We have previously addressed the Supreme Court’s decision in Octane Fitness, LLC v. Icon Health & Fitness, Inc., 12-1184, Slip Op. at 7 (2014), which relaxed the standard for awarding attorney’s fees under Section 285 of the Patent Act (“§285”) and ruled that decisions on §285 are entitled to deference on appeal. In the patent litigation realm, the Octane Fitness decision does not seem to have led to an overwhelming trend toward awarding fees. It does, however, beg the question: how has this impacted the standard for awarding attorney’s fees in other types of intellectual property cases, such as trademarks and trade secrets?
Patents claiming inventions which must be used to comply with certain technical standards (for example, the Wi-Fi standard or standards for 3G) are referred to as standards-essential patents or “SEPs”. There has, historically, been little judicial guidance concerning damages in cases where SEPs are implicated. The recent Federal Circuit ruling in Ericsson, Inc. v. D-Link Sys., Inc., finally provides some guidance on the issue of determining damages in such cases. No. 2013-1625, 2014 WL 6804864 (Fed. Cir. Dec. 4, 2014). In addition to providing insight on several apportionment issues specific to SEPs, the court also held that simply reciting all Georgia-Pacific factors to a jury is unacceptable and that jury instructions must only include the specific factors relevant to the evidence presented.
It’s been nearly half a year since the Supreme Court, in Octane Fitness, ostensibly lowered the standard for finding a patent case to be exceptional for purposes of fee-shifting. At the time, Octane generated much commentary and speculation, with some predicting a flood of fee awards and others predicting even more confusion at the district court level.
Since 2010, the Supreme Court has issued four decisions on patent-eligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101. In the most recent decision, Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank, the Court continued the restrictive approach set forth in its own precedents in Gottschalk v. Benson, Parker v. Flook, and Diamond v. Diehr, and invalidated patents directed to computerized methods for mitigating settlement risk by using a third-party intermediary. The most significant passage in the Alice decision is that the Court expressly adopted the two-step test it elaborated in Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories for all types of patent subject matter issues, including laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas.
In its highly anticipated decision in Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l, the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled that an abstract idea is not patentable simply because it is implemented on a computer.
In a continuing a pattern that has seemingly developed over the past several years, the Supreme Court recently overturned two more Federal Circuit decisions relating to key aspects of patent law.
In two related decisions, the Supreme Court relaxed the standard to award attorney’s fees under Section 285 of the Patent Act (“§285”) and ruled that decisions on §285 are entitled to deference on appeal. In the first case, the Court found that the Federal Circuit’s test for §285, as described in Brooks Furniture Mfg., Inc. v. Dutailier Int'l, Inc., 393 F.3d 1378, 1380 (Fed. Cir. 2005), is “unduly rigid” and inconsistent with the statutory language. Octane Fitness, LLC v. Icon Health & Fitness, Inc., 12-1184, Slip Op. at 7 (2014). The Court reasoned that the only constraint imposed by the text of §285 on a district court’s discretion to award attorney’s fees is that the case must be exceptional. Id. According to its ordinary meaning, the Court held, “an ‘exceptional’ case is simply one that stands out from others with respect to the substantive strength of a party’s litigating position . . . or the unreasonable manner in which the case was litigated.” Id. at 7-8. Further, district courts should consider the totality of the circumstances and make a case-by-case determination on §285 questions. Id. at 8. Finally, the Court held that the evidentiary burden for §285 is a preponderance of the evidence, not clear and convincing evidence as required by the Federal Circuit. Id. at 11.