Category: Supreme Court

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Supreme Court Gives Patent Law New Bite (Definiteness)

I want to thank Danielle Citron and the other folks at Concurring Opinions for inviting me to blog.  As Danielle mentioned in her introduction, I am a law professor at the University of Colorado Law School focused on technology and law.  (More info about me is here: http://harrysurden.com; Twitter: @Harry Surden).

Patent Law’s Definiteness Requirement Has New Bite

The Supreme Court may have shaken up patent law quite a bit with its recent opinion in the Nautilus v. Biosig case (June 2, 2014).

At issue was patent law’s “definiteness” requirement, which is related to patent boundaries. As I (and others) have argued, uncertainty about patent boundaries (due to vague, broad and ambiguous claim language), and lack of notice as to the bounds of patent rights, is a major problem in patent law.

I will briefly explain patent law’s definiteness requirement, and then how the Supreme Court’s new definiteness standard may prove to be a significant change in patent law. In short – many patent claims – particularly those with vague or ambiguous language – may now be vulnerable to invalidity attacks following the Supreme Court’s new standard.

Patent Claims: Words Describing Inventions

In order to understand “definiteness”, it’s important to start with some patent law basics.  Patent law gives the patent holder exclusive rights over inventions – the right to prevent others from making, selling, or using a patented invention.  How do we know what inventions are covered by a particular patent?  They are described in the patent claims. 

Notably, patent claims describe the inventions that they cover using (primarily) words.

For instance, in the Supreme Court case at issue, the patent holder – Biosig – patented an invention – a heart-rate monitor.  Their patent used the following claim language to delineate their invention :

I claim a heart rate monitor for use in association with exercise apparatus comprising…

live electrode

and a first common electrode mounted on said first half

 In spaced relationship with each other…”

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 9.32.30 AM

So basically, the invention claimed was the kind of heart rate monitor that you might find on a treadmill.   The portion of the claim above described one part of the overall invention – two electrodes separated by some amount of space.  Presumably the exercising person holds on to these electrodes as she exercises, and the device reads the heart rate.

( Note: only a small part of the patent claim is shown – the actual claim is much longer)

Patent Infringement: Comparing Words to Physical Products

So what is the relationship between the words of a patent claim and patent infringement?

In a typical patent infringement lawsuit, the patent holder alleges that the defendant is making or selling some product or process (here a product) that is covered by the language of a patent claim (the “accused product”).  To determine literal patent infringement, we compare the words of the patent claim to the defendant’s product, to see if the defendant’s product corresponds to what is delineated in the plaintiff’s patent claims.

For instance, in this case, Biosig alleged that Nautilus was selling a competing, infringing heart-rate monitor.  Literal patent infringement would be determined by comparing the words of Biosig’s patent claim (e.g. “a heart rate monitor with a live electrode…”) to a physical object –  the competing heart-rate monitor product that Nautilus was selling (e.g. does Nautilus’ heart rate monitor have a part that can be considered a “live electrode”)?

Literal patent infringement is determined by systematically marching through each element (or described part) in Biosig’s patent claim, and comparing it to Nautilus’s competing product. If Nautilus’ competing product has every one of the “elements” (or parts) listed in Biosig’s patent claim, then Nautilus’s product would literally infringe Biosig’s patent claim.

If patent infringement is found, a patent holder can receive damages or in some cases, use the power of the court  to prevent the competitor from selling the product through an injunction.

Patent Claims – A Delicate Balance with Words

Writing patent claims involves a delicate balance.  On the one hand, a patent claim must be written in broad enough language that such a patent claim will cover competitors’ future products.

