Daniel Hemel and Lisa Larrimore Ouellette
Cross-posted at Whatever Source Derived
Judging by the media coverage, the Supreme Court’s decision today in Impression Products, Inc. v. Lexmark Inc. will have dramatic implications for producers and consumers of patented products around the world. The decision places “sharp limits on how much control patent holders have over how their products are used after they are sold,” says the New York Times’s Adam Liptak. The ruling is a “sure-to-be-landmark decision,” reports Ronald Mann at SCOTUSblog. It “takes away an important tool used by companies to control the marketplace,” according to Bloomberg.
Well, maybe. But the Court’s opinion, authored by Chief Justice Roberts, also opens the door for creative contract lawyers to draft licensing agreements that severely restrict resale of patented products. The full impact of the Supreme Court’s decision won’t be known for years, but much will depend on how courts view the newfangled licensing agreements that are almost certain to follow in the wake of Impression Products.
To see why, let’s start with a hypothetical: Suppose your firm, Company A, holds a U.S. patent covering a certain widget. You manufacture one such widget and sell it to B on the condition that B not resell the widget to anyone else. In violation of that condition, B resells the widget to C, who then uses the widget. Can you sue B and/or C for patent infringement?
Prior to today, the answer under Federal Circuit precedent was yes: A could sue both B and C. Today’s decision changes that. The Court holds 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.” This is true even if A’s sale to B occurs outside the United States. Thus, Company A now cannot sue B or C for patent infringement, though it still might be able to sue B for breach of contract.
But now reconsider the above scenario with the following modification: Company A—instead of selling the widget to B—licenses the widget to B with the proviso that B can do whatever she wants with the widget except resell it. If B violates the terms of the license and resells the widget to C, who then uses it, can Company A sue B and/or C for patent infringement?