Litigation

Apple Faces Trademark Lawsuit Regarding its iPhone X Animoji Feature

Kaylee Kruschke, MJLST Staffer

 

The Japanese company, emonster k.k., sued Apple in the U.S. on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017, claiming that Apple infringed emoster’s Animoji trademark with the iPhone X Animoji feature.

 

But first, what even is an Animoji? According it a Time article, an Animoji is an animal emoji that you can control with your face, and send to your friends. You simply pick an emoji, point the camera at your face, and speak. The Animoji captures your facial expression and voice. However, this technology has yet to reach consumer hands. Apple’s website says that the iPhone X, with the Animoji feature, will be available for preorder on Oct. 27, and will be available for purchase Nov. 3.

 

So why is Apple being sued over this? Well, it’s not the actual technology that’s at issue. It’s the name Animoji. emonster’s complaint states that Enrique Bonansea created the Animoji app in 2014. This app allowed users to customize moving text and images and send them in messages. The United States Patent and Trademark Office registered Animoji to Bonansea on March 31, 2015, who later assigned the trademark to emoster in Aug. 2017, according to the complaint. Bonansea also claims that he received requests from companies, that he believes were fronts for Apple, to sell the trademark in Animoji. But these requests were denied, according to the complaint.

 

The complaint also provides more information that sheds light on the fact that Apple probably knew it was infringing emonster’s trademark in Animoji. The day before Apple announced its iPhone X and the Animoji feature, Apple filed a petition with the United States Patent and Trademark Office requesting that the office cancel the Animoji trademark because emonster, Inc. didn’t exist at the time of the application for the trademark. This was a simple mistake and the paperwork should have said emonster k.k. instead of emonster, Inc.; emonster was unable to fix the error because the cancellation proceeding was already pending. To be safe, emonster applied again for registration of the trademark Animoji in Sept. 2017, but this time under the correct name, emonster k.k..

 

Additionally, Apple knew about emonster’s app because it was available on the Apple App Store. Apple also helped emonster remove apps that infringed emonster’s trademark, the complaint stated. Nevertheless, Apple still went forward with using Animoji as the name for it’s new technology.

 

The complaint also alleges that emonster did send Apple a cease-and-desist letter, but Apple continued to use name Animoji for its new technology. emonster requests that Apple be enjoined from using the name Animoji, and claims that it is also entitled to recover Apple’s profits from using the name, any ascertainable damages emonster has, and the costs emonster incurs from the suit.

 

It’s unclear what this means for Apple and the release of the iPhone X, which is in the very near future. At this time, Apple has yet to comment on the lawsuit.


What’s Shaking? Sodium Warnings Upheld in NYC Restaurants

MJLST Guest Blogger, Tommy Tobin

[Editor’s Note: This is the last in guest blogger Tommy Tobin’s latest series on Food and FDA law.  You can find the earlier posts here and here.]

New York’s intermediate appellate court recently upheld a salt shaker. In the February 10, 2017 decision, the court found that New York City could require chain restaurants to mark certain dishes with a “salt shaker” icon, warning consumers that the food contained considerable amounts of salt.

In June 2015, the City issued notice of its intent to require foodservice establishments to warn diners about high salt menu items. After considering over 90 comments and a public hearing, the city adopted its “Sodium Warning” Rule, effective December 1, 2015. In adopting the Rule, the City noted that cardiovascular disease was the leading cause of death in the City and that higher sodium intake was related to increased blood pressure. Further, New York City residents regularly consumed more than the daily recommended amount of sodium and restaurant food was a “primary source” of the salt in New Yorkers’ diets.

The Rule requires chain restaurants—defined as foodservice establishments with 15 or more locations that offered similar menu items—to note food items or meal combinations containing the daily recommended amount of sodium with a specific warning. The warning mandates that a salt shaker icon be placed next to applicable menu items. It also required the following language be displayed at the point of purchase, explaining that the icon “indicates that the sodium (salt) content of this item is higher than the total recommended limit (2300 mg). High sodium intake can increase blood pressure and risk of heart disease and stroke.” The Rule imposes a $200 penalty for non-compliance.

Writing for a unanimous five justice panel, Justice Gesmer ruled against the National Restaurant Association, which had as members more than half the chain restaurants that would be affected by the Rule. The Association challenged the Rule on three grounds, arguing that it violated the separation of powers, was preempted by federal law, and infringed upon its members’ First Amendment rights.