Why?  Well, imagine that Biosig had written their patent claim narrowly.  This would mean that in place of the broad language actually used (e.g. “electrodes in a spaced relationship”), Biosig had instead described the particular characteristics of the heart-rate monitor product that Biosig sold.  For instance, if Biosig’s heart-rate monitor product had two electrodes that were located exactly 4 inches apart, Biosig could have written their patent claim with language saying, “We claim a heart rate monitor with two electrodes exactly 4 inches apart” rather than the general language they actually used, the two electrodes separated by a “spaced relationship”

However, had Biosig written such a narrow patent, it might not be commercially valuable.  Competing makers of heart rate monitors such as Nautilus could easily change their products to “invent around” the claim so as not to infringe. A competitor might be able to avoid literally infringing by creating a heart-rate monitor with electrodes that were 8 inches apart.  For literal infringement purposes, a device with electrodes 8 inches apart would not literally infringe a patent that claims electrodes “exactly 4 inches apart.”

From a patent holder’s perspective, it is not ideal to write a patent claim too narrowly, because for a patent to be valuable, it has to be broad enough to cover the future products of your competitors in such a way that they can’t easily “invent around” and avoid infringement.  A patent claim is only as valuable (trolls aside) as the products or processes that fall under the patent claim words.  If you have a patent, but its claims do not cover any actual products or processes in the world because it is written too narrowly, it will not be commercially valuable.

Thus, general or abstract words (like “spaced relationship”) are often beneficial for patent holders, because they are often linguistically flexible enough to cover more variations of competitors’ future products.

Patent Uncertainty – Bad for Competitors (and the Public)

By contrast, general, broad, or abstract claim words are often not good for competitors (or the public generally).  Patent claims delineate the boundaries or “metes-and-bounds” of patent legal rights  Other firms would like to know where their competitors’ patent rights begin and end.  This is so that they can estimate their risk of patent liability, know when to license, and in some cases, make products that avoid infringing their competitors’ patents.

However, when patent claim words are abstract, or highly uncertain, or have multiple plausible interpretations, firms cannot easily determine where their competitor’s patent rights end, and where they have the freedom to operate.  This can create a zone of uncertainty around research and development generally in certain areas of invention, perhaps reducing overall inventive activity for the public.

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Errata in Supreme Court Opinions

Today I read with interest Adam Liptak’s article in The New York Times about the editing of Supreme Court opinions after they are released.  I was surprised to learn that some of these edits are substantive and that there is no simple way of assessing what changes are made.  Moreover, it appears that the Justices can edit for years after the case comes down (until the official reporter comes out, I guess.)

In the modern age, these practices are ridiculous.  The Court could easily provide a red line or compare version of final opinions on its website.  Likewise, I fail to see why it takes years for the official reporter to be published.  (Can’t the Court issue a PDF version a few months after a given Term or other logical break point?) Finally, the Justices should not be able to revise their opinions after lower courts start quoting from them.

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SCOTUSblog files credentialing appeal to Senate

lyle-denniston

Lyle Denniston

Over at SCOTUSblog a letter has been filed with Laura Lytle of the Senate Press Gallery in connection with the Blog’s appeal of the Standing Committee’s decision not to renew Lyle Denniston’s press credential. In early April, the Senate Press Gallery denied SCOTUSblog’s application for a press pass, and advised that it would refuse to renew the credential it had previously granted Mr. Denniston when it expires this month. The Supreme Court’s longstanding policy is to look to credentials issued by the Senate in connection with its own credentialing.

SCOTUSblog pursued a Senate credential for several years, modifying its blog policies to address the concerns expressed by the Gallery. Last year, SCOTUSblog succeeded – the Senate Press Gallery credentialed Mr. Denniston as a reporter for SCOTUSblog. That credential was then presented to the Supreme Court. The Court, however, declined to recognize the credential, explaining that it would instead review its credentialing policy.  The Court has yet to indicate when that review will conclude.

Before the Senate issued a credential to Mr. Denniston, the Court recognized him based on his work for WBUR radio in Boston. That remains unchanged. Additionally, as an interim measure during the review of its policies, SCOTUSblog requested public seats for the cases that Amy Howe (SCOTUSblog’s editor) was covering. The Court has granted those requests.

