271(a))
  • submitting a new drug application for U.S. regulatory approval (Hatch-Waxman Act; 35 U.S.C. § 271(e))
  • importing into the USA, or offering to sell, selling, or using within the USA, a product which is made outside the USA by a process patented in the USA, unless it is materially changed by subsequent processes or it becomes a trivial and nonessential component of another product (35 U.S.C. § 271(g))
  • Certain additional rights to exclude specific to plant patents (35 U.S.C. § 163)

Infringement Under the Doctrine of Equivalents

Under the Doctrine of Equivalents, a product or process that does not literally infringe upon the express terms of a patent claim may nonetheless still be found to infringe if there is “equivalence” between the elements of the accused product or process and the claimed elements of the patented invention.” This type of infringement arises when the accused product or process is outside the literal scope of at least one limitation of an asserted claim, as properly construed. Patentees rely on the Doctrine of Equivalents under the second step of the infringement analysis, if at all, only if literal infringement cannot be established. Otherwise, the Doctrine of Equivalents applies to the same set of activities as st forth above for literal infringement—making, using, selling, offering for sale, importing, etc.

This type of infringement is a limited exception to the general rule that patent claims must reasonably put others on notice of the outermost boundaries of what constitutes infringement. Put another way, it allows a limited form of “central” claim enforcement in a regime of “peripheral” claiming. It is an equitable doctrine meant is to “temper unsparing logic” that “would place the inventor at the mercy of verbalism and would be subordinating substance to form.” It evolved in response to situations where accused infringers attempted to “practice a fraud on a patent” by introducing “minor variations to conceal and shelter the piracy.” Of course, the doctrine is in tension with the policy requiring that claims put the public on notice of a patent’s scope. This is a reason the Doctrine of Equivalents is not meant to be routinely invoked and is not applied broadly.

The Doctrine of Equivalents is applied individual claim limitations rather than to the claimed invention as a whole. An undue expansion of a patent’s claim(s) is not permitted. To find infringement, each claim limitation (or element) or its equivalent must be found in the elements of accused product/process. This is called the “all elements” rule. The question of equivalence is inapplicable if a claim limitation is totally missing from an accused device. The Doctrine of Equivalents cannot be used to re-draft claims and effectively eliminate limitations entirely. Though this inquiry always revolves around what differences can reasonably be considered equivalent. After-arising technology can potentially be encompassed by the Doctrine of Equivalents (unlike for means-plus-function equivalents).

There are two approaches to assessing equivalents: the “insubstantial differences” test and the “function-way-result” test. The function-way-result test (also called the “triple identity” test) says that equivalence may be present for a given element if the accused product/process performs substantially the same function in substantially the same way with substantially the same result. This is not the only way to assess whether differences are insubstantial, but it is particularly useful for certain types of inventions such as mechanical devices. For biochemical inventions, however, looking at substantial differences may sometimes be more appropriate than the function-way-results test.

There are numerous limits on the Doctrine of Equivalents, which are really beyond this basic introduction. But an extremely important limit on the availability of the Doctrine of Equivalents is prosecution history estoppel. Things that the patentee did or said when obtaining the asserted patent might limit the patentee’s ability to later rely on the Doctrine of Equivalents. So the Doctrine of Equivalents is not always or automatically available.

Indirect Infringement

Indirect patent infringement means that an accused party is causing or enabling someone else to infringe. It can apply when an accused infringer meets some but not all of the limitations (or elements) of an asserted patent claim. It includes three types of infringement, which differ in terms of what the accused indirect infringer is doing:

Generally speaking, there are additional requirements that must be satisfied to establish indirect infringement that are not required for direct infringement direct infringement. Those additional requirements vary depending on what type of indirect infringement is asserted.

Also, relevant limitations of asserted claim(s) can be assessed under either their literal scope or under the Doctrine of Equivalents, if available—see discussions above of literal and Doctrine of Equivalents infringement for direct infringement. This is really to say that the Doctrine of Equivalents may still apply to indirect infringement scenarios.

Active Inducement of Infringement

Actively inducing someone else to infringe a patent constitutes inducement of infringement. Specifically, “[w]hoever actively induces infringement of a patent shall be liable as an infringer.” (35 U.S.C. § 271(b)). This is a form of vicarious liability. Active inducement requires taking an affirmative steps to encourage infringement by another entity, as well as knowledge that the encouraged acts infringe the asserted patent. A key component of inducement is that it requires there be at least one direct infringer. But the difference here is that instead of suing the direct infringer, a different entity is sued for inducement.

