Intellectual Property

Countdown Sochi ’14: Will the USOC Avoid Repeat of Ravelry Stitch?

by Comi Sharif, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff
Next month, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) will launch its “Road to Sochi Tour” to count down the final 100 days leading up to the 2014 Winter Olympics. As the games draw near, we are likely to see a rapid increase in the amount of Olympic advertisements and related promotions. From cereal box covers to credit card commercials narrated by Morgan Freeman, materials will flood the market for the weeks leading up to the competition, to the point where one cannot help but get caught up in “Olympic Fever“. The Olympics bring the joy of cheering on our fellow countrymen (and countrywomen) regardless of whether we have ever heard of them or their sport, let alone watched on television before the Games. Though American athletes put in countless hours of commitment in preparation to represent our country, all of it would be for naught without the efforts of the USOC.

Formed in 1894, the USOC is driven by its mission to support U.S. Olympic and Paralympic competitive excellence while exhibiting the values of the Olympic Movement. The key element of this responsibility is generating and allocating revenue. Though the USOC is federally sanctioned under the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act (ASA), the non-profit corporation does not receive federal financial support. For this reason, the USOC relies heavily on sponsorships to fund its programs.

Due to the importance of sponsorships, the USOC has a major incentive to maintain its positive brand along with the reputation of the Olympics as a whole. For this reason, the ASA also grants the USOC exclusive rights to use a number of words and marks in a commercial or athletic context, including the name “United States Olympic Committee,” the International Olympic Committee symbol (consisting of 5 interlocking rings), and the words “Olympic,” and “Olympiad.” Congress has even granted enhanced protections and enforcement powers to the USOC in some circumstances. As part of these rights, the USOC can authorize the use of the protected words and marks by sponsors as well as bring legal action against violators under the Lanham Act. The rationale is that the more control over Olympic intellectual property the USOC holds, the further it can maintain and promote its good name. This, in turn, makes the exclusive right to use Olympic words and marks more valuable to sponsors, which generates more capital that can be used for the U.S. Olympic program.

The scope of the exclusive rights under the ASA has often been a source of controversy, however. Though many alleged infringers discontinue their use upon the receipt of a USOC-issued cease and desist letter, a number of disputes have been brought to court to challenge the scope of the USOC’s protection and enforcement rights under the ASA.

Author Marcella David discusses one case in particular in Trademark Unraveled: The U.S. Olympic Committee Versus Knitters of the World (Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, Vol. 14.2), involving alleged infringement by Ravelry.com in its use of the word “Ravelympics.” Rather than sending a conventional cease and desist letter, the USOC informed Ravelry.com that their use was not only infringing on the USOC’s trademarks, but that their use tends to “denigrate the true nature of the Olympic Games.” Instead of convincing Ravelry.com to switch the name of its event, the letter sparked outrage throughout the online community. Ironically, in an attempt to protect its reputation, the USOC managed to do the exact opposite shortly before the Olympics were set to begin. In her article, David assesses the USOC’s claims of infringement against Ravelry.com while noting areas in need of improvement in the current legal framework of trademark infringement enforcement.

As intellectual property infringement becomes increasingly difficult to prevent and enforce against in the age of the Internet, owners need to be creative and proactive to limit unauthorized use. In regards to the USOC, this means not going too far in enforcing rights, however. So until there is more clarity as to the extent of the USOC’s protection under the ASA, we may be in store for a repeat of the Ravelry fiasco in the coming months. Let the countdown begin!


Will AIA Post-Grant Procedures Reduce Litigation?

by Nihal Parkar, UMN Law Student, MJLST StaffNihal-Parkar-Thumbnail-White-Back.jpgThe America Invents Act (AIA) was signed into law in 2011 and fully went into effect on March 16, 2013. The AIA resulted from efforts to strengthen the US patent system and bring it in conformity with global patenting standards. One of the aims of the AIA was to reduce post-grant litigation related to patent validity. It is common for alleged infringers to challenge the validity of patents that are asserted against them in court. However, such litigation can be expensive and protracted.

Pre-AIA patent law did provide for some processes for challenging patent validity, but they were limited. The AIA tries to expand on pre-existing post-grant patent challenges by providing for patent challenge procedures that mirror litigation (discovery, witness examination, and so on) at an alternative forum for resolving validity disputes: the Patent Trial and Appeal Board at the US Patent and Trademark Office.

