By Kevin E. Noonan --
The Supreme Court handed down its opinion in Quanta Computer, Inc. v. LG Electronics, Inc. today, deciding a question of patent exhaustion in the sale of computer components. The decision, strengthening the patent exhaustion principle, was not really a surprise for a number of reasons. First, it was consistent with Supreme Court precedent, most particularly United States v. Univis Lens Co., 316 U. S. 241 (1942). Second, the decision is in keeping with the Supreme Court's longstanding antipathy to patent "monopolies" and anything that would result in extending them outside their most limited scope. Finally, of course, the case represented another opportunity to reverse the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit; the Supreme Court has spent the last decade or so in establishing its own supremacy in patent law at the expense of whatever consistency the Federal Circuit has attempted (rightly or wrongly) to impose.
The case involved sales by Quanta and the other defendant computer makers of computers comprising both Intel and non-Intel produced components. LG Electronics, who licensed the patents-in-suit (U.S. Patent Nos. 4,939,641; 5,379,379; and 5,077,733) to Intel, imposed a condition on its licenses with Intel that sales were not authorized to third parties that would mix Intel and non-Intel components, and further that Intel was under an affirmative obligation to inform its customers that such uses were not licensed. The patents-in-suit claimed methods for organizing read/write requests in computer cache and random access memory (the '379 patent); methods for prioritizing access of peripheral devices to the microprocessor via the computer bus (the '733 patent); and a system for "ensuring that the most current data are retrieved from main [RAM] memory by monitoring data requests and updating main memory from the cache when stale data are requested" (the '641 patent). It was undisputed that Quanta and the other defendants purchased patented microprocessors from Intel that fell within the scope of the LG patents, that they were aware of the restrictions and limitations placed on their use of these components by the license between LG and Intel and that the defendants sold computer systems comprising Intel components operatively linked to non-Intel components. Although the District Court granted summary judgment in favor of Quanta, the Federal Circuit reversed in part and remanded, on the grounds that method claims were not subject to patent exhaustion or, in the alternative, that LG had not licensed Intel to sell components for use in computers having both Intel and non-Intel components.
In its decision reversing the Federal Circuit, a unanimous Court (in an opinion written by Justice Thomas) settled one unsettled question of patent exhaustion and reinforced its test for calculating the extent of the doctrine. Directly reversing the Federal Circuit, the Court held that method claims are not exempt from patent exhaustion. Citing previous Supreme Court cases that "rest on solid footing" (including Ethyl Gasoline Corp. v. United States, 309 U.S. 436 (1940), and Univis), the opinion asserted that it had never treated composition and method claims differently, applying the "substantial embodiment" test to apply the patent exhaustion principle to method claims. The reasoning mirrored in some ways the District Court's reasoning in University of Rochester v. G. D. Searle on the composition/method distinction: if method claims were not subject to exhaustion, all patents would contain (or all patent families would contain) method claims that could be used to coerce royalty payments otherwise exhausted for composition claims by sales of a patent-protected item. The Supreme Court (reasonably) concluded that patent exhaustion must apply to method claims to prevent such shenanigans (characterized by the Court as an "end-run around exhaustion") from negating the value of the doctrine to the public.
The Supreme Court reiterated the test for whether exhaustion applies that it enunciated in Univis: sales that "substantially embody" the patents in suit will be sales that exhaust the patent right to obtain royalties. The Univis case involved sales of eyeglass "blanks" for making patented compound lenses, and the products sold by the alleged infringers were the final eyeglasses containing lenses ground from the blanks sold by the patentee. In Univis, the Court opined (albeit in an action brought by the United States under the antitrust laws, not the Patent Act) that the lens blanks embodied essential features of the patented lenses and thus sales of the blanks exhausted patent rights in the finished lenses.
Here, the Supreme Court concluded that the components at issue, microprocessors and chipsets, "substantially embodied" the system and method claims of the patents-in-suit. It analogized these components with the lens blanks in Univis, which it asserted "did not fully practice the patents at issue" because they needed to be ground into lenses, here the patented microprocessors and chipsets did not "function at all" until they were assembled into the final product (i.e., the computer comprising non-Intel components). "If [the opinion states], as in Univis, patent rights are exhausted by the sale of the incomplete item, then LGE has no postsale right to require that the patents be practiced using only Intel parts." The Court rejected the three LG arguments that attempted to distinguish this case from Univis. First, according to LG, Univis is properly limited to cases where the products "contain all the physical aspects needed to practice the patent." Second, this case can be distinguished from Univis because there was no "patentable distinction" between the lenses and lens blanks in Univis, and there are such distinctions here (inter alia, the existence of multiple patents for the alleged infringing articles). Finally, LG invoked Aro Mfg. Co. v. Convertible Top Replacement Co., 365 U.S. 336 (1961) for the countervailing principle that "combination" patents should not be exhausted by the sale of one component of the combination.
