Jonathan Woodard

Jonathan Woodard

On June 19, 2017, the Supreme Court issued a landmark opinion, holding that the First Amendment’s right to free speech extends to trademark protection of words and phrases that are purportedly offensive. 

For over half a century, trademark law prohibited registration of marks that were prejudicial to or could otherwise be deemed disparaging to certain groups or people.  Significantly, however, in Matal v. Tam, 137 S. Ct. 1744 (2017), an Asian-American band specifically chose the name “Slants,” believing “that by taking that slur as the name of their group, they [would] help to ‘reclaim’ the term and drain its denigrating force.”  Id. at 1751.  After the en banc Federal Circuit found that the disparagement clause under the Lanham Act was facially unconstitutional, the United States Patent and Trademark Office filed a petition for certiorari, which the Supreme Court granted in order to weigh in on the disparagement clause at issue, and whether the proposed trademark was official words endorsed by the government, or conversely, words of a private person. 

In its unanimous decision, the high court answered this question by declaring that “[t]rademarks are private, not government speech…[and] [t]he public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers.”  Id. at 1760 (internal citation omitted).  The Court also expressed concern with broadening the government speech doctrine, and in affirming the Federal Circuit’s judgment, held that that “if private speech could be passed off as government speech by simply affixing a government seal of approval, government could silence or muffle the expression of disfavored viewpoints.”  Id. at 1748.

Tam may very well have wide reaching effects.  While the Supreme Court made clear that a word or phrase in a trademark registration will not constitute government speech, the aftermath of this decision could give rise to various potentially “offensive” or “disparaging” trademark applications, which may ultimately rest with the consumer in determining whether to accept or reject the mark in its use in commerce. 

Because many issues can arise in applying for a trademark, Malloy and Malloy, P.L’s knowledgeable and experienced intellectual property attorneys are ready to advise and guide you along the way from an application through registration, and subsequent enforcement measures. 

On May 22, 2017, the United States Supreme Court in TC Heartland LLC v. Kraft Foods Group Brands LLC, 581 U.S. ___ (2017) narrowed the scope of where a corporate defendant “resides” for venue purposes under the patent venue statute (28 U.S.C. § 1400(b)).  Previously, patent plaintiffs could sue corporate defendants in any district court where the corporation was subject to personal jurisdiction, essentially where a defendant sold products.  However, and as a result of TC Heartland’s unanimous (8-0) decision reversing the Federal Circuit, 28 U.S.C. § 1400(b) remains the only applicable patent venue statute, and as applied to domestic corporations in patent cases, a “defendant resides only in the state of its incorporation.”

A number of results are likely in the wake of this dramatic shift in venue law.  First, TC Heartland presents a significant roadblock to patentees filing lawsuits in a particular forum – which critics label “forum shopping” -- simply because a corporate defendant placed a product into the stream of commerce.  The inevitable outcome will steer the filing of patent cases to Delaware, the state where many U.S. companies are incorporated.  Second, and where litigation is already pending, corporate defendants are likely to file motions to change venue (assuming the waivable defense of venue has been properly preserved). 

 Third, and as alternative to filing suit in the defendant’s state of incorporation, plaintiffs’ attorneys may file suit in a forum that instead satisfies the second prong of 28 U.S.C. § 1400(b), “where the defendant has committed acts of infringement and has a regular and established place of business.”  While the Federal Circuit has interpreted this phrase to mean doing business “through a permanent and continuous presence,” parties will surely battle over the confines of the pertinent statutory language, and litigate factors such as physical stores of the business, where key personnel are located, and the business’ online presence.  Fourth, situations may arise where there is no district court in which venue would be proper for all named defendants.  To avoid risking inconsistent rulings from litigating cases in separate districts, expect to see an increase in multi-jurisdiction litigation (“MDL”), which can serve as a useful vehicle in litigating overlapping issues in pretrial proceedings, with the individual cases referring back to the original court for trial.

 Many issues in the field of patent law will arise in the aftermath of TC Heartland.  Malloy and Malloy, P.L’s knowledgeable and experienced intellectual property lawyers are ready to advise you and guide your case as these issues come to the forefront. 

In a recent opinion narrowing the international reach of U.S. patent laws, the United States Supreme Court overturned the Federal Circuit’s determination that shipping a single part of a patented invention, to be joined with other components overseas, can constitute infringement.

In Life Techs. Corp. v. Promega Corp., No. 14-1538, Life Technologies manufactured an enzyme to be used in a DNA analysis kit, and shipped the enzyme to London where the company proceeded to manufacture the remaining components of the toolkit.  Promega Corp. filed suit, alleging patent infringement due to Life Technologies’ supplying the single component for genetic testing from the United States to the United Kingdom.  In reversing the district court’s order granting Life Technologies’ motion for judgment as a matter of law, the Federal Circuit held that certain circumstances can impose liability on a party under 35 §271(f)(1) for “supplying or causing to be supplied a single component for combination outside the United States.”

The Supreme Court reversed the Federal Circuit, and after engaging in a statutory construction of the plural term “components,” held that merely supplying a single component does not constitute infringement under Section 271(f)(1).  In the decision for the high court, Justice Sotomayor wrote that the governing statute does not apply to the quality of components, rather the quantity:  “We hold that the phrase ‘substantial portion’ in 35 U. S. C. §271(f )(1) has a quantitative, not a qualitative, meaning. We hold further that §271(f )(1) does not cover the supply of a single component of a multicomponent invention.”

While the scope of 35 §271(f)(1) remains subject to further litigation, specifically vis-à-vis how many components would constitute “a substantial portion,” Life Technologies makes clear that a party cannot be liable under 35 §271(f)(1) due to the extraterritorial supply of a single component.