Inducement commonly arises in situations involving claims to a method of using a product. Rather than sue the end user, which may be a potential customer, the patentee instead sues a competitor making and selling products used by others to (directly) perform and infringe the asserted method claim(s). It also sometimes arises where a corporate officer or owner induces his or her company to infringe, making that individual personally liable for infringement.

Contributory Infringement

Contributory infringement arises when selling, offering to sell, or importing components that are specially made or adapted for use to infringe a patent. However, contributory infringement excludes activities involving a staple article or commodity of commerce that is suitable for substantial noninfringing use. A “substantial noninfringing use” is any use that is not unusual, far-fetched, illusory, impractical, occasional, aberrant, or experimental. So there is normally no liability for selling general-purpose commodities, even if they could be used in making or using a patented invention.

“(c) Whoever offers to sell or sells within the United States or imports into the United States a component of a patented machine, manufacture, combination or composition, or a material or apparatus for use in practicing a patented process, constituting a material part of the invention, knowing the same to be especially made or especially adapted for use in an infringement of such patent, and not a staple article or commodity of commerce suitable for substantial noninfringing use, shall be liable as a contributory infringer.”

35 U.S.C. § 271(c)

In order for contributory infringement to be present, the infringer must know that the combination for which his component was especially designed was both patented and infringing.  This knowledge requirement differentiates contributory infringement from direct infringement, which does not require any such knowledge of the patent or infringement (except to enhance damages).

Contributory infringement is important for situations involving the sale of repair or replacement parts for use in or with patented products or methods.

Supplying Component for Export for Combination Outside the USA

Section 271(f) of the patent laws creates two grounds for infringement involving activities in the USA relating to products made in a foreign country. They arise when components of a patented invention are supplied for export from the USA. These grounds for infringement are similar to yet distinct from active inducement and contributory infringement, discussed above. But these provisions do not require that the equivalent of “foreign” direct infringement occur. That is, the actual combination need not actual occur. However, these provisions apply exclusively to apparatus claims, and are not available for method/process claims. They also do not apply to activities that occur entirely outside the USA. Also, § 271(f)(1) has a quantitative requirement about the number of components involved and it does not apply to only a single component.

“(f)

(1) Whoever without authority supplies or causes to be supplied in or from the United States all or a substantial portion of the components of a patented invention, where such components are uncombined in whole or in part, in such manner as to actively induce the combination of such components outside of the United States in a manner that would infringe the patent if such combination occurred within the United States, shall be liable as an infringer.

(2) Whoever without authority supplies or causes to be supplied in or from the United States any component of a patented invention that is especially made or especially adapted for use in the invention and not a staple article or commodity of commerce suitable for substantial noninfringing use, where such component is uncombined in whole or in part, knowing that such component is so made or adapted and intending that such component will be combined outside of the United States in a manner that would infringe the patent if such combination occurred within the United States, shall be liable as an infringer.”

35 U.S.C. § 271(f)

The grounds for infringement under § 271(f) are somewhat rarely invoked. This is largely because manufacturing costs are often higher in the USA than abroad. As a result, courts have not extensively clarified the scope and proper application of these provisions. But suffice it to say they may apply in situations where components are being produced and/or sold in the USA for export.

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Austen Zuege is an attorney at law and registered U.S. patent attorney in Minneapolis whose practice encompasses patents, trademarks, copyrights, domain name cybersquatting, IP agreements and licensing, freedom-to-operate studies, client counseling, and IP litigation. If you have patent, trademark, or other IP issues, he can help.

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Copyrights Patents Q&A Trade Secrets Trademarks

What Are Typical IP Litigation Costs?

Intellectual property (IP) litigation tends to be relatively expensive compared to other types of lawsuits. There are many reasons for that. Though the complexity of the legal issues involved and a tendency for extensive pre-trial discovery and use of expert witnesses contribute to the total costs.

