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August 22, 2009

Standing

Sky Technologies sued SAP over an e-trade patent portfolio it had acquired through a foreclosure and associated contractual conniptions. Because litigation lawyers argue almost anything regardless of merit, SAP pitched lack of standing and lost, so it appealed, desperately trying to break the chain of title.

Sky Technologies v. SAP (CAFC 2008-1606) precedential

In order to seek damages for infringement of a patent, a party must have standing at the inception of the lawsuit. Arachnid, Inc. v. Merit Indus., Inc., 939 F.2d 1574, 1579 (Fed. Cir. 1991). A party that has been granted all substantial rights under the patent, "regardless of how the parties characterize the transaction that conveyed those rights," is considered to have legal title, and therefore standing. Speedplay, Inc. v. Bebop, Inc., 211 F.3d 1245, 1249-50 (Fed. Cir. 2000). Thus, it is the "substance of what was granted" that determines the rights in the patent, not the form. Id. at 1250; Vaupel Textilmaschinen KG v. Meccanica Europa Italia S.P.A., 944 F.2d 870, 873-76 (Fed. Cir. 1991).

We have previously held that patent ownership is determined by state, not federal law. Akazawa, 520 F.3d at 1357 (citing Jim Arnold Corp. v. Hydrotech Sys., Inc., 109 F.3d 1567, 1572 (Fed. Cir. 1997) ("[T]he question of who owns the patent rights and on what terms typically is a question exclusively for state courts.")). However, "the question of whether a patent assignment clause creates an automatic assignment or merely an obligation to assign is intimately bound up with the question of standing in patent cases," and therefore we have "treated it as a matter of federal law." DDB Techs., L.L.C. v. MLB Advanced Media, L.P., 517 F.3d 1284, 1290 (Fed. Cir. 2008). Usually, federal law is used to determine the validity and terms of an assignment, but state law controls any transfer of patent ownership by operation of law not deemed an assignment.

The Federal Patent Act requires that all assignments of patent interest be in writing. 35 U.S.C. § 261 (2006). This requirement dates back to the 1881 Supreme Court decision in Ager v. Murray, which held that a debtor's interest in a patent that would be used to satisfy a judgment against him was property, "assignable by him, and . . . [could not] be taken on execution at law." 105 U.S. 126, 131-32 (1881). The Court held that the patentee was required to execute a writing to assign title, or a trustee would be appointed to execute an assignment, "if the patentee should not himself execute one as directed." Id. at 126, 132. This decision was based on the idea that a creditor cannot reach incorporeal property, such as a patent, due to its intangible nature; the transfer (either voluntary or involuntary) to a purchaser must be done by written assignment "in order to vest [the purchaser] with a complete title to the property." Id. at 130 (citing Stephens v. Cady, 55 U.S. (14 How.) 528, 531 (1852)).

Even though a transfer of patent ownership, if through an assignment, must be in writing, this court has held, "[T]here is nothing that limits assignment as the only means for transferring patent ownership. . . . [O]wnership of a patent may be changed by operation of law." Akazawa, 520 F.3d at 1356. In Akazawa, the defendant challenged the plaintiff's standing to sue for infringement based on an alleged defect in the assignor's claim of ownership in the patent. Id. at 1355. Akazawa, the inventor of a patent, died intestate, after which his wife and daughters agreed that all of Akazawa's rights would be transferred to his wife, who then transferred her rights to the plaintiff. Id. at 1355. The district court held that the plaintiff lacked standing to enforce the patent because no writing had been issued from the inventor to his wife granting her all of his rights to the patent. Id. We reversed the district court's decision and held that passage of title through intestacy is not an assignment, and therefore did not require a writing. Id. at 1358. Further, we stated that if the controlling state or foreign intestacy law passed title of the patent to the wife and daughters upon the inventor's death, then all subsequent transfers were valid. Id.

We find that Akazawa controls in the instant case, and that the district court's reliance on its reasoning was appropriate because transfer of patent ownership by operation of law is permissible without a writing. Akazawa says nothing about permitting assignments without a writing; rather, this court made it clear that if assignment is the method of transfer of patent ownership, it must be done in writing, pursuant to § 261. See Akazawa, 520 F.3d at 1356. However, assignment is not the only method by which to transfer patent ownership. As noted below, foreclosure under state law may transfer patent ownership. Here, XACP's foreclosure on its security interest was in accordance with Massachusetts law; therefore, Sky received full title and ownership of the patents from XACP providing it with standing in the underlying case.

