Tuesday, March 12, 2019

If a patent is expired, can it be used freely by everybody?

It is important to remember that a patent does not give anybody the right to do what the patent covers. For example, if I had a patent on a more effective delivery system for MDMA or LSD, having a patent doesn't change the fact that those drugs are considered Schedule 1 and illegal under almost every circumstance -- meaning that my delivery system couldn't be used even though I had a patent on it.
While a patent doesn't give the patentee the right to practice the invention, it does give them the right to sue people to stop them from using the invention (or to recover financial damages). The expiration of a patent simply means that the owner of that patent can no longer sue anybody for using the inventions claimed in the patent.
Those things together mean that the impact of expiration of a patent on the ability to freely copy what was patented is limited. Taking the game "monopoly" as an example, the game was initially covered by a patent, by copyright, and by trademark law (though it does seem likely that recent Supreme Court decisions may have rendered that game not patentable today). When the patent expired, the copyright and trademark in the game remained in place. So while a company could sell a game with the same game-play mechanics that were claimed in the patent without fear of being sued for infringing the patent, that company could still be sued if they violate the copyright to the game or call it "Monopoly".
The bottom line is that the expiration of a patent simply means that the patent is no longer in play (sometimes subject to revival for unintentional or unavoidable delay in paying maintenance fees). However, there are other intellectual property rights (copyright, trade secret, trademark, trade dress, state-level trademarks, rights of publicity, etc.) that can give rise to significant liability. The expiration of the patent will not impact those other rights. The mere expiration of a patent does not mean that anybody can freely practice everything in the patent until they are satisfied (preferably by a lawyer's opinion letter) that what they intend to do is (a) legal, and (b) does not violate any other IP rights.
The other thing about patents is that it is common for a single patent application to result in numerous patents. There is even a thing called a "terminal disclaimer" that is used when a second patent claims something not significantly different than the first patent. Because patent maintenance fees are expensive, infrequently a patent owner will allow one patent to go expired for non-payment of fees, counting on other patents in the family to cover the same material. You'll want to go to https://portal.uspto.gov/pair/PublicPair and look up the expired patent. First, make sure it is really expired. Second, check the "continuity" tab and see if there are other patents still in force (or pending applications) in that patent family.
Perhaps most importantly, you need to seek proper legal advice. A good IP lawyer should be able to walk you through it. It is tough to provide a firm answer in the abstract, and the facts specific to what you want to do will be critical in having a lawyer give you the right answer.

U.S. Supreme Court holds that a copyright claimant may not file infringement suit until the Copyright Office registers a copyright

Although an author automatically gains copyright protection for her work immediately upon the work’s creation, an author may not file an infringement action in court until “registration of the copyright has been made” in accordance with the Copyright Act. The Supreme Court was recently called upon to resolve a split amongst the circuit courts regarding when registration of a copyright is deemed made.

Some circuits held that a registration of a copyright is made as soon as the claimant delivers the required application, copies of the work, and fee to the Copyright Office; other circuits held that registration is made only after the Copyright Office reviews and registers the copyright. The Supreme Court in Fourth Estate v. Wall-Street.com,LLC resolved the split by holding that registration occurs, and a copyright claimant may commence an infringement suit, when the Copyright Office registers a copyright. The Court further held that, upon registration of the copyright, however, a copyright owner can recover for infringement that occurred both before and after registration.

Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corporation is an online news producer that licensed articles to Wall-Street.com, LLC, a news website. The license agreement required Wall-Street to remove from its website all content produced by Fourth Estate before canceling the agreement. Wall-Street canceled, but continued to display articles produced by Fourth Estate. Fourth Estate sued Wall-Street and its owner for copyright infringement. Because the Copyright Office had not yet acted on Fourth Estate’s registration applications, the District Court, on Wall-Street’s motion, dismissed the complaint. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal.

The Supreme Court’s ruling of course has no effect on the statutory scheme that allows for preregistration infringement suits to be filed in limited circumstances. Claimants are still allowed to bring suits under those statutes, provided that they eventually make registration as required to maintain their suits.

The Court’s ruling in Fourth Street means that many copyright suits currently in progress are not ripe for adjudication and can likely be dismissed on motion. It is also important to note that, while the Court’s ruling allows claimants to sue for infringement occurring prior to registration, nothing provides for the tolling of the statute of limitations while the Copyright Office processes registration. With a three-year statute of limitations for copyright infringement, and an average application processing time of seven months, parties should not delay in getting their applications on file. 

Authored by:
Brandon Hamparzoomian