According to Tom Goldstein (the publisher of SCOTUSblog), “the Senate Press Gallery’s decision to deny us a credential is important to us.  We wanted the credential in substantial part because we cover Supreme Court-related matters in the Senate.  Most significantly, we do gavel-to-gavel, liveblog coverage of Supreme Court nominations. We also expect to cover hearings related to the Court’s budget.  So those efforts are now more difficult.”

Among other things, the May 14th letter to the Senate states:

As a result of [its] extensive coverage, the blog has built a substantial readership: On the days when the Court is issuing decisions during the middle of the Term (i.e., before periods of the public’s peak interest), it averages nearly sixty thousand unique visits per day, and it has roughly 160,000 Twitter followers. In addition, the blog has over ten thousand subscribers to its RSS feed, along with over five thousand subscribers for its email updates. 

A number of issues are addressed in the letter along with the nature of the Blog’s financial and editorial operations.

(NB: I serve as the Blog’s book editor and contribute to it. I have not, however, been involved in any credentialing matters for the Blog and have likewise not discussed the matter with its publisher, editor, or staff.)

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Woodrow Wilson and Justice McReynolds

98px-President_Woodrow_Wilson_portrait_December_2_1912I’m starting to go through Justice McReynolds’ papers, and one thing that I would like to figure out is how he got on the Court.

The most common story of McReynolds’ appointment goes like this.  He was a jerk as Attorney General, so when a Supreme Court vacancy opened up Woodrow Wilson took that opportunity to get rid of him.  This does not strike me as a plausible explanation.  Even if you took Supreme Court appointments lightly, which I don’t think Wilson did, I doubt that you would hand this plum to someone you could not stand.  What are the other possibilities?

1.  McReynolds, as I mentioned in a prior post, had a fine reputation as a trust buster in 1914.  This may have convinced Wilson that he was a progressive (or progressive enough).  I’m less clear on whether McReynolds was a good Attorney General–I still need to work through that.

2. The vacancy to which McReynolds was appointed was a southern seat (Horace Lurton, a Kentuckian, died).  As a result, the fact that McReynolds was from Tennessee gave him a leg up.

3.  Wilson’s wife died a few weeks before McReynolds was nominated.  Some suggest that (in his grief) Wilson simply was not thinking clearly about the nomination or any public matter at that time.

Anyway, I’m curious to see what the press had to say about the McReynolds nomination.

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Antitrust Law and the Four Horsemen

One of the questions that I’m researching about the Four Horsemen is how they got on the Court.  If they were so reactionary (a questionable assumption), then how did they make it through the nomination and confirmation process?  Part of the answer (for Sutherland and Butler) is that Warren Harding was lucky and got to name four Justices in just two-and-a-half years following a Republican landslide.

With respect to Justices Van Devanter and McReynolds, though, the answer reveals something about how judicial litmus tests work.  Both men were seen as acceptable (and, indeed, desirable) because they took a strong position in favor of enforcing antitrust law.  In the 1910s, a “reactionary” was someone who opposed antitrust enforcement.  But McReynolds was an active prosecutor of trusts before and during his term as Attorney General.  Van Devanter, meanwhile, was part of an en banc circuit decision that ruled against the Tobacco Trust, and newspaper comments at the time indicate that this made him “sound” for President Taft.  In addition, the President may have picked him because he wanted a sure vote against the Tobacco Trust at the Supreme Court, as in those days ruling as a circuit judge did not compel a recusal for a Supreme Court appeal of the same case.  (Chief Justice Taft also came to rely heavily on Van Devanter in the 1920s.)

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Hypothetically Speaking: Justice Breyer’s Dialectical Propensities

220px-StephenBreyerIn July of 1994, Judge Stephen Breyer testified before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary in connection with his nomination to the Supreme Court. In responding to a question posed by Senator Howard Metzenbaum, Judge Breyer could not resist the temptation to respond by way of a hypothetical:

Let’s say—and I will use a hypothetical, I don’t like to use that here, because I know this isn’t a classroom and I know these are serious matters and I don’t like to be professorial, frankly, but I think in this instance, maybe thinking of, say, they turn this wheel around and they charged 8 cents for the electricity, and that might help. They then transmit it across a wire. They then sell it to them- selves, because they are in the retail operation, too. And they sold it, let us say, for 10 cents. So they make it for 8 cents and they sell it to themselves for 10 cents, and the price to the consumer is 10 cents. Now, the plaintiff in this case came along and said, you see, 8 cents is what we have to pay for it, because they sold a little bit to independent retailers, too, and that plaintiff was an independent retailer. And that independent retailer . . . .