Below are graphs showing average costs through various stages of a an infringement or misappropriation lawsuit in the U.S. A summary graph compares average costs for “small” patent, copyright, trademark, and trade secret cases with less than $1,000,000 at risk. There are also individual graphs for patent, copyright, trademark, and trade secret cases with different amounts at risk, that is, with different amounts of potential damages for infringement or misappropriation (in U.S. dollars). All data comes from the 2021 AIPLA Report of the Economic Survey.

graph of average patent, trademark, copyright, and trade secret litigation costs by stage.  Initial Case Management: $57,000 (Patent), $24,000 (Copyright), $22,000 (Trademark), $60,000 (Trade Secret); Discovery, Motions (incl. Claim Const.): $369,000 (Patent), $161,000 (Copyright), $200,000 (Trademark), $367,000 (Trade Secret); Trial, + Any Appeal: $771,000 (Patent), $1,143,000 (Copyright), $415,000 (Trademark), $776,000 (Trade Secret).
Comparison of Average “Small” IP Lawsuit Costs by Type of Case and Stage
Clustered bar graph of average patent litigation cumulative costs, by stage of case, for cases with less than $1M, $1-10M, $10-25M, and >$25M at risk.  
Initial Case Management: $57,000 	$122,000 	$421,000 	$361,000; Discovery, Motions (incl. Claim Const.): $369,000 	$1,033,000 	$1,621,000 	$3,556,000; Trial, + Any Appeal:	$771,000 	$1,910,000 	$3,728,000 	$5,568,000
Average Patent Litigation Costs
Clustered bar graph of average copyright litigation cumulative costs, by stage of case, for cases with less than $1M, $1-10M, $10-25M, and >$25M at risk.  Initial Case Management: $24,000 	$77,000 	$136,000 	$292,000; Discovery, Motions: $161,000 	$882,000 	$1,125,000 	$2,501,000; Trial, + Any Appeal: $1,143,000 	$1,421,000 	$2,358,000 	$5,778,000
Average Copyright Litigation Costs
Clustered bar graph of average trademark litigation cumulative costs, by stage of case, for cases with less than $1M, $1-10M, $10-25M, and >$25M at risk.  Initial Case Management: $22,000 	$48,000 	$83,000 	$194,000; Discovery, Motions: $200,000 	$514,000 	$837,000 	$1,718,000; Trial, + Any Appeal: $415,000 	$892,000 	$1,592,000 	$3,381,000
Average Trademark Litigation Costs
Clustered bar graph of average trade secret litigation cumulative costs, by stage of case, for cases with less than $1M, $1-10M, $10-25M, and >$25M at risk.  Initial Case Management: $60,000 	$102,000 	$171,000 	$469,000; Discovery, Motions: $367,000 	$977,000 	$1,708,000 	$2,112,000; Trial, + Any Appeal	$776,000 	$1,717,000 	$3,309,000 	$4,582,000
Average Trade Secret Litigation Costs

Additional reports on IP litigation are available from various sources, including PWC’s 2018 Patent Litigation Study and Lex Machina’s 2022 Patent Litigation Report (and infographic), as well as Lex Machina’s 2021 Copyright and Trademark Litigation Report (and trademark infographic and copyright infographic).

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Austen Zuege is an attorney at law and registered U.S. patent attorney in Minneapolis whose practice encompasses patents, trademarks, copyrights, domain name cybersquatting, IP agreements and licensing, freedom-to-operate studies, client counseling, and IP litigation. If you have patent, trademark, or other IP issues, he can help.

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Articles

The Federal Circuit’s Standard for Enhanced Damages

October 2021

Recent Federal Circuit cases highlight a confused standard applied to discretionary enhanced damages determinations in patent infringement cases. As will be shown, the Federal Circuit has elevated the statement of mind requirement for enhanced patent damages contrary to Supreme Court precedent.

In Halo, the Supreme Court discussed how conventionally reckless conduct at the time of the conduct in question supports punitive damages for patent infringement under 35 U.S.C. § 284. Halo Elecs., Inc. v. Pulse Elecs., Inc., 979 U.S. ___, ___, 136 S. Ct. 1923, 1932-35 (2016) (“The principal problem with Seagate[] . . . is that it requires a finding of objective recklessness in every case before district courts may award enhanced damages. Such a threshold requirement excludes from discretionary punishment many of the most culpable offenders”). After-the-fact rationalizations drummed up during litigation were at odds with the conventional understanding of recklessness, which requires analysis of the accused’s state of mind at the time of the actions in question. Id. at 1930,1933. The Court clarified that “a person is reckless if he acts ‘knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable man to realize’ his actions are unreasonably risky.” Id. at 1933 (emphasis in original); cf. Sherry F. Kolb, “Why Can’t Jurors Distinguish ‘Knowing’ From ‘Reckless’ Misconduct?” Verdict (Jan. 11, 2012) (discussing subjective states of mind in the criminal law context, with helpful illustrative examples). “Section 284 allows district courts to punish the full range of culpable behavior[] . . . in a manner free from the inelastic constraints of the Seagate test.” Halo, 136 S. Ct. at 1933-34. In a way, Halo‘s ruling about conventional recklessness standards fits with other Supreme Court cases (like eBay v. MercExchange) striking down special rules and holding that patent matters are generally subject to the same standards that apply in other types of civil tort cases.