It is interesting to contrast pre-AIA scholarly analysis of patent challenge procedures and suggested reforms with post-AIA studies. The Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology provides two contrasting articles on point. An earlier, pre-AIA article by Matthew Sag and Kurt Rohde, Patent Reform and Differential Impact (8 Minn. J.L. Sci. & Tech. 1, 2006) proposed a multistage post-grant review process. They addressed the lack of discovery and other issues in pre-AIA post-grant processes, and concluded that discovery would be unnecessary as long as the scope of reviewable issues was kept narrow. A recent MJLST note by Kayla Fossen, The Post-Grant Problem: America Invents Falling Short (14 Minn. J.L. Sci. & Tech. 573, 2013), reviews the changes introduced by the AIA, and points out that post-grant processes cannot really undo the damage created by ineffective pre-grant procedures. Therefore, the AIA is unlikely to significantly impact post-grant litigation.


Supreme Court to the Rescue: The First Sale Doctrine Survives

by Benjamin Hamborg, UMN Law Student, MJLST Articles Editor

Thumbnail-Benjamin-Hamborg.jpgAs predicted inJohn Wiley & Sons, Inc. v. Kirtsaeng: The Uncertain Future of the First-Sale Doctrine, the Supreme Court last month held, by a 6-3 margin, that the first sale doctrine does apply to works lawfully made outside of the United States. The first sale doctrine, which allows the lawful owner of a copyrighted work to dispose of that copy as he or she sees fit, was in danger of disappearing as applied to works manufactured overseas after the Second Circuit decided in August of 2011 that the doctrine only applied to works made in America.

Hailed by many as a victory for American consumers, See Gary Shapiro, Supreme Court Gives American Consumers Victory Over Copyright Owners in Kirtsaeng vs. John Wiley & Sons, FORBES (March 20, 2013, 9:16 AM), the decision also represents an important victory for American manufacturing. A decision to the contrary by the Supreme Court would have given companies in the United States, particularly publishing companies, an incentive to move manufacturing plants oversees in order to gain unlimited control over the resale of their products. In fact, any company would have been able to gain such control simply by affixing a copyrightable image or other work to an uncopyrightable product, such as a watch. Of course, as pointed out in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished, it remains to be seen whether this decision has a negative impact on the rest of the world, as publishers now have a disincentive to sell textbooks at a discounted rate in impoverished countries. See Roy Zwahlen, Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished, PATENTLY BIOTECH (March 26, 2013).


Six Strikes and You’re Out: Can a New RIAA Policy Solve Old Online File Sharing Problems?

by Ian Birrell

Thumbnail-Ian-Birrell.jpgSince at least 1999 when Napster was originally launched, internet piracy, or downloading copyrighted materials (especially songs, videos, and games,) has been a contentious activity. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has historically taken a very public and aggressive stance by finding individuals associated with IP addresses matching those where this “file sharing” is coming from. After finding such a target, the RIAA would send a letter demanding a settlement for thousands of dollars or threatening litigation, risky and expensive to the target, despite a potentially very small monetary value of downloaded material. The RIAA suits, which have continued for a number of years, include a number of well publicized absurd claims.

This journal has written on the RIAA policies before. In 2008, we published a student note by Daniel Reynolds named The RIAA Litigation War on File Sharing and Alternatives more Compatible with Public Morality. Reynolds argued then that the policies were ineffective and unconscionable and urged change.

Change is coming. Later this year, after a number of years in development, a number of major carriers are planning to institute a “six-strikes” plan. This is a voluntary agreement between ISPs and certain content providers (the government is not involved,) and is made to target peer-to-peer downloading. The plan has a notice phase, an acknowledgement phase, and a mitigation phase. Under the plan, a private carrier – say, Time Warner – will first notify a user that there has been an allegation of illegal copyright activity, then force a user who may be infringing (and who may or may not own the account) to acknowledge having received such notices, before the user finally suffers consequences. These consequences can include throttling of internet speed or having popular websites blocked.

Proponents point to a few positives under this proposal, including the user’s right to appeal to an independent arbitrator (for a $35 fee.) Additionally, though lawsuits are still permitted by copyright holders, the hope is that the system will educate the public about copyright infringement and that, on notice that their behavior is illegal, infringement will at least slow down. Ron Wheeler, a Senior VP at Fox, said that, “This system is not designed to produce lawsuits–it’s designed to produce education.