Regarding the separation of powers, the Association argued that City’s health department had exceeded its authority and encroached upon legislative functions in making the Rule. The court was explicit in rejecting the Association’s argument, finding that providing health-related information was the “least intrusive way” to influence citizens’ decision-making. The Rule provided further information to consumers regarding health risks and left it to the diners themselves to decide their dietary choices. The court found that the City has “always regulated” restaurants as necessary to promote public health and did not exceed its authority in adopting this Rule. The court also noted that the same chain restaurants are subject to the City’s calorie content warnings for high-calorie menu items

The Association further argued that the City’s Rule was preempted by federal law, which requires nutrition labeling on grocery store foods. The court rejected this argument as the federal law in question, the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act (NLEA), contained provisions excluding certain warnings and foods from its preemptive effects. Relying on 21 U.S.C. § 343(q) and Second Circuit’s decision in New York State Restaurant Association v. New York City Board of Health, 556 F.3d 114, 124 (2nd Cir. 2009), the court found that the NLEA permits states and localities to establish nutrition labeling for restaurant foods, provided that they are not identical to federal requirements.

The court also examined the appellant’s First Amendment arguments. The Rule would compel commercial speech by placing the salt warnings on menus. Applying the Second Circuit’s New York Restaurant Association, the court examined this compelled commercial speech requirement under a lenient rational basis test. The court found that City’s intended purpose to improve consumer knowledge of potential health risks of salty foods was reasonable. Moreover, the Rule’s applicability only to chain restaurants was not arbitrary or capricious; instead, it was based on health considerations and to facilitate compliance.

The Rule upheld by the court provides advocates new lessons on how to nudge consumers in making point-of-purchase decisions to promote public health. Given the prevalence of cardiovascular disease across the country, additional jurisdictions may consider adopting provisions similar to the “Sodium Warning” Rule. Time will tell how future salt warnings might shake out.

The case is National Restaurant Association v. New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene et al., No. 2629, — N.Y.S.3d —- (N.Y. App. Div. Feb. 10, 2017).


As Clear as Milk: Misleading Milk Marketing?

MJLST Guest Blogger, Tommy Tobin

[Editor’s Note: This is the second in guest blogger Tommy Tobin’s latest series on Food and FDA law.  You can find his earlier post here.]

Milk and cookies are one of the quintessential American comfort food combinations. Even so, considerable controversy has arisen out of products being labeled and sold as “milk.” I guess that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.

“Milk” has a precise regulatory definition under 21 C.F.R. § 131.110. Inter alia, “milk” is “the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.” Leave it to the C.F.R. to make food sound delicious.

The Eleventh Circuit recently decided that a “skim milk” product could be sold as such. The Circuit’s March 20, 2017 decision in Ocheesee Creamery LLC v. Putnam examined whether a Florida statute barred the business from labeling its product “skim milk” if it did not contain Vitamin A. The court below had upheld that law, and the dairy appealed claiming infringement of its free speech rights. Using dictionary definitions and common sense, the panel ruled that the dairy’s use of the words “skim milk” to describe its skim milk would not mislead consumers.

As consumers walk around the grocery store, they may see other products labeled “milk.” As the AP declared, “fake milk” is one of America’s latest food fights. In addition to milk from cows, consumers may see products labeled as “milk” that are derived from almonds, soy, coconuts, or rice. Would consumers actually get confused between these “milk” products and cow milk? The Northern District of California said no.

In a 2013 decision in Ang v. Whitewave Foods Co., consumers brought suit asserting, inter alia, that products like “soymilk,” “almond milk,” and “coconut milk” represented fraudulent business practices and false advertising as they did not come from cows. The court found the claim utterly ridiculous, finding that the descriptions accurately described the nature of the products. The opinion reasoned that “it is simply implausible that a reasonable consumer would mistake a product like soymilk or almond milk with dairy milk from a cow. The first words in the products’ names should be obvious enough to even the least discerning of consumers.”

In 2015, the Northern District of California revisited whether “soymilk” would mislead a reasonable consumer.  In Gitson v. Trader Joe’s, the federal court examined whether advertising a product as “soymilk” would violate the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. The court first examined whether the use of “soymilk” was false or misleading, finding that the “reasonable consumer (indeed, even the least sophisticated consumer) does not think soymilk comes from a cow.” Second, the court analyzed whether “soymilk” ran afoul of the regulatory definition of “milk” discussed above. The court concluded that Trader Joe’s did not attempt to pass off its soymilk as “milk,” that is the soymilk was not purported to come from a cow.