Since Halo, the Federal Circuit has been eager to restrict the Supreme Court’s holding to only a first step in a multipart analysis under § 284 despite the Supreme Court’s expansive discussion about “punish[ing]” the “full range of culpable behavior.” The Federal Circuit has, to some extent, lost the forest for the trees by focusing rather myopically on one sentence in Halo: “The subjective willfulness of a patent infringer, intentional or knowing, may warrant enhanced damages, without regard to whether his infringement was objectively reckless.” Id. at 1933. In doing so, Halo‘s ultimate holding that enhanced damages are available for conventional recklessness is lost.

The Federal Circuit currently maintains a two-step process for analysis of enhanced damages under 284. “[Halo] leaves in place our prior precedent that there is a right to a jury trial on the willfulness question. *** Whether the conduct is sufficiently egregious as to warrant enhancement and the amount of the enhancement that is appropriate are committed to the sound discretion of the district court.” WBIP, LLC v. Kohler Co., 829 F.3d 1317, 1341-42 (Fed. Cir. 2016). So, first, the finder-of-fact determines “willfulness” and, second, the court has discretion to impose enhanced damages, if any.

For the first step, the Federal Circuit has said that willfulness can be found if the accused infringer “acted despite a risk of infringement that was ‘ ‘either known or so obvious that it should have been known . . . .’ ‘ ” WesternGeco LLC v. ION Geophysical Corp., 837 F.3d 1358, 1362 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (emphasis added), reinstated 913 F.3d 1067, 1075 (Fed. Cir. 2019); accord Arctic Cat, Inc. v. Bombardier Recreational Prods. Inc., 876 F. 3d 1350, 1371 (Fed. Cir. 2017) (willfulness supported if accused infringer “actually knew or should have known that its actions constituted an unjustifiably high risk of infringement of a valid and enforceable patent.”). Halo used the phrase “having reason to know” while the Federal Circuit has, without explanation, instead used the phrase “should have known”.

The second step is a moral judgment that falls to the discretion of the district court. But enhanced damages do not automatically follow from a finding of willfulness. Halo, 136 S. Ct. at 1933 (“Yet none of this is to say that enhanced damages must follow a finding of egregious misconduct.”); see also Presidio Components, Inc. v. Am. Technical Ceramics Corp., 875 F.3d 1369, 1382 (Fed. Cir. 2017) (“an award of enhanced damages does not necessarily flow from a willfulness finding.”).

In Eko, the Federal Circuit ruled on jury instructions for willfulness. Eko Brands, LLC v. Adrian Rivera Maynez Enters., Inc., 946 F.3d 1367, 1377-79 (Fed. Cir. 2020). The most controversial passage in that opinion was the assertion that “[u]nder Halo, the concept of ‘willfulness’ requires a jury to find no more than deliberate or intentional infringement.” Id. at 1378 (emphasis added). Merely implicit in the court’s opinion is that the issue was a defendant challenging a jury instruction (based upon the Federal Circuit Bar Association’s (“FCBA’s”) National Patent Jury Instructions) upon which the jury found willful infringement. In other words, while the jury instruction may have omitted reckless conduct that Halo had found sufficient to support willfulness and enhanced damages, that point was moot and not at issue in the Eko appeal because the jury had found that even a heightened state of mind (beyond recklessness) was present. But the court’s reference to “no more than” deliberate or intentional conduct is the confusing part, because it is odd, to say the least, to describe a heightened intent standard with a phrase like “no more than” that normally connotes a low threshold.