Unfortunately, a lack of education may not be the underlying problem. Reynolds noted that, even in 2004, awareness of the (il)legality of file sharing was widespread. And increasing awareness may not sharply decrease infringement. Critics further note that, despite the safeguards, penalties are ultimately based on accusations rather than definite findings of infringement. If the system ultimately works, though, it may be worth the headaches for both sides. Consumers will not be able to infringe (as much) but the public will also not suffer suits against twelve-year-olds for sharing music.


Apple & Samsung Litigation Shows Need for Patent Reform

by Thomas Manewitz, UMN Law Student, MJLST Managing Editor

Thumbnail-Thomas-Manewitz.jpgIn the past two years, two of the world’s mobile technology leviathans, Apple and Samsung, have engaged in multibillion dollar patent infringement litigation. Specifically, Apple has been seeking damages and fighting for injunctions on several of Samsung’s mobile products in markets across the globe. On August 24, 2012 in the United States, Apple won a 1.049 billion dollar damages award for Samsung’s “willful patent infringement.” In the same lawsuit, Samsung counter sued and won zero damages. In the wake of this trial, Apple is seeking an injunction for 20 Samsung products.

Samsung provides the market with a popular Apple alternative that does not come close to dominating the market share. In the context of the litigation, both Samsung and Apple were forced to release their U.S. sales numbers. Samsung, who is at risk of having its products blocked from the U.S. markets, sold 21 million smart phones and 1.4 million tablets, while Apple sold 86 million smart phones and 34 million tablets. New and different products are now at risk from being removed from consumer markets because of our patent litigation structure. I will not argue that this case alone will temper innovation; however, it does beg the question as to whether or not high profile patent litigation, and the patent system as it currently stands, optimizes the production societal good and innovation. Perhaps the United States patent system should be reorganized based on different principle. For a discussion of the reorganization of the patent system see the United States patent system see Liza Vertinsky’s article in the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Tehcnology, “An Organizational Approach to the Design of Patent Law.”


Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For Your Patent . . .

by Caroline Marsili, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff

Thumbnail-Caroline-Marsili.jpgThe candidates aren’t talking about patents (with the exception of a brief quip about IP piracy in last Tuesday’s debate). But if it’s “all about the economy,” they should be talking patent policy.

In the presidential and vice-presidential debates of recent weeks, the candidates have exchanged vitriol and “gotchas,” and have established a contrast in both policy and character for voters. Notably absent from the debates has been discussion of innovation, and more specifically, the role of IP policy in innovation. IP policy would seem an attractive platform for discussing job creation, as IP industries account for a vast portion of the Nation’s jobs and GDP (“IP-intensive industries” accounted for 27.7 of all jobs in the economy in 2010). It’s possible that the candidates find common ground on this issue. Alternatively, the topic is, for the time-being, moot in the wake of the America Invents Act, the full effects of which are yet to be seen.

Since its passage just over a year ago, some critics have expressed doubt that the Act will create jobs and promote innovation as promised. Others argue not that the Act is failing, but that it represents a misplaced effort to reform patent policy.

The solution? “Don’t just reform patents, get rid of them.” A recent working paper by Boldrin & Levine makes the bold case that our patent system is ultimately more trouble than it’s worth. The authors admit that abolishing patents “may seem ‘pie-in-the-sky'” and acknowledge the glut of transitional issues that would need addressing; just the same, they conclude that the key to reforming our patent system is to get rid of it. Their central beef with the system is the want of empirical evidence that it does what it purports to do: promote innovation and productivity. Meanwhile, there are other incentives for innovation and many negative externalities of the patent system.

Other authors have proposed less radical approaches to revamping the patent system. In her recent article in MJLST, “An Organizational Approach to the Design of Patent Law“, Liza Vertinsky also finds that empirical literature fails to decisively connect patents to innovation and economic growth. However, Vertinsky takes a more optimistic approach to the floundering patent system, arguing that policy-makers should seize reform efforts as an opportunity to tailor the patent law to innovation objectives. The America Invents Act, she argues, isn’t a significant change in the direction of patent policy and instead seeks to remedy narrower concerns with administrative backlog, litigation costs and patent quality. In her view, patent policy should be revamped to encourage innovation based on how individuals and organizations–corporations, Congress, the PTO–really function.