While many might find the courtroom melee over milk to be melodrama, figuring out what’s in a name is more than making a mountain out of a molehill. It may matter to companies’ bottom lines.

From mayonnaise to margarine, food fights over standards of identity are likely to increase given the rate of innovation in the food industry and its creative marketers, according to the Food+Bev Law Blog. As noted there, “what you call a food clearly influences consumers’ opinions and purchasing decisions.” Time will tell how companies and consumers react to evolving identities and innovation throughout the food industry.


The Future of Zero-Calorie Soft Drink Trademarks After the TTAB’s Coke Zero™ Ruling and Dr. Pepper Snapple’s Pending Federal Circuit Appeal

Joseph Novak, MJLST Staffer

For the past 13 years, Coca-Cola has been trying to trademark nothing. Well not actually nothing. Zero. As in zero calories. During this time, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) has denied trademarking Zero for soft drinks, as the term was either generic (Referring to the genus of the good, i.e. Coke Zero as a zero calorie sports drink) or merely descriptive (Describing what the good is, i.e. “Zero” describing “Coke” as a zero-calorie version of the drink); neither of which is distinctive enough upon the Abercrombie spectrum to warrant trademark protection.

Not surprisingly, other large soft drink companies have opposed allowing Coke to register “Zero”, as no other company would be able to use “Zero” on their own mark subsequent to Coke obtaining such a trademark. This past May, the TTAB issued a ruling in favor of Coke (over the opposition of Dr. Pepper Snapple Group) allowing Coke to register numerous trademarks containing “Zero” for their soft drinks. The TTAB held that “Zero” had “acquired distinctiveness through a showing of secondary meaning”, which is a fancy way of saying that Coke had proven that the millions of dollars they had spent on marketing “Zero” meant that consumers of soft drinks were now likely to associate the term “Zero” with the Coca-Cola brand.

The TTAB ruling also contemplates Coke’s trademark infringement claim against Dr. Pepper’s “Diet Rite Pure Zero” mark for likelihood of confusion. For a mark to infringe upon another, the potentially infringing mark must cause confusion to the consuming public as to source, i.e. a showing that consumers of soft drinks would confuse the source of “Diet Rite Pure Zero” with “Coke Zero” given the distinctiveness of the “Coke Zero” mark. The TTAB essentially punts the infringement issue, dismissing Coke’s infringement claim for a failure to prove priority (because Coke could not show that they had acquired distinctiveness through before Dr. Pepper’s use of the term “Zero”, there was no infringement cause of action).

Dr. Pepper Snapple has appealed the issue of distinctiveness to the Federal Circuit, asking the court to find “Zero” as generic for zero-calorie soft drinks. That appeal is still pending. Assuming the TTAB’s finding of acquired distinctiveness for “Coke Zero” holds, the question becomes whether future uses of “[Soft Drink X] Zero” will be barred by the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) for likelihood of confusion with “Coke Zero”? Or does this TTAB ruling only prevent future use of “Zero” on its own as a mark for soft drinks?

As outlined in this previous MJLST article, both the PTO (in deciding whether or not to register a trademark) and the Federal Circuit (who hears appeals from TTAB decisions) use the Dupont factors to determine whether there is a confusing similarity between a pending mark and an existing mark. These 13 factors, analyzed together as a whole, include:

  1. The similarity or dissimilarity of the marks in their entireties as to appearance, sound, connotation, and commercial impression.
  2. The similarity or dissimilarity and nature of the goods described in an application or registration or in connection with which a prior mark is in use.
  3. The similarity or dissimilarity of established, likely-to-continue trade channels.
  4. The conditions under which and buyers to whom sales are made, i.e. “impulse” vs. careful, sophisticated purchasing.
  5. The fame of the prior mark.
  6. The number and nature of similar marks in use on similar goods.
  7. The nature and extent of any actual confusion.
  8. The length of time during and the conditions under which there has been concurrent use without evidence of actual confusion.
  9. The variety of goods on which a mark is or is not used.
  10. The market interface between the applicant and the owner of a prior mark.
  11. The extent to which applicant has a right to exclude others from use of its mark on its goods.
  12. The extent of potential confusion.
  13. Any other established fact probative of the effect of use.