On the contrary, the Supreme Court found Univis controlling. The "only reasonable and intended use [of the microprocessors and chipsets] was to practice the patent," said the Court, just as the only "reasonable and intended use" of the lens blanks in Univis was to make the patented eyeglasses. Moreover, the microprocessors and chipsets embodied the essential features of the patented invention, since all that was required was to attach them to other conventional computer components in conventional ways (much as the lens blanks in Univis were converted to lenses using conventional grinding techniques not encompassed by the patent claims). (Interestingly, the Court noted that Quanta was limited to using such conventional methods because the internal structure of the Intel microprocessors and chipsets were protected by Intel as trade secrets, and Quanta could not modify them. "Intel all but practiced the patent itself by designing its products to practice the patents, lacking only the addition of standard parts.") Finally, the Court rejected LG's reliance on Aro, distinguishing that case as involving replacement of a part of a combination and because Aro is limited to claims relying on the combination of elements and not any individual component of the combination.
Finally, the Supreme Court addressed the question of whether the license terms precluded application of the exhaustion doctrine and determined they did not. Important in the Court's determination was that the license agreement did not contain the preclusive condition; a separate "Master Agreement" between the parties recited that provision. But "Intel's authority to sell its products embodying the LGE Patents was not conditioned on the notice [that the mixed combination of components was an unauthorized use] or on Quanta's decision to abide by LGE's directions in that notice," because breach of the provisions of the Master Agreement precluding sale of Intel microprocessors and chipsets to third parties who combined them with non-Intel components did not constitute a breach of the licensing agreement.
The decision has important ramifications for biotechnology patent claims. There are two immediately-evident examples: cases where a patentee having method claims and composition claims limits by so-called "label license" the uses for a patented article; and cases where a patented article has the biological property of replication, where the license precludes use of replicates of the article after purchase. An example of the first type of situation are the limits placed on the practice of the polymerase chain reaction, based on patents to the amplification method and the thermostable polymerase. The restrictions were of two types: first, licenses to the method were granted only upon purchase of the polymerase and use of an "authorized" thermocyler. Second, the method (and for that matter, the polymerase) was not licensed for diagnostic uses, only for scientific research. Under the patent exhaustion doctrine set forth in the Quanta opinion, it is likely that neither of these restrictions would be enforceable. First, although the polymerase has other uses that would not infringe the claims of the PCR method patent, it is likely that sale of the thermostable polymerase would exhaust the method claims as well, since the thermostable characteristic of the polymerase embodies essential features of the claimed invention. This is even more likely regarding the diagnostic use prohibition, since it represents the kind of restriction the Court prohibited in Adams v. Burke: "when a patented item is 'once lawfully made and sold, there is no restriction on [its] use to be implied for the benefit of the patentee.'" Adams, 17 Wall. 453, 457 (1873).
The second type of post-sale restrictions important to biotechnology are those that restrict use of a patented article that is capable of self-replication; the most (in)famous cases of this type are the Monsanto herbicide-resistant seed cases, where the "label license" prohibits replanting seed produced using the recombinant seed purchased from the company. Monsanto has recently been the victor in a number of lawsuits against farmers who were found to have harvested recombinant seed from one years' planting and replanted it the following year; the Federal Circuit has upheld lower court determinations that this constituted patent infringement as activity falling outside the scope of the license (see, e.g., Patent Docs post on Monsanto Co. v. David). Although critically important economically (since it is clear that Monsanto would not be in the seed business for very long in the absence of these restrictions), it is difficult to see how these restrictions could pass muster under the rubrics for applying patent exhaustion set forth in today's Quanta decision. Certainly, it is without question that the seeds "embody" (figuratively and literally) the "essential features" of the patented invention, and thus the types of limitations Monsanto (and other seed producers) have placed on replanting of their patented seeds are unlikely to prevail if they try to assert them under the patent laws.
As has been the Supreme Court's penchant in several recent cases, there is an important caveat to its holding to be found in a footnote; here, it is footnote number 7:
We note that the authorized nature of the sale to Quanta does not necessarily limit LGE's other contract rights. LGE's complaint does not include a breach-of-contract claim, and we express no opinion on whether contract damages might be available even though exhaustion operates to eliminate patent damages. See Keeler v. Standard Folding Bed Co., 157 U. S. 659, 666 (1895) ("Whether a patentee may protect himself and his assignees by special contracts brought home to the purchasers is not a question before us, and upon which we express no opinion. It is, however, obvious that such a question would arise as a question of contract, and not as one under the inherent meaning and effect of the patent laws.").
Monsanto also employs a contract to prohibit replanting of its seeds, and it is clear that a patentee could condition sale of a patented article on contractual provisions restricting its use. Such an arrangement has clear disadvantages as compared with patent law claims, including variations in application of the law (and enforceability of the agreement) state-by-state, as well as the potential to implicate the antitrust laws. But such agreements may be the only way remaining for biotechnology companies to protect their inventions in both the preceding types of situations.
The Quanta decision provides comfort to those many who have been battling seed producers over replanting restrictions. It is also yet another example of the value of patent rights being eroded by Supreme Court decisions that run counter to the determinations of the Federal Circuit.