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Matal v. Tam, ___ US ___ (2017)

SCOTUS handed down a HUGE trademark decision yesterday.

Matal v. Tam declares the language of 15 USC 1052(a), which prevents the registration of marks that may “disparage . . . or bring . . . into contemp[t] or disrepute” any “persons, living or dead” to be unconstitutional under the First Amendment’s Free Speech clause.

Wow.

This opens up a whole new world of potential trademark registrations.

 

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Free Legal Opinions and Orders Easily Accessible

This is pretty cool.

The Free Law Project is working to make available in one place all the free materials available on PACER. That includes opinions and orders from every federal court in the nation.

“Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) is an electronic public access service that allows users to obtain case and docket information online from federal appellate, district, and bankruptcy courts, and the PACER Case Locator. PACER is provided by the Federal Judiciary in keeping with its commitment to providing public access to court information via a centralized service.” Note that the information is “public” access, not “free” access. Many documents on PACER require payment (at the whopping rate of $0.10/page, which can add up pretty fast if you’re talking about briefs and pleadings and motions and all the rest of it). The paid pages will not be available through the Free Law Project, but it will be easier to access the many opinions and orders that are available on PACER for free.

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Cheerleader Outfit Designs ARE Covered by Copyright

Star Athletica, L.L.C. v. Varsity Brands, Inc., et al., 580 US ___, a newly (22 March 2017) decided copyright case, finds that the design elements of a cheerleading outfit can be covered by copyright.

According to the syllabus of the case, SCOTUS holds: “A feature incorporated into the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright protection only if the feature (1) can be perceived as a two- or three-dimensional work of art separate from the useful article, and (2) would qualify as a protectable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work—either on its own or fixed in some other tangible medium of expression—if it were imagined separately from the useful article into which it is incorporated. That test is satisfied here.”

This case is interesting because it tells us where lies the line between industrial design, which is not protected by copyright (it may be protected by patent), and artistic design, which is. Courts have disagreed where that line lies.

Here, the District Court held that the designs did not qualify for protection under copyright because the designs served the useful purpose of identifying the outfits as “cheerleading uniforms.” The designs are therefore utilitarian, cannot be separated out to stand on their own, and therefore cannot be protected by copyright (you can read the District Court’s opinion at 2014 WL 819422 (WD Tenn., Mar. 1, 2014)).

The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit disagreed; they held, with one dissent that upheld the District Court’s opinion, that the graphic designs are indeed “separately identifiable” because a cheerleading costume without design is still identifiable as a cheerleading costume, so the graphics on such a garment can indeed be separated out and separately displayed and are thus protectable under copyright (read the 6th Circuit’s opinion at 799 F. 3d 468, 471 (2015)).

The Supreme Court affirms the 6th Circuit.

So what does this case teach us? We now know that designs on clothing CAN be separated out from the clothing, making the design on the clothing, even if the design relates to the function of the clothing, protectable under copyright.

We know that “The statute … provides that the “design of a useful article” can include two-dimensional “pictorial” and “graphic” features, and separability analysis applies to those features just as it does to three-dimensional “sculptural” features.”

We know that “…a feature of the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright if, when identified and imagined apart from the useful article, it would qualify as a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work either on its own or when fixed in some other tangible medium.”

Copyright remains one of the most case-by-case determinations around. The findings of this case have yet to be tested on utilitarian items other than clothing; we’ll watch this with some interest to see what, if anything, happens.

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Cuozzo v. Lee, 579 US ____ (2016)

I was present in the Courtroom for the announcement of the Cuozzo decision by SCOTUS. This decision makes it clear that inter partes review by the USPTO is not appealable, and that the USPTO can institute such review sua sponte (by its own initiative). It’s an interesting decision.

35 USC §314(d) says that the “determination by the [Patent Office] whether to institute an inter partes review under this section shall be final and nonappealable.” (Emphasis added.)