Vertinsky’s “organizational approach” entails a new way of thinking about patents in terms of how patent policy, informed by economic theory, should be fashioned to strengthen the organization of innovation rather than focusing on incentivizing acts of invention. For example, patent laws can be tailored to the needs of different innovation processes across different industries. While sweeping changes in patent policy are unlikely at this time (witness the battles encountered in passing and implementing the America Invents Act), Vertinsky’s proposals should inform discussion among policy-makers about what the patent system can and should do. The Obama Administration’s national innovation strategy neglected to give patent policy a more central role in encouraging innovation, but the desire to build an “innovation economy” is certainly there, and a rational and successful patent policy is vital to attaining the kinds of high-level jobs and industry the country needs and the candidates promise.

(Others think patent policy may not matter at all. What do you think?).


The Supreme Court to Decide the Fate of the First-Sale Doctrine in Kirtsaeng

by Benjamin Hamborg, UMN Law Student, MJLST Articles Editor

Thumbnail-Benjamin-Hamborg.jpgLater this month, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., a case which should decide once and for all whether the first-sale doctrine applies to works manufactured outside of the United States. As I described last spring in volume 13 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, the case arises from Supap Kirtsaeng’s attempt to take advantage of the disparity in pricing between textbooks manufactured for sale in the United States and those manufactured and sold internationally. Kirtsaeng’s plan involved purchasing textbooks published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.’s wholly-owned subsidiary John Wiley & Sons (Asia) Pte Ltd., then reselling the textbooks online to consumers within the United States.

While textbooks published by John Wiley & Sons, (Asia) Pte Ltd. for the international market are nearly identical in terms of content to their U.S. counterparts, the international versions sell for significantly less due to differences in quality and design. When John Wiley & Sons, Inc.–as the registered copyright holder of the United States editions of the works sold by Kirtsaeng–sued for copyright infringement, Kirtsaeng based his defense on the first-sale doctrine, which allows “the owner of a particular copy [of a copyrighted work] . . . lawfully made under this title . . . to sell or otherwise dispose of the possession of that copy” without the permission of the copyright holder.

The question the Supreme Court will face on October 29th is whether the first-sale doctrine applies to works manufactured outside of the United States, a question which the Second–in John Wiley & Sons, Inc. v. Kirtsaeng–and Ninth Circuits have already answered in the negative. The prospect of nationwide denial of the first-sale doctrine to works manufactured outside of the United States has broad implications with regard to the sale of gray-market goods within the United States. Many large United States retailers, particularly online retailers, use gray-market goods to deliver products to customers at a substantial savings. In fact, there exists “an estimated $63 billion annual market ‘for goods that are purchased abroad, then imported and resold without the permission of the manufacturer.'”

Narrowing of the first-sale doctrine may even affect the ability of libraries in the United States to lend foreign manufactured books. As Andrew Albanese recently pointed out, “if a library bought a book in the U.S. from a U.S. publisher, and that book happened to be printed in China . . . . the uncertainty the Second Circuit interpretation [of the first-sale doctrine] would create for libraries could deter many libraries from lending [the] materials in question.” Finally, if the Second Circuit’s holding is affirmed by the Supreme Court, companies that manufacture copyright-protected goods within the United States will have an incentive to move their manufacturing plants abroad so as to gain greater control over the sale of their products.


Mashing up Copyright Infringment with the Beastie Boys and Ghostface Killah

by Eric Maloney, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff

Thumbnail-Eric-Maloney.jpgApparently, Bridgeport Music has never seen the episode of Chappelle’s Show declaring that “Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nothing to [mess] with.” The record label has decided to sue the group, specifically artists Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, and producer RZA, for reportedly using a sample of a 1970’s recording originally by the Magictones on a 2009 Raekwon album track. The portion of the recording allegedly utilized in production of the song was sped up to change the sample’s key from E minor to F# minor, and constituted four measures of the original tune. The sample was only ten seconds long.

Wu-Tang Clan isn’t the only group currently under scrutiny for their use of sampling. The Beastie Boys are also facing an infringement suit, due to allegedly sampling two songs by a group called Trouble Funk in four of their tracks from the late 1980’s. This suit is different in at least one respect from the Bridgeport matter: the record company, Tuf America, will have to show not only infringement, but also explain why the suit shouldn’t be barred by the statute of limitations after over 20 years have passed since the Beasties released these songs.

These lawsuits are hardly novel; hip-hop and electronica artists have been subject to infringement liability for years now due to the rise in their use of digital sampling methods. The Beastie Boys especially have been repeatedly sued for using unauthorized samples. (See, e.g. Newton v. Diamond, 204 F. Supp. 2d 1244 (C.D. Cal. 2002). For a great summary of the history of sampling in music production and court cases regarding infringement, see Professor Tracy Reilly’s article Good Fences Make Good Neighboring Rights in the Winter 2012 issue of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology.