Like many likelihood of confusion cases, the analysis would likely come down to (1) similarity between the marks in terms of sight, sound, and meaning, and (2) whether or not either side could show actual confusion or a lack of such. For example, Coke would argue that any subsequent use of “Zero” in connection with a soft drink would be likely to confuse consumers that (according to the TTAB ruling) have come to associate “Zero” and soft drinks with Coca-Cola products. On the other hand, any subsequent user of “Zero” for soft drinks would likely have to rely upon a dissimilarity in appearance of the mark (as “Zero” would be the same in terms of sound and meaning), or show a lack of actual confusion between the two marks. Otherwise, the potential subsequent user could attempt to argue that “Coke Zero” is the mark in its entirety, and that “[Soft Drink X] Zero” is inherently dissimilar in its nature and thus, unlikely to cause consumer confusion.

In any regard, evidence of actual consumer confusion often comes down to which side has better survey design and results, which often correlates with which side has more resources to conduct such a survey. Thus, if the Federal Circuit upholds the TTAB decision to allow the “Zero” trademark, you better believe that Coca-Cola will put in a hero-like effort to protect their long sought-after victory over “Zero.”


The Excitement and Danger of Autonomous Vehicles

Tyler Hartney, MJLST Staffer

“Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads.”

Ok. Sorry Doc. Brown, but vehicular technology is not quite to where Back to the Future thought it would be in 2017; but, there are a substantial amount of companies making investments into autonomous vehicles. Ford invested $1 billion to acquire an artificial intelligence startup company that had been founded by engineers previously employed by Google and Uber with the intent to develop self-driving vehicles. Tesla already has an autopilot feature in all of its vehicles. Tesla includes a warning on its website that the use of the Self-Driving functionality maybe limited depending on regulations that vary by jurisdiction.

To grasp an understanding of what many of the experts are saying in this field, one must be familiar with the six levels of autonomy:

  1. No autonomy
  2. Driver assistance level – most functions still controlled by human driver
  3. At least one driver assistance system – cruise control or lane monitoring
  4. Critical safety features – shifts emergency safety features such as accident awareness from vehicle to human
  5. Fully autonomous – designed for the vehicle to perform all critical safety features and monitor road and traffic conditions
  6. Human like autonomy – fully capable of autonomy even in extreme environments such as off-road driving

The societal benefits could be vast. With level 4 autonomy on household vehicles, parents and siblings need not worry about driving the kids to soccer practice because the car is fully capable of doing it for them. Additionally, the ridesharing economy, which has grown incredibly fast over the past few years, would likely see a drastic shift away from human drivers. Companies have already begun to make vehicles for the purpose of clean energy ride sharing using autonomous vehicles such as Ollie. Ollie is an electric and 3D printed bus that can be summoned by those in need of a ride in a similar fashion to Uber.

While this self-driving vehicle technology is exciting, are we really there yet? Last June, a fatal car accident occurred involving a Tesla using its autopilot function. The driver in this case had previously touted his car saving him from an accident; he was very confident in the ability of his vehicle. It was later reported by a witness that there was a portable DVD player in the car that was found playing Harry Potter at the time of the accident. If this witness is correct, the driver of the vehicle violated the Tesla disclaimer that reads the autopilot feature “is an assist feature that requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times.” Some experts argue these manufacturers have to be more upfront about the limitations of their autopilot feature and how drivers should be cautious in the use of this advanced technology. It is no question that the driver of the Tesla (if you can call him that?) was reckless in the use of this technology. But what about the liability of the vehicle manufacturer?

The deceased’s family hired a product defect litigation law firm to conduct an investigation in conjunction with the federal government’s investigation. The goal of these investigations was to determine if Tesla is at fault for the vehicle’s autopilot feature failing to stop. Recently, news broke that the government investigation concluded that no recall must be made for the Tesla vehicles nor did the government levy any fines to the automaker. The government reported that the autopilot feature was not defective at the time of the crash because it was built to protect the driver from rear-end collisions (the man’s car rear-ended a truck) and also gave notice to consumers that the driver must remain fully attentive to the operation of the vehicle.