35 USC §312 says that petitions must be pleaded “with particularity.” Those words, in its view, mean that the petition should have specifically said that claims 10 and 14 are also obvious in light of this same prior art. Garmin’s petition, the Government replies, need not have mentioned claims 10 and 14 separately, for claims 10, 14, and 17 are all logically linked; the claims “rise and fall together,” and a petition need not simply repeat the same argument expressly when it is so obviously implied.

The “No Appeal” provision’s language must, at the least, forbid an appeal that attacks a “determination . . . whether to institute” review by raising this kind of legal question and little more. §314(d).

Moreover, a contrary holding would undercut the Patent Office’s significant power to revisit and revise earlier patent grants. Congress would not likely have granted the Patent Office this reexam authority if it had thought that the agency’s final decision could be unwound under some minor statutory technicality related to its preliminary decision to institute inter partes review. Congress has told the Patent Office to determine whether inter partes review should proceed, and it has made the agency’s decision “final” and “nonappealable.” §314(d). SCOTUS’s conclusion that courts may not revisit this initial determination gives effect to this statutory command.

However, the Court limits its green-lighting of the USPTO’s unappealable reviews: “… we need not, and do not, decide the precise effect of §314(d) on appeals that implicate constitutional questions, that depend on other less closely related statutes, or that present other questions of interpretation that reach, in terms of scope and impact, well beyond “this section.”” The Court does not “…categorically preclude review of a final decision where a petition fails to give “sufficient notice” such that there is a due process problem with the entire proceeding, [or] enable the agency to act outside its statutory limits by, for example, canceling a patent claim for “indefiniteness under §112” in inter partes review.”

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On Admission to the SCOTUS Bar

It’s done.

I am now a member of the bar admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court. I have met all their experience, character and fitness requirements; Chief Justice Roberts granted the motion to admit me on Monday, 20 June 2016.

So what?

For most people, it’s not a big deal when a lawyer gets admitted to this bar; SCOTUS air is pretty rarified and not a lot of cases that apply to the Court actually get heard. Your likelihood of ever getting a case in front of the Nine Wise Ones are probably pretty low. However, when your case IS granted certiorari (i.e., the Court agrees to hear it), you need a lawyer admitted to that bar to argue it before the bench for you.

For the lawyer, it’s a very big deal indeed. This is the highest court in the United States. It’s seriously cool to be on the roster of lawyers allowed to file and argue a case here. Will I ever actually argue a SCOTUS case? I certainly hope not. But it’s nice to have this cannon in my arsenal.

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Apple v. Samsung at the Federal Circuit

Apple, Inc. has some pretty cool stuff. They came up with the Macintosh in 1986. They very intelligently niched out of the World of Microsoft Windows. They now give us music, videos, computers, phones, tablets, watches that we can use as phones and all kinds of tekkie goodies. More specifically, they have this nifty slide-to-unlock mechanism on their touchscreen devices (iPhones, iPads; I don’t know about the watch, since I don’t have one). They have the ever-annoying spell correction, and they have an automated data-structure detection system. And, of course, they have patents on their tekkie goodies. The slide-to-unlock mechanism, the spell correction and the automated data-structure detection system have been the subject of litigation between Apple and Samsung.

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (“CAFC”) has just invalidated two of Apple’s iPhone patents based on that litigation; one for the slide-to-unlock mechanism, the other for the spell correction, both on obviousness grounds. This is a big deal for Apple; after a jury trial, the District Court had held these patents infringed and awarded damages to Apple amounting to $119,625,000 in damages and ongoing royalties for infringement of the three patents. Oh well; Apple can bid goodbye to nearly $120M in damages and royalties, unless the Nine (currently eight) Wise Ones who sit on the SCOTUS bench decide to grant certiorari on what will almost certainly be Apple’s appeal to them..

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Justice Scalia

Delain Law Office, PLLC joins the country in extending condolences to the family of Associate Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died today, 13 February 2016, at age 79.