As Professor Reilly indicates in her article, the latest federal appeals court to directly address this issue has taken a hard-line stance: appropriation of any part of a sound recording is a physical taking, no matter how minute the sample may be. That case, Bridgeport Music v. Dimnesion Films, featured the same plaintiff record company that is now suing Wu-Tang Clan. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in this instance held that there is no type of de minimis protection for use of small samples; instead, any unauthorized, direct sample of a protected recording subsequently used by an artist constitutes infringement.

The risk that courts run in following such a bright-line doctrine is that they may be a bit behind trends in culture and technology in dealing so harshly with those who choose to sample copyrighted works. So-called “mash-up” artists, such as Greg Gillis of Girl Talk, make a living through exclusively sampling copyrighted works and then distributing them for free under the penumbra of “fair use.” His sampling is both notorious and fairly obvious; there are websites dedicated to tracking which samples he chooses to use in his productions. Gillis is still able to make a living by touring and selling merchandise, while also speaking out against current copyright infringement standards.

As digital sampling techniques continue to improve and the demand for “mash-up” artists grows, the Bridgeport ruling will start to look dated in the face of the reality of modern-day music production. This is especially true in the case against the Wu-Tang Clan, where it appears somewhat absurd to condition liability on such a small amount of sampled music. For now, though, artists will need to stay on their toes and be sure to license any samples, no matter how minimal, or face the consequences. This doctrine may stifle creativity for the time being, but perhaps all this legal wrangling will give artists emotional fodder for future compositions. Either way, it’s becoming clearer as more of these suits are brought that greater clarity on the issue is needed, either from Congress or the courts. A better balance between encouraging creativity and protecting copyrights than what is given to us by Bridgeport can hopefully be found as this area of law continues to evolve.


The Written Description Requirement Strikes Back

by Nihal Parkar, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff

Nihal-Parkar-Thumbnail-White-Back.jpgThe written description requirement for patents often resembles the proverbial neglected middle child–it is left to its own devices and entrusted with its own care. The typical patent practitioner carefully chisels away at the claims with a thesaurus, and then proceeds to encase the exquisite sculpture with a glob of written description. Yes, the detailed description of the drawings and alternative embodiments may follow the core structure of the claims, but let’s face it–the average specification is hardly as painfully beautiful as the average claim.

A recent paper by Aaron Rabinowitz in Volume 12 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, Ending the Invalidity Shell Game: Stabilizing the Application of the Written Description Requirement in Patent Litigation, analyzes this paradox in the context of how courts apply the written description requirement to routinely invalidate patents issued by the USPTO–those very issued patents that have gone through the tortious path of examination at the PTO and have been vetted by examiners and reshaped in course of the ping-pong game of office actions and their replies.

A high level of invalidation by the courts seems problematic. After all, shouldn’t patent owners be entitled to rely on the PTO’s evaluation of their patent, and be freely able to assert the patent against alleged infringers in court, without fearing that the court will find the written description to be as addled with holes as the typical chunk of Swiss cheese? Well, the courts can’t quite be blamed, given that the PTO works in mysterious ways. Reviewing the file wrapper often does not explain how each claim fulfilled the written description requirement in combination with the rest of the specification. A law firm helpfully points out, “Make Sure Your Patents Do Not Prove Their Own Invalidity!” To add to the complexity of the situation, the “written description requirement is separate from enablement.”

Patent owners would be wise to worry about the potential pitfalls of the written description getting shredded between Scylla and Charybdis. As Rabinowitz points out, “over 2000-2009, parties that attacked a patent on written description grounds succeeded more than forty percent of the time.”

Fortunately, Rabinowitz does not merely cry wolf, but supplies some solutions to keep the wolf at bay. To strengthen a patent’s validity, patent applicants can choose “to affirmatively identify the written description support for their claims in the application”. And then eagerly wait for “the PTO to either approve or question the applicant’s statement of support.” Of course, with patent examiners already being somewhat overburdened, the PTO may not be enthusiastic about yet another step in prosecution.

Rabinowitz’ article raises an interesting question that is often overlooked, and provides a practical, workable solution that is likely to be of benefit to patent owners, patent challengers, the PTO, and the courts.