Legally, it appears that plaintiffs won’t likely have much luck in suits against Tesla in cases like this. The company requires purchasers to sign a contract stating the autopilot function is not to be considered self-driving and that they are aware they will have to remain attentive and keep their hands on the wheel at all times. However, Tesla operates on an interesting structure where purchasers buy directly from the manufacturer which may give them more of the ability to engage in these types of contracts with their consumers. Other automobile manufacturers may have a more difficult time maneuvering around liability for accidents that occur when the vehicle is driving itself. Car companies are going to have to ensure they provide repeated reminders to consumers that, until technology is tested and confidence in the feature is significantly higher, that the autopilot features are in the beta-testing mode and driver attention and intervention is still required.


Exploring the Final Frontier—The Relevance of Brain Imaging in Litigation

Mary Riverso, MJLST Staffer

Human curiosity and technological advancements have led to the exploration of the ends of the earth, the deep seas, even outer space. We have learned so much about the animals we live amongst, the nooks and crannies of planet Earth, and our role in the universe. But as we continue to explore farther and farther outward, we often overlook how little we actually know about ourselves.

The human brain remains predominantly mysterious and unknown. Neuroscientists continue to attempt to map the brain, to assign different functions and behaviors to the different regions of the brain supposedly responsible for them. However, a thorough understanding remains nearly impossible given the intricate circuitry of brain functioning. While certain areas of the brain are sometimes responsible for discrete tasks, complex functions are not exclusively localized. It is more accurate to think of the brain as composed of neuron circuits – the different regions constantly connecting with one another via neuron circuits to work together to process information and complete tasks. Technological advancements now allow for many groundbreaking and non-invasive means of observing the functioning brain. For example, devices administering scans for functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, monitor blood flow to detect areas of activity. Whereas an electroencephalogram, or EEG, is a test that measures and records the electrical activity of your brain. Finally, magnetoencephalography, or MEG, captures the magnetic fields generated by neural activity. As the capacity and means to monitor brain functioning expand, the potential for successful brain mapping increases. As a result, using brain images resulting from these scans as evidence in litigation becomes more tempting.

The potential for brain imaging to be used as expert evidence in litigation is already being explored. Criminal defendants, such as Herbert Weinstein, want to use the results from brain scans and tests to show that they are not responsible for their criminal actions due to a physical mental disease or defect. Other defense teams see the potential of brain imaging to aid in assessments of truth-telling. Physicians who administer the tests must be willing to testify as expert witnesses to the results and their medical conclusions. Often times, the physicians probe brain function and analyze energy utilization of the brain and then administer tests of human behavior and mental representations to provide a basis for their medical conclusions. However, a major hurdle for potential neuroscientific evidence is its relevance under Federal Rule of Evidence 401 (“FRE 401”). FRE 401 demands that before such evidence be admitted, it must have a tendency to make a fact of consequence more of less probable. But because the brain remains so misunderstand, it is difficult, or arguably impossible, to draw any exact conclusions that a physical disease or defect in fact caused a behavioral or mental defect.  As a result, courts have come out on either side of the threshold issue in FRE 401 – some have found that the neuroscientific evidence is appropriate for consideration by a jury who can decide what inferences to draw from it, while others find that this kind of evidence is too prejudicial while being only minimally probative and exclude the evidence under FRE 403, and still others allow the evidence but only for limited purposes, such as the sentencing phase of proceedings instead of the guilt phase. As technology continues to advance and neuroscientists continue to learn more about brain functioning, this kind of evidence may become commonplace in litigation. But for now, the admissibility decision seems to be fact-and-circumstance dependent, based on the case, the expert, the evidence, and the judge.


Did the Warriors Commit a Flagrant Privacy Foul?

Paul Gaus, MJLST Staffer

Fans of the National Basketball Association (NBA) know the Golden State Warriors for the team’s offensive exploits on the hardwood. The Warriors boast the NBA’s top offense at nearly 120 points per game. However, earlier this year, events in a different type of court prompted the Warriors to play some defense. On August 29, 2016, a class action suit filed in the Northern District of California alleged the Warriors, along with co-defendants Sonic Notify Inc. and Yinzcam, Inc., violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (18 U.S.C. §§ 2510, et. seq.).

Satchell v. Sonic Notify, Inc. et al, focuses on the team’s mobile app. The Warriors partnered with the two other co-defendants to create an app based on beacon technology. The problem, as put forth in the complaint, is that the beacon technology the co-defendants employed mined the plaintiff’s microphone embedded in the smartphone to listen for nearby beacons. The complaint alleges this enabled the Warriors to access the plaintiff’s conversation without her consent.