In the interest of brevity, I abbreviated my quotation of the Judge’s hypothetical.

As Court watchers well know, the hypothetical (typically long and complicated) is his signature move. What prompted my thoughts on Justice Breyer and his courtroom style were some recent comments (see also here and here) made about Justice Clarence Thomas and his courtroom style. That said, I thought I would share a few examples, albeit shorter ones, of Justice Breyer’s dialectical propensities.

During the course of oral arguments in FCC v. Nextwave Communications, Inc. (2002), a statutory interpretation case, Justice Breyer ventured to make a point by way of a hypothetical:

I learned the second year of law school–and obviously many of my colleagues don’t agree with me, but I learned the second year of law school that when you have a text which says “all,” that there are often implied, not-written exceptions. . . ‘No animals in the park’ doesn’t necessarily apply to a pet oyster . . . . 

Or consider another hypothetical Justice Breyer posed to Professor Randy Barnett, who represented the Respondents in Gonzales v. Raich (2004):

You know, he grows heroin, cocaine, tomatoes that are going to have genomes in them that could, at some point, lead to tomato children that will eventually affect Boston. … So you’re going to get around all those examples by saying what?

Of course, other examples might have been selected (say, Breyer’s hypotheticals in McCutcheon v. FEC), but that is an assignment for a more extended discussion. For now, it is enough to ask: How have Court watchers responded to the Justice Breyer’s style of questioning? Here are a few random samples of what I turned up in response to that question.

A former Harvard Law School professor, Breyer is the most verbose of the justices. He’s unleashed nearly 35,000 words during oral arguments since January, a transcript review shows. Repeatedly, he insists that lawyers imagine scenarios that are parallel to—or perhaps perpendicular to—the facts at hand. . . . When they work, hypothetical questions can reveal a contradiction or expose a fundamental legal principle. Of course, they don’t always work. — Michael Doyle, March 16, 2007

Breyer is the Court’s most frequent practitioner of the hypothetical question, a conjurer of images that are unusual and hyoccasionally bizarre. Mark Sherman, March 2, 2008

During Supreme Court arguments Wednesday in a case involving claims against high-ranking government officials over post-Sept. 11 detention practices, discussion frequently turned to an unusual hypothetical scenario posed by Justice Stephen Breyer: a lawsuit over a mouse found in a bottle of Coca-Cola. Though Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. at one point called the hypothetical “by its nature particularly absurd,” he and the other justices who adopted it seemed to find it quite instructive. Tony Mauro, December 11, 2008

Justice Breyer . . . occasionally runs the hypothetical too far out, and it becomes as complex as the underlying legal concept he is trying to make intelligible. Lyle Denniston, December 7, 2011

Justice Breyer is notorious for asking long-winded hypotheticals in which he can occasionally get lost, and unfortunately these hypotheticals may waste an advocate’s valuable time and may not be pertinent . . . . Ryan Malphurs, 2013

Justice Breyer offered one hypothetical and a view of the legal implications, then conceded he or his law clerk might have it wrong and would have to review the rules again. Bob Bauer, October 9, 2013

Justice Breyer . . . is the Talmudic scholar of hypotheticals. Art Lien, February 25, 2014

Stephen Breyer’s interminable law professor hypotheticals . . . are about drawing attention to themselves rather than helping the Court work through issues. Scott Lemiux, February 26, 2014

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Justice Stevens–Present and Past

103px-JohnPaulStevensJohn Paul Stevens has a new book coming out on how the Constitution should be amended.  Not bad for someone who is about to turn 94.

