- Posts by Joseph LeeAssociate
Joseph K. Lee is a member of the Commercial and Complex Litigation Practice Group and the firm’s Intellectual Property Team. Mr. Lee represents private companies in contract and business tort litigation, intellectual property ...
On April 5, 2021, the Supreme Court put an end to the decade-long copyright dispute between tech giants Google and Oracle America. In a 6-2 decision authored by Justice Breyer, the Supreme Court held in Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc., 593 U.S. ___ (2021), that Google’s copying of approximately 11,500 lines of code from Oracle’s Java SE Application Programming Interface (“API”) was “fair use” and, therefore, did not constitute copyright infringement. The Court’s decision will undoubtedly have ramifications for decades to come on the “fair use” doctrine in commercial works, and in particular in the use of computer code in commercial software.
The two questions before the Court were: (1) whether the Java SE code that Google copied was entitled to copyright protection in light of the Copyright Act’s inclusion of computer programs as copyrightable material and its prohibition on protection for “processes” and “methods of operation,” and (2) assuming the code was copyrightable, whether Google’s use qualified as “fair use.” Recognizing that “a holding for Google on either question presented would dispense with Oracle’s copyright claims,” the Court only answered the fair use inquiry. In view of “the rapidly changing technological, economic, and business-related circumstances,” the Court exercised judicial restraint by stating it would “not answer more than is necessary to resolve the parties’ dispute.” Although Google could have prevailed had the Court found that the API was not copyrightable, the Court saved that question for another day and assumed for the sake of argument that it was.
Justice Breyer, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh, focused on the fair use defense by analyzing each of the four statutory factors enumerated in 17 U.S.C. § 107: (1) the purpose and character of the use; (2) the nature of the copyrighted work; (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. The Court found that each factor weighed in Google’s favor, thereby reversing the Federal Circuit’s decision to the contrary.
Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Alito, dissented, stating that the majority erred by not answering the question of copyrightability and that the fair use factors actually favored Oracle. The dissent criticized the majority’s approach of sidestepping the question of whether the API was copyrightable, arguing that the majority’s failure to address the issue distorted its fair use analysis and ultimately rendered the code as “less worthy of protection.”
The Court’s decision sets an important precedent as it has the potential to significantly expand the fair use doctrine, even in non-computer software contexts. If you are an author, musician, programmer, or other content creator, or have been accused of copyright infringement, it is important to consult with experienced intellectual property counsel to determine how the decision impacts you.
AALRR has a dedicated group of attorneys on its Intellectual Property Team with the experience and expertise to vigorously enforce your copyrights and defend you against claims of copyright infringement. Attorneys on the Firm’s Intellectual Property Team can also assist you with registration of your copyrights with the United States Copyright Office. Contact the authors for assistance with your copyright and other intellectual property needs.
This AALRR post is intended for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon in reaching a conclusion in a particular area of law. Applicability of the legal principles discussed may differ substantially in individual situations. Receipt of this or any other AALRR publication does not create an attorney-client relationship. The Firm is not responsible for inadvertent errors that may occur in the publishing process.
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On May 14, 2020, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of denim company Lucky Brand Dungarees, Inc. (“Lucky Brand”) in its decades-long trademark dispute with Marcel Fashions Group, Inc. (“Marcel”), holding that Lucky Brand was not precluded from asserting an unlitigated defense from a prior lawsuit with Marcel. In Lucky Brand Dungarees, Inc., et al. v. Marcel Fashions Group, Inc., 590 U.S. ___ (2020), the Supreme Court rejected the Second Circuit’s application of the so-called “defense preclusion” doctrine and confirmed that any preclusion of a litigant’s defenses must comply with traditional res judicata principles.
On April 23, 2020, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a trademark holder need not prove that the infringement of its trademark was willful in order to recover an award of the infringer’s profits. The Court’s decision in Romag Fasteners, Inc. v. Fossil, Inc. resolves a longstanding circuit split and may make it easier for trademark holders in many jurisdictions, including the Ninth Circuit, to recover damages in trademark infringement cases.
On March 23, 2020, the Supreme Court unanimously held in Allen v. Cooper that, absent consent, states cannot be sued for copyright infringement and are shielded from such actions under the doctrine of sovereign immunity. The Court found that the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act of 1990 (CRCA), which expressly provided that states “shall not be immune” under any doctrine of sovereign immunity for copyright infringement, was an unconstitutional abrogation of state sovereign immunity. However, the Court also noted that its decision would “not prevent Congress from passing a valid copyright abrogation law in the future” that is more tailored to pass constitutional muster.