The use of beacon technology is heralded in the business world as a revolutionary mechanism to connect consumers to the products they seek. Retailers, major sports organizations, and airlines regularly use beacons to connect with consumers. However, traditional beacon technology is based on Bluetooth. According to the InfoSec Institute, mobile apps send out signals and gather data on the basis of Bluetooth signals received. This enables targeted advertising on smartphones.

However, the complaint in Satchell maintains the defendants relied on a different kind of beacon technology: audio beacon technology. In contrast to Bluetooth beacon technology, audio beacon technology relies on sounds. For functionality, audio beacons must continuously listen for audio signals through the smartphone user’s microphone. Therefore, the Warriors app permitted the co-defendants to listen to the plaintiff’s private conversations on her smartphone – violating the plaintiff’s reasonable expectation of privacy.

While the Warriors continue to rack up wins on the court, Satchell has yet to tip off. As of December 5, 2016, the matter remains in the summary judgment phase.


6th Circuit Aligns With 7th Circuit on Data Breach Standing Issue

John Biglow, MJLST Managing Editor

To bring a suit in any judicial court in the United States, an individual, or group of individuals must satisfy Article III’s standing requirement. As recently clarified by the Supreme Court in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 136 S. Ct. 1540 (2016), to meet this requirement, a “plaintiff must have (1) suffered an injury in fact, (2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and (3) that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision.” Id. at 1547. When cases involving data breaches have entered the Federal Circuit courts, there has been some disagreement as to whether the risk of future harm from data breaches, and the costs spent to prevent this harm, qualify as “injuries in fact,” Article III’s first prong.

Last Spring, I wrote a note concerning Article III standing in data breach litigation in which I highlighted the Federal Circuit split on the issue and argued that the reasoning of the 7th Circuit court in Remijas v. Neiman Marcus Group, LLC, 794 F.3d 688 (7th Cir. 2015) was superior to its sister courts and made for better law. In Remijas, the plaintiffs were a class of individuals whose credit and debit card information had been stolen when Neiman Marcus Group, LLC experienced a data breach. A portion of the class had not yet experienced any fraudulent charges on their accounts and were asserting Article III standing based upon the risk of future harm and the time and money spent mitigating this risk. In holding that these Plaintiffs had satisfied Article III’s injury in fact requirement, the court made a critical inference that when a hacker steals a consumer’s private information, “[p]resumably, the purpose of the hack is, sooner or later, to make fraudulent charges or assume [the] consumers’ identit[y].” Id. at 693.

This inference is in stark contrast to the line of reasoning engaged in by the 3rd Circuit in Reilly v. Ceridian Corp. 664 F.3d 38 (3rd Cir. 2011).  The facts of Reilly were similar to Remijas, except that in Reilly, Ceridian Corp., the company that had experienced the data breach, stated only that their firewall had been breached and that their customers’ information may have been stolen. In my note, mentioned supra, I argued that this difference in facts was not enough to wholly distinguish the two cases and overcome a circuit split, in part due to the Reilly court’s characterization of the risk of future harm. The Reilly court found that the risk of misuse of information was highly attenuated, reasoning that whether the Plaintiffs experience an injury depended on a series of “if’s,” including “if the hacker read, copied, and understood the hacked information, and if the hacker attempts to use the information, and if he does so successfully.” Id. at 43 (emphasis in original).

Often in the law, we are faced with an imperfect or incomplete set of facts. Any time an individual’s intent is an issue in a case, this is a certainty. When faced with these situations, lawyers have long utilized inferences to differentiate between more likely and less likely scenarios for what the missing facts are. In the case of a data breach, it is almost always the case that both parties will have little to no knowledge of the intent, capabilities, or plans of the hacker. However, it seems to me that there is room for reasonable inferences to be made about these facts. When a hacker is sophisticated enough to breach a company’s defenses and access data, it makes sense to assume they are sophisticated enough to utilize that data. Further, because there is risk involved in executing a data breach, because it is illegal, it makes sense to assume that the hacker seeks to gain from this act. Thus, as between the Reilly and Remijas courts’ characterizations of the likelihood of misuse of data, it seemed to me that the better rule is to assume that the hacker is able to utilize the data and plans to do so in the future. Further, if there are facts tending to show that this inference is wrong, it is much more likely at the pleading stage that the Defendant Corporation would be in possession of this information than the Plaintiff(s).

