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Archived updates for Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A Lesson on the Peculiar Separation of Patent Ownership and Enforcement Rights

In Morrow, et al. v. Microsoft Corporation (September 19, 2007) the Federal Circuit held that GUCLT failed to meet constitutional standing requirements, which limit judicial powers to the resolution of "cases" and "controversies," where a bankruptcy liquidation plan had contractually separated the right to sue from the right to exclude:

  • AHLT (the "Plan Agent" in charge of conducting the administrative wind-down of the company’s business) was given ownership rights in AHC’s intellectual property,
  • BHLT was given rights to causes of actions against AHC’s controlling shareholders, including AT&T Corporation, Comcast Corporation, and Cox Communications,
  • GUCLT received the rights to all other causes of action (called "Estate Litigation"), including claims for misappropriation or infringement of AHC’s intellectual property rights.
According to the opinion by Circuit Judge Moore,

There are three general categories of plaintiffs encountered when analyzing the constitutional standing issue in patent infringement suits: those that can sue in their own name alone; those that can sue as long as the patent owner is joined in the suit; and those that cannot even participate as a party to an infringement suit.

The first category includes plaintiffs that hold all legal rights to the patent as the patentee or assignee of all patent rights—the entire bundle of sticks. Unquestionably, a patentee who holds all the exclusionary rights and suffers constitutional injury in fact from infringement is one entitled to sue for infringement in its own name. . . .

The second category of plaintiffs hold exclusionary rights and interests created by the patent statutes, but not all substantial rights to the patent. . . . Parties that hold the exclusionary rights are often identified as exclusive licensees, because the grant of an exclusive license to make, use, or sell the patented invention carries with it the right to prevent others from practicing the invention However, these exclusionary rights "must be enforced through or in the name of the owner of the patent," and the patentee who transferred these exclusionary interests is usually joined to satisfy prudential standing concerns. Indep. Wireless Tel. Co. v. Radio Corp. of Am., 269 U.S. 459, 467, 469 (1926). The patentee is joined for the purpose of avoiding the potential for multiple litigations and multiple liabilities and recoveries against the same alleged infringer. . . . When the patentee is the infringer, or the prudential concerns are not at play in a particular case, joinder of the patentee is not necessary. This joinder analysis has been incorporated in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 19. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 19, Advisory Committee Note to Subdivision (a) (1937); Prima Tek II, 222 F.3d at 1377.

The third category of plaintiffs includes those that hold less than all substantial rights to the patent and lack exclusionary rights under the patent statutes to meet the injury in fact requirement. They are not injured by a party that makes, uses, or sells the patented invention because they do not hold the necessary exclusionary rights. Plaintiffs in this category lack constitutional standing. . . . This standing deficiency cannot be cured by adding the patent title owner to the suit. Propat, 473 F.3d at 1189; Intellectual Prop. Dev., 248 F.3d at 1348-49.

. . . The problem for GUCLT and AHLT is that the exclusionary rights have been separated from the right to sue for infringement. The liquidation plan contractually separated the right to sue from the underlying legally protected interests created by the patent statutes—the right to exclude. For any suit that GUCLT brings, its grievance is that the exclusionary interests held by AHLT are being violated. GUCLT is not the party to which the statutes grant judicial relief. See Warth, 422 U.S. at 500. GUCLT suffers no legal injury in fact to the patent’s exclusionary rights. As the Supreme Court stated in Independent Wireless, the right to bring an infringement suit is "to obtain damages for the injury to his exclusive right by an infringer." 269 U.S. at 469; see also Sicom, 222 F.3d at 1381 ("Standing to sue for infringement depends entirely on the putative plaintiff’s proprietary interest in the patent, not on any contractual arrangements among the parties regarding who may sue…"); Ortho, 52 F.3d at 1034 ("[A] right to sue clause cannot negate the requirement that, for co-plaintiff standing, a licensee must have beneficial ownership of some of the patentee’s proprietary rights.").

. . . Only when a party holds the exclusionary rights to the patent but lacks all substantial rights may the party join the legal title owner in a suit to enforce patent rights. Joining the legal title holder only satisfies prudential standing requirements. It cannot cure constitutional standing deficiencies. Since GUCLT fails to meet constitutional standing requirements, it cannot be a party to this suit for patent infringement.