I am far from the political conservative that Justice Scalia was, so I disagree with many of his opinions. However, I absolutely respect (notice the tense) his eloquence, his persuasiveness and his interpretation of his office. This guy could fight like a tiger for his position yet maintain close personal relationships with those who held the opposite positions against which he fought. The Court, the country, and his family have all lost one of the greats.

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American Broadcasting Companies vs. Aereo, Inc.

A couple of weeks ago, overshadowed by the Hobby Lobby decision, SCOTUS handed down a copyright decision that may substantially limit the ability of transmitters to transmit copyrighted broadcasts without a license to do so.

In American Broadcasting Cos. v. Aereo, Inc., 573 US ___ (2014), Aereo is a subscription broadcasting service that sold “…to its subscribers a technologically complex service that allows them to watch television programs over the internet at about the same time as the programs are broadcast over the air.” Slip Op. at 1. The technology is detailed in the case, so I do not reproduce it here; suffice it to say that through a complex series of technological events, each Aereo subscriber ends up having his or her own dedicated antenna through which copyrighted content is streamed to one computer only. The US District Court for the Southern District of New York, affirmed by the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, found that this technology does not infringe the rights of the copyright holders of the shows that Aereo streams to its users because, first, Aereo does not “perform” within the meaning of the Copyright Act and, second, even if it does “perform,” it does not do so “publicly” because there is a dedicated antenna connected to only one computer, making the streaming a private showing, thus falling outside the “public” performance requirement of the Act to qualify as infringement.

SCOTUS disagrees. In a 6-3 decision delivered by Justice Breyer (the dissent comprises Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito; all others concur in the majority opinion), the Court decreed that the 1976 Copyright Act was put in place, in large part, to overturn their decision in Fortnightly Corp v. United Artists Television, Inc., 392 US 390 (1968), which held that community-antenna television falls outside of the scope of the Copyright Act of 1952. Given the clear intent of Congress to make such activities fall very definitely within the scope of the Copyright Act, and given that Aereo’s activity are not substantially different from those of Fortnightly, the Court felt duty-bound to overturn the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit’s holding that Aereo’s activities do not infringe copyright. SCOTUS holds for the plaintiff in determining whether (a) Aereo “performs” within the meaning of the Act and (b) Aereo performs “publicly” within the meaning of the Act.

There is language in the case that indicates that this case can be read narrowly, but this case puts rebroadcasters on notice: The act of rebroadcasting is a “transmission” within the meaning of the Act, and the viewer and broadcaster “perform publicly” within the meaning of the Act.

I advise my clients that it’s always easiest, best, cheapest to get a license to use the copyrighted works of others. This case just goes to show that this advice is still good.

The oral arguments on both sides are actually interesting for those of us who like copyright matters.

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SCOTUS Got It Right — I Think

Today, the US Supreme Court handed down the long-awaited Hobby Lobby decision (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., ___ US ___ (2014). In the decision, they overturned the Obama administration’s insistence that Obamacare overrides the First Amendment.

We all know the facts of this one. Hobby Lobby, Inc., a closely held corporation, is owned by a group of persons who strongly believe on religious grounds that abortion is wrong and don’t want to pay for it through the Affordable Care Act, which covers abortions. The government said no, you don’t qualify for an exclusion, and the fight was on.

42 USC §§ 2000bb-1(A) and (B) says that the government cannot “…substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.” Today’s decision in Hobby Lobby upholds this law, and, coincidentally the freedom of religion we are all guaranteed under the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Of course, Justice Ginsburg does have a point in her dissent: “Would the exemption…extend to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations[?]…Not much help there for the lower courts bound by today’s decision.

As with any decision, the trick is to figure out how to read it. If, as Justice Ginsburg says, the decision is broad enough in application to carry over to these procedures, that will keep SCOTUS in business for many terms to come as the parameters of today’s decision get hammered out. If, though, the case is read narrowly, applying only to religious objection to terminating a pregnancy, Justice Ginsburg’s objection to the decision is defeated. However, I am not the person who will interpret the decision as time goes by; that gets left to those who sit on the judicial benches, and there are likely, until SCOTUS rules again, to be splits on this issue throughout the circuit courts. The import of the decision may well be to cause women to have to pay for contraception, but freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Constitution; freedom of contraception is not.

