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News & Knowledge

USA: Supreme Court rejects Federal Circuit’s restrictive view of the patent exhaustion doctrine

4th September 2017
Kenneth M. Albridge, III - Michael Best & Friedrich LLP

On 30 May 2017, the United States Supreme Court again overturned Federal Circuit precedent, this time in a case addressing the doctrine of patent exhaustion. In Impression Products, Inc. v. Lexmark International, Inc., No. 15-1189, slip op. (U.S. May 30, 2017), the Supreme Court held that “a patentee’s decision to sell a product exhausts all of its patent rights in that item, regardless of any restrictions the patentee purports to impose or the location of the sale.” Id. at 2.

MSI's Utah law firm member Michael Best & Friedrich LLP provides an update on the recent ruling.

The case involved patented toner cartridges for laser printers that, when depleted, can be refilled and used again. The patentee structured its sales to encourage purchasers to return spent cartridges instead of selling them to “remanufacturers,” who then refill the cartridges and resell them at a price lower than the new ones the patentee puts on the shelves. More specifically, the patentee provided customers with two options—they could buy a patented toner cartridge at full price, with no strings attached, or they could buy a patented cartridge at roughly 20% off by signing a contract agreeing to use the cartridge only once and to refrain from transferring the cartridge to anyone but the patentee. Notwithstanding the limitations on reuse and resale of the reduced-price cartridges, remanufacturers were still finding customers willing to sell them.

In 2010, the patentee sued these remanufacturers, including the defendant, for patent infringement with respect to two groups of cartridges—the reduced-price cartridges that the patentee sold in the United States, and all cartridges the patentee sold abroad and that the remanufacturers imported into the United States. The defendant, however, maintained that the patentee’s sales, both in the United States and abroad, exhausted its patent rights in the cartridges. The Federal Circuit disagreed, ruling en banc that: (1) a patentee may sell an item and retain the right to enforce, through patent infringement lawsuits, clearly communicated, lawful restrictions as to post-sale use or resale; and (2) a patentee’s decision to sell a product abroad does not terminate its ability to bring an infringement suit against a buyer that imports the article and sells it in the United States. Lexmark Int’l, Inc. v. Impression Prods., Inc., 816 F.3d 721, 735, 754 (Fed. Cir. 2016).

Reversing the Federal Circuit’s en banc decision, the Supreme Court concluded that the Federal Circuit’s analysis with respect to the first group of products “got off on the wrong foot” when it reasoned that the exhaustion doctrine is derived from the infringement statute, which prohibits anyone from using or selling a patented article “without authority.” Impression Prods., Inc., slip op. at 9-10. The Supreme Court found no merit in the Federal Circuit’s view that the exhaustion doctrine reflects a presumption that a patentee’s sale of a patented article grants authority to the purchaser to use and resell that article, which can be overcome with clearly communicated, lawful restrictions on post-sale use or resale.

Read the full article – USA: Supreme Court rejects Federal Circuit’s restrictive view of the patent exhaustion doctrine

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