June 5, 2017
Marshall, Texas is a town of less than 25,000 residents in East Texas. It is closer to Shreveport, Louisiana than it is to Dallas or to Houston. Nevertheless, since the late 1990s, Marshall has become the epicenter for a series of high-profile patent litigation cases. In 2015, there were nearly 6,000 patent infringement cases filed in the United States. At least 1,500 of these filings ended up before Judge Rodney Gilstrap, a judge for the Eastern District of Texas, in the Marshall, Texas division. This was no accident.
As of last month, however, this may all be subject to change.
On May 22, 2017, in TC Heartland LLC v. Kraft Foods Group Brands LLC, the United States Supreme Court addressed a dispute regarding the patent venue statute and unanimously held that civil actions for patent infringement may only be brought in the judicial district where the defendant resides or where the defendant has committed acts of infringement and has a regular and established place of business. Prior to TC Heartland, patent owners could choose to file suit in most any state given that most corporations made or sold products nationwide. This allowed certain courts to set up shop as patent “rocket dockets” which encouraged litigators to choose their venue.
This is how one judge in Marshall, Texas came to oversee, on average, nearly a quarter of all patent infringement cases filed in the United States. Now that TC Heartland is the rule of the land, there are three primary issues to address and explore: (1) how did Marshall, Texas become a “rocket docket” for patent cases?; (2) what rule did the Supreme Court actually change?; and (3) what is likely to happen now?
September 30, 2016
On September 29, 2016, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in the matter of Lee v. Tam, regarding whether the disparagement provision of the Lanham Act is facially invalid under the First Amendment, particularly whether it restricts free speech. This is the appeal from the same case I wrote about last December. I am curious to see how the Supreme Court tackles this issue, and what I consider substantive errors in analysis made by the Federal Circuit last fall.
Nevertheless, while the legal issues are heavily nuanced and regard convoluted topics such as “chilling effects,” “government speech” versus “commercial speech,” “disparagement,” and what constitutes “use in commerce,” it appears the layperson is confused by the scope of the case. Particularly, after the news broke yesterday, the common theme was “why is a musical group not allowed to call itself the Slants?” – which is not only wholly irrelevant to the issue but is also a dangerous interpretation of what I consider to be an important trademark matter.
In short, you can name your rock band whatever you want. You can also name your professional football team whatever you want (looking at you, Washington Redskins). No one is going to stop you. The United States Patent and Trademark Office, however, may refuse to grant you a trademark registration for such a name. Not that the name cannot be a trademark – it can be – but “registration” confers additional benefits that may or may not extend to marks that the USPTO considers to be “disparaging” of people or groups. This is the entirety of what the Supreme Court is going to address.
Instead, here I will try to address the distinction between free speech, trademarks, and trademark registrations in general terms.
In January 2015, in Davis v. Electronic Arts Inc., the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the makers of the extremely popular Madden NFL video game series could not overcome former players’ claims for violation of publicity rights by claiming First Amendment protections. Electronic Arts Inc., the Defendant and the maker of the game, eventually appealed to the United States Supreme Court on grounds that they are essentially being penalized for making a game that is “too realistic” and life-like. An emboldened use of the “we are just too good at our jobs” defense, perhaps?
On Monday, March 21, 2016, without any further commentary, the Supreme Court denied EA Sports’ petition to hear the appeal. Procedurally, this is called a denial of certiorari, and it means that the Ninth Circuit’s verdict remains the final judicial determination on the issues presented. Colloquially speaking, and while maintaining the proper sports metaphors, this means the Supreme Court punted.
But what really is the issue here? Where do publicity rights end and the First Amendment begins? Why does EA Sports contend that it has no obligation to pay retired professional athletes for the use of their images and likeness rights?
No new card games are patent-eligible without the invention of a new deck
On October 26, 2010, two enterprising individuals from New Jersey filed a patent application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office for a “Blackjack Variation.” The Smiths sought to acquire patent rights to a new casino game they called “Pacific Rim Blackjack.” It appears that these inventors created a card game variant that merges the concepts of blackjack with Baccarat. The application claims that “casinos are in constant need of new games of chance to retain and attract patrons.” Additionally, the patent application asserts that existing games of chance such as blackjack, Three-Card Poker™, Baccarat, and Pai Gow are “popular” but “suffer from drawbacks.”
Due to the applicants’ unprovoked attack on the greatness that is Pai Gow poker, the USPTO rejected the patent application in whole. Well, okay, the patent examiner and later the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) actually rejected the application on grounds that the alleged invention is “abstract” and therefore not patent eligible subject matter. The inventors appealed this decision and on March 10, 2016, the Federal Circuit affirmed. Though the interesting part of the decision is not the rejection of the application itself – it was the Federal Circuit’s rationale and hints at the types of card games that might actually be patentable.
Copyrights are seemingly everywhere. From music to movies to television to paintings and sculptures. Copyright issues are also ever-present when it comes to internet content, books and scholastic articles. Most anything that is an original expression that is fixed in a tangible medium of expression can be covered by the scope of 17 U.S.C. § 101 et seq. (the U.S. Copyright Act).
The hurdle for copyright qualification is low, though there are exceptions, and certain things are never subject to copyright protection. For example, government works are not copyrighted pursuant to 17 U.S.C. § 105. Additionally, you cannot copyright simple words or phrases – as this is instead the subject of trademark law. We have also previously discussed (in the context of Halloween costumes) the fact that you cannot acquire a copyright on what is considered a “useful article” or that which is “an object having an intrinsic utilitarian function that is not merely to portray the appearance of the article or to convey information” as defined by 17 U.S.C. § 101.
Which brings us to the topic du jour: what about sex toys? Are sex toys “useful articles” that are not subject to copyright protection?
[originally published October 2, 2015 on www.law-dlc.com]
In 2014, the United States Supreme Court effectively killed a long-standing affirmative defense to copyright infringement, the defense of “laches.” See Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 134 S. Ct. 1962 (U.S. 2014). Laches is essentially an alleged infringer’s defense to a “gotcha!” tactic by a rights holder who has delayed for many years in bringing suit to enforce those purported rights. Laches is based on equitable principles that a substantially long delay in enforcing legal rights is likely to prejudice the adverse party. It is the judicial system’s way of saying “hey! That’s not fair! We are not going to let you do that.” Laches is available as a defense in many types of proceedings, not just intellectual property matters, but the intangible nature of IP rights lends itself more favorably to successfully invoking “laches” as a defense.