Then the Federal Circuit offered a rationalization of Eko in SRI International. SRI Int’l, Inc. v. Cisco Sys., Inc., No. 20-1685, Slip. Op. at *9-10 (Fed. Cir., Sept. 28, 2021). There, a district court had noted that “the [Federal Circuit] is not entirely consistent in its use of adjectives to describe what is required for willfulness.” SRI Int’l, Inc. v. Cisco Sys., Inc. (SRI III), No. 13-1534, 2020 WL 1285915, at *1 n.1 (D. Del., Mar. 18, 2020). So the Federal Circuit responded: “To eliminate the confusion created by our reference to the language ‘wanton, malicious, and bad-faith’ in Halo, we clarify that it was not our intent to create a heightened requirement for willful infringement. Indeed, that sentence from Halo refers to ‘conduct warranting enhanced damages,’ not conduct warranting a finding of willfulness.” SRI Int’l, No. 20-1685, Slip. Op. at *9-10 (Fed. Cir., Sept. 28, 2021). This actually adds to rather than eliminates confusion, by emphasizing rather minor procedural points as a kind of shell game but doubling down on the aspect that runs contrary to recent Supreme Court precedent. The partial and selective quotation from Halo omits a number of grounds the Supreme Court held can support an award of enhanced damages. The relevant sentence in Halo reads in full: “The sort of conduct warranting enhanced damages has been variously described in our cases as willful, wanton, malicious, bad-faith, deliberate, consciously wrongful, flagrant, or — indeed — characteristic of a pirate.” Halo, 136 S. Ct. at 1932. Notice how the Federal Circuit’s quote drops the word “willful” and others? And recall from above how Halo was primarily about enhanced damages awards encompassing conventional recklessness?

Willfulness and enhanced damages continuum graphic
The Disputed and Confusing Continuum of States of Mind for Willfulness and Enhanced Damages in Patent Cases, Before and After Halo

The visualization above is meant to show that there is a continuum of states of mind for “willfulness”, though there is a long line of cases from different areas of law that show that there is no definitive definition of how to describe “willful” intent in civil matters. Indeed, Justice Breyer’s concurrence in Halo noted that “‘[w]illfu[l]’ is a ‘word of many meanings whose construction is often dependent on the context in which it appears.'” Halo, 136 S. Ct. at 1936 (Breyer, J., concurring) (also contrasting behavior that is not “wanton” or “reckless”) (quoting Safeco Ins. Co. of Am. v. Burr, 551 U.S. 47, 57 (2007), a case relied upon by the majority). Though it is indisputably clear that Halo found that conventional recklessness qualifies as willfulness for enhanced patent damages.

A typical description of recklessness is conscious and willful indifference to the risk imposed on the unlucky victim; not that the defendant intended to harm the victim, but that he knowingly imposed a risk on the victim, which could have been eliminated with minimum effort. See Anthony J. Sebok, “Purpose, Belief, and Recklessness: Pruning the ‘Restatement’ (Third)’s Definition of Intent,” 54 Vanderbilt Law Review 1165, 1177 (2001) (discussing punitive damages in product liability cases). Yet there is potential circularity in any continuum that would partly define one degree of “willfulness” in the patent context as “willful indifference”.

Despite argument over the proper descriptors of degrees of willful intent, the Supreme Court has said that these distinctions may be troublesome but are nonetheless necessary and that “the difference between one end of the spectrum—negligence—and the other—intent—is abundantly clear.” Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 334-35 (1986) (citing LeRoy Fibre Co. v. Chicago, M. & St. P. R. Co., 232 U.S. 340, 354 (1914) (Holmes, J., partially concurring) and O. Holmes, The Common Law 3 (1923)). But in Eko the Federal Circuit discusses only the opposite end of the spectrum from negligence and not the troublesome “middle” degrees of willful intent—namely the lowest degree of willful intent set forth in Halo: recklessness. In other areas of law, courts distinguish a “deliberate” state of mind as from a “reckless” one, with “deliberate” representing a higher degree of intent than “recklessness”. E.g., Express Scripts, Inc. v. Bracket Holdings Corp., 248 A.3d 824, 825 (Del. 2021) (“A deliberate state of mind is a different kettle of fish than a reckless one.”). It is problematic, to say the least, for the Federal Circuit to sidestep entirely these troublesome but necessary distinctions in degree by using terminology like “deliberate” and “intentional” that typically connotes a higher degree of intent than the recklessness standard set forth in Halo.