Since Remijas, there have been two data breach cases that have made it to the Federal Circuit courts on the issue of Article III standing. In Lewert v. P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, Inc., 819 F.3d 963, 965 (7th Cir. 2016), the court unsurprisingly followed the precedent set forth in their recent case, Remijas, in finding that Article III standing was properly alleged. In Galaria v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., a recent 6th Circuit case, the court had to make an Article III ruling without the constraint of an earlier ruling in their Circuit, leaving the court open to choose what rule and reasoning to apply. Galaria v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., No. 15-3386, 2016 WL 4728027, (6th Cir. Sept. 12, 2016). In the case, the Plaintiffs alleged, among other claims, negligence and bailment; these claims were dismissed by the district court for lack of Article III standing. In alleging that they had suffered an injury in fact, the Plaintiffs alleged “a substantial risk of harm, coupled with reasonably incurred mitigation costs.” Id. at 3. In holding that this was sufficient to establish Article III standing at the pleading stage, the Galaria court found the inference made by the Remijas court to be persuasive, stating that “[w]here a data breach targets personal information, a reasonable inference can be drawn that the hackers will use the victims’ data for the fraudulent purposes alleged in Plaintiffs’ complaints.” Moving forward, it will be intriguing to watch how Federal Circuits who have not faced this issue, like the 6th circuit before deciding Galaria, rule on this issue and whether, if the 3rd Circuit keeps its current reasoning, this issue will eventually make its way to the Supreme Court of the United States.


Solving the “Patent Troll” Problem

Travis Waller, MJLST Managing Editor

“Dovre: What’s the distinction between troll and man?

Peer: So far as I know, there is none, by my score.

The big want to roast you, the small ones to scratch you; —

same as with us, if they dare but catch you.”

Henrik Ibsen, Peer Gynt, Act II, ll. 903–06 (John Northam, trans., 2007) (1876).

In recent events, internet “trolling” has become something of a hot issue. This discussion will not address internet trolling (even tangentially), but will instead endeavor to shed light upon a different, often craftier member of troll-kind: the patent troll.

To begin, what is a “patent troll?” The term has taken a somewhat expansive usage since its original appearance in a 1990’s educational video released to corporations. Today, the term can refer to a broad range of practices, but most commonly is understood as the practice of an individual or corporation (sometimes with a large patent portfolio) that abusively uses the threat of enforcement litigation for overly broad, and probably invalid, patents that it has acquired to essentially extort licensing agreements from companies (often quite small) that do not necessarily have the resources to devote to patent litigation, and are likely not even infringing on the “trolls” patented invention to begin with.

Since that was a mouthful, let me provide an example:

Company A (the “troll”) purchases a patent on invention A3;

Company B independently creates invention ABC123, and acquires a patent;

Company A claims that patent A3 reads on patent ABC123, because it claims elements A3 are contained in Company B’s patent ABC123;

Company A sends a letter to Company B demanding that it licenses patent A3, or will face a “prompt” litigation action.

In this example, Company B, fearing that Company A may actually be within it’s legal rights, agrees to pay Company A the fee to license patent A3 for fear of Company A filing expensive patent litigation against Company B, even though a court would almost certainly find that invention ABC123 is nothing like patent A3, and therefore that Company B is not infringing on Company A’s rights (for a few “real world” examples, as well as a dash of technology industry gossip, see this article by Business Insider).

The question arising from situations like this that many courts and lawmakers have hemmed and hawed over is this: who is right? On the one hand, federal patent law strives to protect the rights of the legitimate inventor, and incentivize the very “progress of the useful arts”. On the other hand, how can the law protect companies and individuals like Company B from being bullied by the aggressive assertion of patent rights by companies like Company A?

The answers have manifested themselves mostly through federal and state law making, starting first with the enactment of the Lahey-Smith America Invents Act (the “AIA” for those in the know). This Act modified existing US patent law to allow for a process called “post-grant opposition,” which essentially allows individuals to challenge the validity of a patent after it has been issued by the USPTO, but without having to set foot in a courtroom (theoretically creating a much cheaper option than trial for individuals seeking to invalidate broad patents) (for more info on the process, see here).

