Top Tens in 2014: Patent, Trademark, Copyright and Trade-Secret Cases

McJohn, Stephen | January 1, 2015

The Supreme Court decided more patent cases in 2014 than any previous year. It lowered the standard for awarding fees in patent cases, clarified that the patent holder carries the burden of showing infringement even in declaratory judgment actions, lowered the standard for invalidating patent claims as vague, and rejected the theory that infringement may occur by simply adding the actions of separate parties. The most important case, Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l, announced a test for patentable subject matter, especially for software and business method inventions, that was considerably more restrictive than case law to date. Meanwhile, the most notable case in copyright seemed to go in the opposite direction, raising the level of copyright protection for software, perhaps even creating a split in the circuits. In Oracle Am., Inc. v. Google Inc., the Federal Circuit held that the application programming interfaces of the Java programming language were copyrightable expression, as opposed to non-copyrightable functional matter. The Supreme Court held that rebroadcast of television programs infringed the public performance right, even where done using technology that effectively gave each viewer a personal antenna. The Court also rejected the application of laches in copyright cases, permitting litigation of long-standing infringement. Other cases provided important precedent on evergreen issues in intellectual property law. Cambridge Univ. Press v. Patton reversed a safe harbor approach to the application of fair use to university coursebooks. Garcia v. Google, Inc. raised the possibility that anyone who contributes to a work, such as an actor in a film, may have their own separate copyright. Trademark cases addressed such questions as who may bring a false advertising case, when matter is functional, when trademarks become generic or are otherwise abandoned, when others may use a mark to describe things, and when a mark may be cancelled as disparaging of a group of people. In trade secret, the Third Circuit avoided the surprisingly important issue of liability for account slurping. Other cases dealt with the interfaces between trade secret and contract and between trade secret and patent. Courts also dealt with the balance between disclosing information to potential partners and maintaining sufficient security measures to qualify for trade secret protection.