Recently, I came across a 1957 Harvard Law Review piece by Alexander Bickel commenting on a book that profiled some members of the Supreme Court.  Professor Bickel noted that: “Mr. John Paul Stevens of the Chicago Bar contributes a most artistic, affectionate, but withal not uncritical sketch of a Justice of our own day, the late Wiley Rutledge.” This must be the first time that the future Justice was mentioned in the HLR.

 

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Justice Scalia Has Gone too Far this Time

Justice Scalia has always been a lightning rod prone to inflammatory states. When Justice Scalia wrote that the majority opinion in Lawrence v. Texas would result in laws against masturbation (which did not actually exist) being found unconstitutional, some wondered if he had lost his grip on reality. And when he rewrote the history of the exclusionary rule by contending that “[s]uppression of evidence, however, has always been our last resort, not our first impulse,” many thought he was reading a different set of cases than the rest of us. His separate opinion in Arizona v. United States discovering inherent state sovereignty beyond constitutional guarantees while injecting Obama’s immigration policy statement made after oral argument in the case certainly raised a few eyebrows. Many thought he was a little over the top in stating that: “The death penalty? Give me a break. It’s easy. Abortion? Absolutely easy. Nobody ever thought the Constitution prevented restrictions on abortion. Homosexual sodomy? Come on. For 200 years, it was criminal in every state…” The list could go on.

But this time Justice Scalia has gone too far. He has crossed a line that cannot be uncrossed. In a public forum, he stated that Chicago-style pizza is not “pizza” at all joining  Jon Stewart in the unjust and unwarranted attack on one of the greatest foods on Earth.

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McReynolds on Interpreting Statutes

84px-JamescmcreynoldsOne thing that is evident when you go through Justice McReynolds’ opinions is that he was the conservative version of Holmes.  What I mean by that is that he typically wrote brief opinions and was pretty good at writing sharp prose.  (When McReynolds tried to write a longer opinion, though, things went wrong.  He was fond of cutting and pasting long quotes from past cases or historical sources.)

Consider this dissent in Federal Trade Comm’n v. Klesner, 274 U.S. 175 (1927) (this is the entire opinion)

I think the judgment of the court below should be affirmed.

If the cause involved no more than interpretation of a doubtful provision in the statute, it hardly would be worth while to record personal views. But judicial legislation is a hateful thing and I am unwilling by acquiescence to give apparent assent to the practice.

Possibly-probably, perhaps-if attention had been reasonably called to the matter Congress would have authorized the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to enforce orders of the Trade Commission. But the words of the enactment, which we must accept as deliberately chosen, give no such power; and I think this court ought not to interject what it can only suppose the lawmakers would have inserted if they had thought long enough.

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SCOTUS-Books-in-Brief – Goodbye to the Sloooow Past!

Top Five Books has just announced a forthcoming series of e-books on Supreme Court cases. The series is titled “SCOTUS: Books-in-Brief.”  It is designed to provide readers – lay and scholarly alike – with a reliable, informative, and engaging narrative account of a significant Supreme Court ruling shortly after it comes down. Provided in e-book format, each work will be economically priced and accessible on multiple e-platforms.

Each e-book will be available within a week of the decision and will consist of an historical account of the general subject, a full statement of its facts, profiles of the parties, analyses of the lower court judgments, examination of the briefs filed and the oral arguments in the WMS-cover2Supreme Court, a discussion of the larger issues raised by the case, an analysis of the final judgment, and a comprehensive timeline – and all completed and ready for e-publication shortly after a Court ruling is rendered.

The first book in the series (now virtually complete at 75,000 words save for commentary on the forthcoming ruling) is When Money Speaks: The McCutcheon Decision, Campaign Finance Laws, and the First Amendment. (See excerpt here.)

Writers Wanted!

If you are a good writer, have expertise in a certain area pertaining to a case before the Supreme Court, and can complete a 30,000-40,000 word manuscript (depending on the complexity of the case and subject matter) in a relatively short period of time, then contact us – we’d love to hear from you.

For more information about those on the advisory board and the series generally, click here.