Civil Procedure in Patent Clothing

The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals recently decided an important patent civil procedure case (en banc) about the scope of injunctions. Tivo obtained an injunction against Echostar in a long-running patent infringement case relating to DVR software. The injunction included two features:

1. Don’t distribute any new products that infringe, and

2. Disable recording in a particular list of products that have been adjudicated as infringing.

So, Echostar “designed around” the patent, or so it believed. It distributed its modified DVR software in new products and re-enabled recording in the existing products using the modified software.

The district court held that the change by Echostar was insignificant and thus infringing, because its “design around” infringed the patent in a different way. Echostar argued that any attempt to design around the patent warranted a new trial.

The court also held that disable means disable, and reenablement – even if non-infringing – was contempt of court. Echostar argued that the injunction was overbroad, and it was improper to enjoin non-infringing products.

So, the question on appeal was how patent contempt proceedings should proceed. I discuss below.

First, the easy issue  – the disablement injunction. This one is cut and dry. The injunction – though surely overbroad – was not appealed by Echostar, nor did Echostar file a motion to modify the injunction. Quite simply, it misread the injunction (whether intentionally or not is a question I will leave to others, though let this be a cautionary tale).

As such, the court ruled that this was an easy case – if you are enjoined, you must follow the injunction, appeal it, or convince the court that it is overbroad. Overbreadth complaints are not well taken after the injunction is violated.

I’m not a Civ Pro guru, but this seems to comport with my general understanding of injunction law. It is also the rule I followed in practice, which was painful the few times I had a client on the wrong side of a nutty ex parte temporary restraining order in trade secret cases. (“The defendant is enjoined from talking to any of its customers about anything, including the existence of this order.”)

The second issue is slightly more interesting – at what point does the defendant get a new trial to determine whether a design around is still infringing? In the past, the court had a bit of discretion to determine whether or not there is a “colorable” difference in products between the original and the design around. Indeed, the first panel to hear Tivo v. Echostar relied on this to say that the district court was within its right to find infringement by other means.

The en banc panel retained the “colorable differences” test with respect to whether a contempt proceeding was proper – if the new product is more than colorably different, then there is no contempt. This consideration looks at the changes to the disputed patent claim elements by the defendant, and considerable changes mean the court cannot even get into an infringement inquiry. In ththis case, the court remanded so the district court could determine whether there are more than colorable differences in Echostar’s new product; the language seems like a clear hint that there are colorable differences.

The court added a new wrinkle, ruling that patentees must also show that the new product infringes even if there are no colorable differences.  Of course, this makes a lot of sense – if the injunction is to not infringe, then one must infringe to violate the injunction. But when would there be no colorable differences, but also no infringement? More often than you would think, especially where the infringed element is a very small piece of a big puzzle.

Further, who decides whether there has been infringement? Should the court make the decision? Is the defendant entitled to a new trial? Here the opinion is not very helpful. Quoted below is the court’s announced rule, which seems to imply that this is a judicial function that doesn’t require a new trial:

[T]he court is required to evaluate the modified elements of the newly accused product against the asserted claim, on a limitation by limitation basis, to ensure that each limitation continues to be met. In making this infringement evaluation, out of fairness, the district court is bound by any prior claim construction that it had performed in the case. The patentee bears the burden of proving violation of the injunction by clear and convincing evidence, a burden that applies to both infringement and colorable differences.

This seems clear – the district court judge should go element by element to see if infringement remains. Simple enough, right? Except for when the court is not supposed to make the determination. In this very case, for example, the court states: “It is also possible that, in a new infringement proceeding, a fact finder could conclude that the PID filter in EchoStar’s redesigned device meets the “parsing” limitation and that the devices continue to infringe the asserted claims, but that should not be decided in a contempt proceeding.”

This quote leaves the question unclear – should any infringement be retried? Defendants everywhere would argue that yes, every claim of non-infringement must be retried.

I’m not so sure. I think the best way to read the case is that the retrial of infringement only happens where the court finds colorable differences. In other words, where the redesign is targeted at the specific claim elements that were disputed and proven at trial. If the changes are only small, then the judge can verify that there is still infringement (or not). But where the changes are big and targeted at disputed claim elements, then allegations of continued infringement by other product features must be retried. This interpretation helps reconcile the seemingly contradictory quotes above, and also makes sense in practice.

There are longer term consequences from this rule. First, it might give an incentive to overlitigate, because patentees will now want to prove as many alternate forms of infringement as possible. Of course, maybe they do that anyway. Second, it puts pressure on the rule that winning parties cannot appeal arguments they lost. After all, it is much cheaper to file a contempt claim than to retry infringement in case of a design around, and then appeal the court’s errors.

Even so, this seems to be a reasonable marriage between basic civil procedure rules and specialized patent rules about what it means to violate an infringement injunction.

One thought on “Civil Procedure in Patent Clothing

  1. Also remember that a patent infringement law suite can be a David-versus-Goliath confrontation. Defendants in patent infringement lawsuits are usually large corporations with unlimited resources, while plaintiffs in patent infringement lawsuits are often individuals or small businesses with very limited resources.

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