On December 11, 2019, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Peter v. NantKwest, Inc. that the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) cannot recover the salaries of its attorneys or paralegals as “expenses” in district court cases filed under 35 U.S.C. § 145.
October marks the opening of the new Supreme Court 2019-2020 term and there is one case in particular that trademark practitioners are anxiously awaiting for the Court to weigh in on to resolve a longstanding circuit split and definitively answer the question whether willful infringement is a prerequisite for an award of an infringer’s profits in an action for trademark infringement.
On September 12, 2019, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held for the first time that “claim language can limit the scope of a design patent where the claim language supplies the only instance of an article of manufacture that appears nowhere in the figures.” The Federal Circuit’s order affirming the dismissal of a complaint for design patent infringement based on a narrowed construction of the patent-in-suit makes clear that words matter in a design patent.
On May 20, 2019, the United States Supreme Court resolved a circuit split and answered a significant previously unresolved legal issue in trademark licensing. The Supreme Court held in Mission Product Holdings, Inc. v. Tempnology, LLC, No. 17-1657, 587 U.S. __ (2019), that a debtor-licensor’s rejection of an executory trademark licensing agreement in bankruptcy has the same effect as a breach of contract outside bankruptcy and therefore does not rescind the licensee’s rights or revoke the trademark license.
Section 365 of the Bankruptcy Code allows a debtor to “reject any executory contract”—meaning a contract that neither party has finished performing. The issue before the Court was whether a debtor-licensor’s rejection of a trademark license agreement, which “constitutes a breach of such contract” under Section 365(g) of the Bankruptcy Code, resulted in a rescission of the license even though a breach of contract in a non-bankruptcy context would not automatically terminate the license.
In its 8-1 decision authored by Justice Kagan (and joined by every justice except Justice Gorsuch), the Supreme Court reversed the First Circuit’s January 2018 decision that had ruled that a licensee loses its right to use licensed trademarks if the debtor-licensor rejects the trademark licensing agreement in bankruptcy. Instead, the Supreme Court sided with the Seventh Circuit’s reasoning from Sunbeam Products, Inc. v. Chicago American Manufacturing, LLC, 686 F.3d 372 (7th Cir. 2012), where the Seventh Circuit construed Section 365 and held to the contrary.
Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision, the circuits had been divided as to the effect of a debtor-licensor’s rejection of a license. Some circuits, including the Seventh Circuit, had held that a rejection of a license agreement was simply a breach of contract, in which case the licensee’s rights under the contract remained intact and the licensee could continue to use the trademark. Other circuits, such as the First Circuit, held that a rejection of a license agreement was a termination of the license, thereby prohibiting the licensee from continuing to use the trademark. The debate has now been settled.
The Supreme Court’s decision significantly enhances the bargaining strength of trademark licensees because there is now certainty that a licensor’s rejection in bankruptcy does not revoke the licensee’s rights under a pre-existing license agreement. Potential debtors are also affected because trademark licenses granted prior to bankruptcy remain valid and the debtor-licensor’s obligations under the license agreement continue.
Justice Sotomayor issued a concurring opinion in part to highlight the special treatment of a trademark licensee’s post-rejection rights and remedies under Section 365.
Parties who now find themselves negotiating agreements, including trademark licenses in particular, must carefully consider what terms and obligations will survive bankruptcy before entering such agreements. Because the Supreme Court’s ruling implicates many business and drafting issues, it is important to consult with experienced intellectual property counsel before negotiating and entering into a trademark license agreement.
AALRR has a dedicated group of attorneys on its Intellectual Property Team who can assist you with negotiating and drafting license agreements. Contact the authors for assistance with navigating the complicated intersection of intellectual property and insolvency.
Other AALRR Blogs
- Supreme Court Ruling in Google v. Oracle Marks Significant Victory for Copyright “Fair Use” in Commercial Works
- Recent Amendment to California’s Homestead Exemption May Make Recovery On Personal Monetary Judgments More Difficult
- California Appeals Court Increases Creditor Protections, Limits Protections for a Debtor’s Out-Of-State Transfers.
- Government Watchdog Advises Division of U.S. Treasury Department Against Use of GPS Cell Phone Data Without a Warrant
- President Biden’s Administration Halts Department of Labor’s Final Rule for Worker Classification
- PAGA: Here, There, Anywhere?
- Union-Backed Challenge to Proposition 22 Rejected by California Supreme Court
- COVID Class Action Report: Nike Settles Class Action By Providing Retail Employees with Transparent Face Coverings
- California Supreme Court Rings In The New Year With A Blast To Employers’ Past
- Privacy Law Update: New California Privacy Rights Act Further Expands California’s Privacy Law Amid the Evolving Privacy Landscape
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