SAP misapplied statute twice, first with regard to 35 U.S.C. § 154.

Despite this clear authority, Appellants make much of 35 U.S.C. § 154, which controls the content and term of a patent. Section 154(a)(1) states, "Every patent shall contain a short title of the invention and a grant to the patentee, his heirs or assigns, of the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention . . . ." 35 U.S.C. § 154(a)(1) (2006). Accordingly, Appellants contend that patents can only be owned by three categories of individuals--the patentee, his heirs, or his assigns. Appellants assert the holding in Akazawa was correct, but is not controlling because the class of persons receiving ownership through operation of law in Akazawa were heirs--a class within § 154(a)(1)--but no heirs or assigns exist in the present case. We find this argument unpersuasive. Section 154 does not restrict patent ownership to these three classes of individuals, and moreover, this language fails to specifically address transfers of patent ownership.

SAP then tried to foist 35 U.S.C. § 261 as damning, arguing that "if Massachusetts law is found to allow transfers of patent ownership without a writing, then federal preemption must occur pursuant to 35 U.S.C. § 261." Nonsense.

Section 261 speaks only to assignments of patents; there exists no federal statute requiring a writing for all conveyances of patent ownership. Therefore, no federal law preempts the use of the Massachusetts UCC foreclosure provisions to transfer patent ownership by operation of law. Consequently, Appellants' preemption argument lacks merit.

SAP's arguments were all meritless.

By following proper foreclosure procedures, XACP became the owner of the patents-in-suit. Therefore, XACP's assignment to Sky of all of its rights, title, and interest in the patents-in-suit made Sky the owner of the same, and the proper party to bring the underlying infringement action.

Affirmed. Onward with the suit.

Posted by Patent Hawk at August 22, 2009 12:46 PM | Standing

Comments

This may be helpful when an inventor refuses to assign his rights.

Posted by: Pittsburgh Patent Lawyer at August 31, 2009 6:16 PM

"This may be helpful when an inventor refuses to assign his rights. "

I love it. No qualms about taking a person's rights from them "by law". F you sir.

Posted by: 6 at September 1, 2009 1:27 AM

"I love it. No qualms about taking a person's rights from them "by law". F you sir."

You're an ignoramus. If the inventor's employment contract requires them to assign his/her invention, or if the inventor's employer has a well recognized shop right, then the inventor never had any rights to take. The invention belonged to the employer the moment it was created.

Posted by: don't bother at September 1, 2009 5:27 AM

"The invention belonged to the employer the moment it was created."

Due to the some lawls which I also say "" to. The lawls dragging this patent system and lawyers like those above into the ground are numerous and plentiful.

Posted by: 6000 at September 1, 2009 9:12 AM

strike the first "the".

Posted by: 6000 at September 1, 2009 9:12 AM

To be clear I am not for unjustly taking anybody's rights. There are times when an individual (does not have to be a company) hires someone to assist them with their concept of an invention. They contract up front that they are hiring the person to invent. Part of the compensation they paying is for ownership of the patent and the inventor or co-inventor agrees by written contract to assign the patent. In order to transfer title a separate written assignment is necessary. However, I have had experiences when for whatever reason the inventor or co-inventor then refuses to sign the assignment after contractually agreeing to do so and accepting payment. That is the situation I was referring to that this could be helpful. So in this scenario in my opinion the inventor is unjustly causing problems for the owner who paid for ownership.

Posted by: Pittsburgh Patent lawyer at September 1, 2009 7:31 PM

Hawk, thanks for your quote from the Sky Tech opinion. Please compare the actual text of Ager v Murray, published at the URL linked to my sig. Note that the Fed. Cir. has once again lifted a bare phrase, from _dicta_ out of context from the remainder of a Supreme Court opinion, so as to misrepresent the gist of the opinion.

patent: an interest seizable and transferable by actions at equity, without recorded assignment (Ager v. Murray, 105 US 126 (1881)).

Posted by: patent.drafter at September 3, 2009 4:55 AM