Thursday, June 9, 2011

What Does It Mean to 'Induce' Patent Infringement?

Dear Rich: Thanks for explaining the Supreme Court's decision in the Roche v. Stanford patent case. Could you make that a regular feature? Wow, we're really torn. On the one hand we love to come up with new regular features, and on the other hand so many bloggers already discuss these big cases (in the case of  patent law, check out Patent Baristas and Patently-O). On the other, other hand (wait, is that three hands?) we have to write about something!
Right, you wanted to hear about a Supreme Court case. Last week, the Supreme Court decided Global-Tech Appliances v. SEB. SEB patented a deep-fryer whose exterior was cool to the touch. Global-Tech Appliances, operating outside the U.S. copied everything but the cosmetic aspects of the SEB deep fryer. Global-Tech then branded these deep fryers for sale by Sunbeam, Montgomery Ward, and others. SEB sued Global-Tech for inducing others to infringe its cool-touch patent. Global-Tech defended itself by arguing that it couldn't induce others to infringe because it had no actual knowledge it was infringing SEB's patent. (Global-Tech had vetted its device with a patent attorney but had failed to disclose to the attorney that their device was copied directly from the SEB deep-fryer.)
Justice is (Willfully) Blind. The Supreme Court ruled for SEB. Yes, said the court, inducing infringement required knowledge of the existing patent, but that knowledge could be inferred using a legal standard referred to as "willful blindness." As the Court stated:
Many criminal statutes require proof that a defendant acted knowingly or willfully, and courts applying the doctrine of willful blindness hold that defendants cannot escape the reach of these statutes by deliberately shielding themselves from clear evidence of critical facts that are strongly suggested by the circumstances.
The Court went on to distinguish willful blindness from a lower court's standard known as "deliberate indifference." As for the differences, we won't go into all the details, but practically, the bottom line is that when asking an attorney to render a legal opinion (Does my deep-fryer infringe?), don't hide information (like, 'I copied this from another deep-fryer').