Further complicating matters is that the Federal Circuit has taken a contradictory position about what “should have known” means in patent and trademark cases. Sometimes the Federal Circuit says “should have known” means negligence while at other times appears to say it means recklessness. For instance, more than a decade ago it clarified the requirements to establish when fraud on the USPTO bars trademark registration. The Federal Circuit rejected the TTAB’s “should have known” fraud standard because it — supposedly — correlates to mere negligence. In re Bose Corp., 580 F.3d 1240, 1244 (Fed. Cir. 2009) (“[B]y equating ‘should have known’ with a subjective intent,” the TTAB “erroneously lowered the fraud standard to a simple negligence standard.”). The Federal Circuit has also interpreted “should have known” as equating to negligence in patent cases involving active inducement of infringement. And yet, in WesternGeco and Arctic Cat the Federal Circuit held that “should have known” is an appropriate standard for willfulness in patent cases under Halo. And Halo made clear that “a person is reckless if he acts ‘knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable man to realize’ his actions are unreasonably risky” and that such recklessness is sufficient to award enhanced damages. Halo, 136 S. Ct. at 1933; see also Motiva Patents, LLC v. Sony Corp., 408 F. Supp. 3d 819, 837 (E.D. Tex. 2019) (“Halo holds that recklessness alone is enough to show willful infringement.”).

Halo abrogated at least the “inelastic” part of Seagate that set the threshold for willfulness and enhanced damages too high because if failed to allow enhancement for conventional (subjective) reckless intent at the time of the conduct at issue. Now (since Eko and SRI), the Federal Circuit has seemingly done an end-run around Halo by requiring an elevated level of intent beyond recklessness in order to support discretionary “enhanced damages” following a finding of willfulness. An issue here is that Halo said, “Consistent with nearly two centuries of enhanced damages under patent law, however, such punishment should generally be reserved for egregious cases typified by willful misconduct.” Halo, 136 S. Ct. at 1933-34. But recent Federal Circuit cases make no reference to that nearly two century history and instead utilize rather tendentious, selective, and partial quotations from Halo suggesting that a heightened state of mind beyond conventional recklessness is required for enhancement following a willfulness determination (contrary to the holding in Halo).

In the past, the Federal Circuit said that willfulness and discretionary enhancement analyses were basically the same. E.g., SRI Int’l, Inc. v. Advanced Tech. Labs., Inc., 127 F.3d 1462, 1469 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (“The principal considerations in enhancement of damages are the same as those of the willfulness determination, but in greater nuance as may affect the degree of enhancement.”). The Read factors commonly used for these analyses were about the totality of the circumstances and did not draw any categorical distinctions between degrees of intent within the category of willfulness (e.g., between recklessness and knowing/deliberate states of mind). Now, the Federal Circuit seems to be heading in another direction with (purportedly) a different standard for discretionary enhancement than for willfulness determinations. See Ryan Davis, “Fed. Circ. Outlines Willfulness, Enhanced Damages Standards,” Law360 (Oct. 7, 2021).

So today patentees face a situation in which the Federal Circuit seems to have merely pushed the abrogated initially high (“objective recklessness”) threshold of Seagate to the back end of the discretionary enhanced damages analysis, with what looks unmistakably like a heightened subjective intent requirement—higher than, and contrary to, the conventional recklessness standard set forth in Halo. Though another way to look at this is to say that the Federal Circuit has actually heightened the threshold “willfulness” standard too, even though they deny doing so, because a “deliberate or intentional” requirement has long been considered a heightened level of intent compared to conventional recklessness. Either way, this seems to shield merely reckless conduct from punishment, contrary to Halo, and is an untenable position for the Federal Circuit that calls for either an en banc reversal or further action by the Supreme Court.

P.S. — I should have a magazine article forthcoming in mid-2022 dealing with willfulness/enhanced damages. It will discuss the way district courts have frequently overlooked (or even ruled contrary to) 35 U.S.C. § 298 when dealing with issues involving the minimum requirements for willfulness and the way some district court cases (not yet reached in any precedential Federal Circuit decision) seem to resurrect something that looks like the old, abrogated “duty of due care” standard that corresponded to mere negligence.

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Austen Zuege is an attorney at law and registered U.S. patent attorney in Minneapolis whose practice encompasses patents, trademarks, copyrights, domain name cybersquatting, IP agreements and licensing, freedom-to-operate studies, client counseling, and IP litigation. If you have patent, trademark, or other IP issues, he can help.