I don’t always agree with the High Court, but I think they got this one right — and I am by no means a radical pro-life proponent. I think that women should indeed have access to contraception, but this decision does not overturn women’s access to contraception; it merely asks women to pay for that contraception, and the government is likely to come up with a way to provide that contraception for those women who are employed by Hobby Lobby and companies with similar visions. This does not overturn the abortion rights in the United States. Abortion is still reasonably freely available for the employees of any closely held company that objects to providing funding for it on religious grounds. But don’t ask those whose religious convictions hold that the soul enters the human zygote at conception to pay for the woman carrying that zygote to terminate that life.

Feel free to agree or disagree with me in the Comments.

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Raging Bull Laches On

The US Supreme Court has issued a decision in the Petrella v. MGM, 572 US ___ (2014).

The equitable doctrine of laches says that if a plaintiff waits too long before bringing a lawsuit, that suit cannot be heard. It’s a common-law version of a statute of limitations. Under a statute of limitations, a case can be forever dismissed because a case was brought too late. Under the equitable doctrine of laches, a case can be forever dismissed because the plaintiff failed to timely bring suit and the defendant was unduly prejudiced by the delay.

In Petrella, the movie Raging Bull (1980) is accused of infringing the copyright in a screenplay written and registered with the US Copyright Office in 1963. Raging Bull is, of course, based on the life of Jake LaMotta. LaMotta had a friend, a writer named Frank Petrella, who co-authored several works on which Raging Bull was based; the copyrights in those works were properly registered in the 1960s and 1970s. While Frank Petrella and his co-author of that screenplay assigned rights and renewal rights to United Artists (now a subsidiary of MGM) in 1979, when Frank died in 1981 (during the first term of the copyright on the Raging Bull screenplay), renewal rights reverted to Frank’s estate under Stewart v. Abend, 495 U.S. 207 (1990), and ultimately to his daughter and heir, Paula Petrella. Paula renewed the copyright in the only one of the three works on which Raging Bull is based in which she could do so, and is now the sole owner of that copyright. In 1998, Ms. Petrella sent notice to MGM that Raging Bull infringes her copyright and threatened suit. In January, 2009, that suit materialized with Ms. Petrella seeking monetary and injunctive relief limited to acts of infringement occurring on or after January 6, 2006 (that is, all acts that occurred within the three-year statute of limitations). MGM promptly answered with the defense of laches, claiming that the delay in filing from 1998 to 2009 was unreasonable and unduly prejudicial. The US District Court for the Central District of California granted the defense and dismissed the case on those grounds. Petrella appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, who affirmed the District Court’s decision. She then appealed to the US Supreme Court, who granted certiorari.

The High Court reversed the decisions below. In a 6-3 decision, the Court decided:

The Ninth Circuit erred, we hold, in failing to recognize that the copyright statute of limitations, §507(b), itself takes account of delay. … [A] successful plaintiff can gain retrospective relief only three years back from the time of suit. No recovery may be hadfor infringement in earlier years. Profits made in those years remain the defendant’s to keep.

Brought to bear here, §507(b) directs that MGM’s returns on its invest­ment in Raging Bull in years outside the three-year win­dow (years before 2006) cannot be reached by Petrella. Only by disregarding that feature of the statute, and the separate-accrual rule attending §507(b), see supra, at 4–5, could the Court of Appeals presume that infringing acts occurring before January 6, 2006 bar all relief, monetary and injunctive, for infringement occurring on and after that date. See 695 F. 3d, at 951; supra, at 9–10.13 Moreover, if infringement within the three-year look-back period is shown, the Act allows the defendant to prove and offset against profits made in that period “deductible expenses” incurred in generating those profits.§504(b). In addition, the defendant may prove and offset “elements of profit attributable to factors other than the copyrighted work.” §504(b). The defendant thus may retain the return on investment shown to be attributable to its own enterprise, as distinct from the value created by the infringed work. See Sheldon v. Metro-Goldwyn Pictures Corp., 309 U. S. 390, 402, 407 (1940) (equitably apportioning profits to account for independent contribu­tions of infringing defendant). See also infra, at 19–22 (delay in commencing suit as a factor in determining contours of relief appropriately awarded).