However, dissenting Circuit Judge Prost would have allowed GUCLT to sue becuase the patent owner AHLT was properly joined in the suit:

If, as I would hold, GUCLT is properly considered a “category two” plaintiff, then it could have added AHLT to the suit either voluntarily or involuntarily to satisfy our prudential standing requirements. See Intellectual Prop. Dev., 248 F.3d at 1347–48. GUCLT had no need to add AHLT, however, because Microsoft’s counterclaims here brought AHLT into the case, thus satisfying our prudential requirements. Evident, 399 F.3d at 1314. While I accept the usefulness of the majority’s attempt to clearly delineate our jurisprudence on standing, that attempt misses the mark by failing to correctly define the second category of plaintiffs.

While the majority effectively treats the second category as occupied solely by exclusive licensees, that category may properly include other types of plaintiffs. In Intellectual Property Development, 248 F.3d at 1346, we clarified that determining standing of non-patentee parties requires analysis under the standard set forth in Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555 (1992). Specifically, a putative plaintiff must demonstrate (1) an injury in fact (invasion of a legal interest that is concrete and particularized, and actual or imminent injury); (2) a causal connection between the defendant’s action and the injury; and (3) that it is likely a favorable decision would redress the injury. Lujan, 504 U.S. at 560–61.

No serious argument could contend that GUCLT does not satisfy the second two factors; thus—as the majority ostensibly recognizes—the key question regarding constitutional standing is whether or not GUCLT suffers an injury in fact from Microsoft’s infringement. Rather than meaningfully evaluating the injury to the plaintiff here, the majority simply falls back on the established boundary including exclusive licensees.

Focusing much attention on the right to grant licenses under the patent here, the majority concludes that without such a right, GUCLT is missing a key component of the so-called exclusionary rights necessary for standing.1 If, as the majority states, AHLT could freely and exclusively license the target of GUCLT’s litigation, it would eviscerate GUCLT’s right to sue. None of the documents defining the outcome of bankruptcy, however, explicitly address the right to license the patent. A nonexclusive license is a covenant not to sue, Ortho Pharm. Corp. v. Genetics Inst., Inc., 52 F.3d 1026, 1032 (Fed. Cir. 1995), so separating the right to sue from the right to license without any basis in the parties’ arrangement makes a distinction without a solid basis. Because the two concepts are so intertwined, I would recognize that the right to sue—explicitly assigned to GUCLT—includes the right to offer nonexclusive licenses to targets of litigation.

Moreover, any right that AHLT has regarding transfer of rights under the patent is subject to consent by GUCLT. Nothing in the Trust Agreement indicates that GUCLT cannot unreasonably withhold such consent, an omission that sharply contrasts with the requirement that AHLT consent to settlement of suit by GUCLT and not unreasonably withhold such consent. The arrangement clearly places less restriction on GUCLT and demonstrates that GUCLT is the party controlling litigation, including settlement of the litigation through licensing.

. . . The bankruptcy agreement here clearly specifies the actions that GUCLT may pursue, separating a small number of defendants subject to suit only by BHLT. Allowing co-plaintiff standing for GUCLT and AHLT would create no risk of multiple suits and would permit AHLT to ensure a full defense of the patent’s validity. Devoid of policy considerations, the majority opinion merely concludes that GUCLT lacks exclusionary rights. As explained, because the indicia of standing point the other way, I believe GUCLT does hold such an interest. Where GUCLT has received the right to enforce the patent and the patentee presently holds title in trust for GUCLT, infringement of the patent constitutes injury in fact.

While I do not read any precedent as directly governing the peculiar circumstances of this case, I also do not read any as precluding co-plaintiff standing for GUCLT. I believe that, in denying all possibility for enforcing the patent, the majority opinion extends limitations on co-plaintiff standing without a reasoned basis. Accordingly, while neither GUCLT nor AHLT individually may pursue infringement litigation, I would not deprive the patent of all value. Because I would allow GUCLT and AHLT, as co-plaintiffs, standing to sue Microsoft, I respectfully dissent.

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