The AIA is still relatively new (enacted in 2012), and it is hard to say for certain how this procedure has affected the act of “patent trolling”, however some have made the claim that the AIA has not had the effect of “starving patent trolls” that the lawmakers hoped it would (see here for more discussion on this point).

As such, individual states have taken the fore in this fight against the patent troll, and it is often the case that state consumer protection agencies make up the front lines, by way of various state unfair trade practice laws. However, many state legislatures have taken a much more targeted strategy, and have begun to arm their agencies with the ability to specifically bring actions against individuals and corporations for the “bad faith assertion of patent rights” (as of 2016, Minnesota became one such state).

This action gives state agencies a huge benefit in targeting “troll-like” behavior in the patent industry, but at what cost? Federal patent law preemption issues aside for right now (and yes, they are out there), how exactly will an agency define what “trolling” is? How will state agencies determine that the assertion of the patent right was “in bad faith?” Moreover, how will this effect an otherwise uniform protection that patent holders have across the US?

These questions, and many more, will no doubt need to be addressed by states adopting the “bad faith assertion of patent rights” statutes. For now, since I don’t have an answer off-hand to this incredibly intricate legal and policy question, I will simply eco the words of Henrik Ibsen: “what is the distinction between troll and man?” What is the distinction between patent troll, and legitimate inventor? And finally, are these definitions really something we want to leave in the hands of state agencies, which may or may not be relatively unsophisticated in the intricacies of federal patent law?

My initial impression is one of skepticism, but if the willingness of a great deal of state legislators to adopt such measures can be taken as some indication of a nationwide public demand for a new way to address these issues, maybe this is the start of a conversation that should have happened some time ago.


Halo Electronics v. Pulse Electronics: More Discretion of District Courts in Granting Enhanced Damages

Tianxiang (Max) Zhou, MJLST Staffer

The recent US Supreme Court case, Halo Electronics v. Pulse Electronics, grants district courts more discretion in determining “enhanced damages.” The previous clear standard of the enhanced damages became murkier after this case and left much room for lower courts to decide what constitutes enhanced damages.

Section 284 of the Patent Act provides that, in a case of infringement, courts “may increase the damages up to three times the amount found or assessed.” Enhanced damages are appropriate only when the patentee proves, by clear and convincing evidence, that the infringer “willfully” infringed the patent. Prior to Halo, courts adopted a bifurcated approach to enhanced damages established in In re Seagate: First, the patentee must show the infringer’s recklessness by clear and convincing evidence, that “the infringer acted despite an objectively high likelihood that its actions constituted infringement of a valid patent.” If the objective standard of recklessness is satisfied, then patentee must demonstrate that the risk was either known or so obvious that it should have been known to the accused infringer.

In Halo, the jury in the district court found a high probability that the infringement was willful. However, the district court refused to grant an enhanced damages based on the two-part test, and found as a matter of law, that the patentee did not prove objective recklessness of the infringer. The Federal Circuit Court affirmed the decision.

However, the Supreme Court reversed the Appeal Court’s decision, and rejected the two-part test set forth in In re Seagate. Specifically, the Supreme Court, citing Octane Fitness LLC v. ICON Heath & Fitness, Inc, found that the test is “unduly rigid, and it impermissibly encumbers the statutory grant of discretion to district courts.” Though rejecting the two-part test, the Supreme Court did not give a clear guideline for lower courts to follow. Halo provides that, “[a]s with any exercise of discretion, courts should continue to take into account the particular circumstances of each case in deciding whether to award damages, and in what amount.” According to the Supreme Court, district courts are “‘to be guided by [the] sound legal principles’ developed over nearly two centuries of application and interpretation of the Patent Act.” Besides, the Supreme Court found that the prior two-part test, which requires a finding of objective recklessness, excludes discretionary punishment of “wanton and malicious pirate” who intentionally infringes another’s patent, and a district may grant enhanced damages even in the absence of a finding such objective recklessness.

Overall,  Halo broadened district courts’ discretion in evaluating facts of patent infringement and granting enhanced damages. While the Halo decision will definitely increase the unpredictability of patent infringement lawsuits, it is still unclear whether the broad discretion of district courts will open the gate of flood of enhanced damages. Besides, before we think about the standard of enhanced damages, it is also worthy to consider the policy implications of enhanced damages, and to ask whether and when enhanced damages are appropriate. Anyway, it would be exciting to see a clearer standard of enhanced damages in future cases, or amendments of laws and regulations.