Last, but hardly least, laches is a defense developed by courts of equity; its principal application was, and re­mains, to claims of an equitable cast for which the Legisla­ture has provided no fixed time limitation. See 1 D. Dobbs, Law of Remedies §2.4(4), p. 104 (2d ed. 1993) (here­inafter Dobbs) (“laches . . . may have originated in equitybecause no statute of limitations applied, . . . suggest[ing] that laches should be limited to cases in which no statute of limitations applies”). Both before and after the merger of law and equity in 1938, this Court has cautioned against invoking laches to bar legal relief. See Holmberg v. Armbrecht, 327 U. S. 392, 395, 396 (1946) (in actions at law, “[i]f Congress explicitly puts a limit upon the time for enforcing a right which it created, there is an end of thematter,” but “[t]raditionally . . . , statutes of limitation are not controlling measures of equitable relief ”); Merck & Co. v. Reynolds, 559 U. S. 633, 652 (2010) (quoting, for its current relevance, statement in United States v. Mack, 295 U. S. 480, 489 (1935), that “[l]aches within the term of the_statute of limitations is no defense [to an action] at law.”); County of Oneida v. Oneida Indian Nation of N. Y., 470 US 226, 244, n. 16 (1985) (“[A]pplication of the equitable defense of laches in an action at law would be novel indeed.”)

 The holding that laches cannot be used as an equitable defense within the period of the statute of limitations was made by only six of the Justices; the remaining three, who sit at the conservative end of the bench, disagree, stating:

[Laches] applies in those extraordinary cases where the plaintiff “unreasonably delays in filing a suit.” National Railroad Passenger Corporation v. Morgan, 536 US 101, 121 (2002), and, as a result, causes “unjust hardship” to the defendant. Chirco v. Crosswinds Communities, Inc., 474 F.3d 227, 236 (CA6 2007) (emphasis deleted). Its purpose is to avoid “inequity.” Galliher v. Cadwell, 145 US 368, 373 (1892). And, as Learned Hand pointed out, it may well be

“inequitable for the owner of a copyright, with full notice of an intended infringement, to stand inactive while the proposed infringer spends large sums of money in its exploitation, and to intervene only when his speculation has proved a success.” Haas v. Leo Feist, Inc., 234 F. 105, 108 (SDNY 1916).

Today’s decision disables federal courts from addressing that inequity.

In this case, I actually agree with the majority’s decision. I agree with Learned Hand’s comment that it’s not nice for a copyright holder to let the proposed infringer take the risk then swoop in to reap the rewards, but that is not what happened here. Raging Bull came out in 1980. MGM invested heavily in the film in the late 1970s and early 1980s. While yes, they still market the film today and they market it based on new technologies, the marketing expense has decreased dramatically because of the film’s popularity, awards status, and fame. Really, all MGM has to do is produce the film on a new technology and sales are virtually guaranteed. Also, Petrella does not seek damages for infringement that may or may not have occurred in the 1980s, 1990s or even the early 2000s; her suit seeks damages only within the confines of the statute of limitations, which I think moots the dissent’s quote of Judge Hand.

We certainly do not want to impose an unneeded inequity on any defendant, but I don’t think this decision does that. The inequity of delay is addressed through the statute of limitations. There is a time-certain period outside of which a defendant cannot be successfully sued. That limitation is placed on the plaintiff by statute. Today’s decision does not allow a plaintiff to sue outside of the statute of limitations, which keeps the delay to a minimum.