Commil USA, LLC v. Cisco Systems, Inc. (No. 13-896)

On May 26, 2015, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Commil USA, LLC v. Cisco Systems, Inc. (No. 13-896), rejecting the accused patent infringer’s argument that a good faith belief that the patent is invalid is a defense to induced infringement under 35 U.S.C. § 271(b). In the majority opinion by Justice Kennedy,[1] the Court confirmed its previous holding in Global-Tech Appliances, Inc. v. SEB S.A., 563 U.S. __ (2011) that to be liable for inducing infringement the inducer must have knowledge (1) of the patent, and (2) that the induced acts constitute infringement. Slip Op.at 6. Thus, if the alleged inducer reasonably believes that the acts it induces are not infringing, there can be no liability for inducing infringement. Slip Op. at 9. The accused inducer in this case, Cisco, argued that a good faith belief that the patent is invalid should likewise preclude a finding of inducement because an invalid patent cannot be infringed, and a belief of invalidity therefore negates any knowledge that the induced acts constitute infringement.

The majority rejected this argument for several reasons. First, the majority notes that the Patent Act treats infringement and invalidity separately. The infringement statute, Section 271, is found in Part III of the Act, entitled “Patents and the Protection of Patent Rights,” while the patentability statutes, Sections 101, 102, and 103, etc., are in Part II, entitled “Patentability of Inventions and Grants of Patents.” See Slip Op. at 10. Second, the majority further noted that non-infringement and invalidity are listed as separate defenses under Section 282, and allowing a good faith belief of invalidity to defeat an inducement claim would contradict the presumption of validity that issued patents enjoy pursuant to that section. See Slip Op. at 10. Because patents are presumed valid, they must be proved invalid by clear and convincing evidence, as opposed to the lower preponderance-of-the-evidence standard used for proving infringement. According to the majority, this difference further dictates that infringement and invalidity should not be conflated. See Slip Op. at 10. Lastly, the majority noted that allowing the defense would make litigation more burdensome and confuse juries by making them distinguish between the defendant’s belief regarding validity and the actual issue of validity. See Slip Op. at 12.

Interestingly, the majority went out of its way to note that accused infringers still have multiple ways to defend against frivolous patent infringement claims, especially claims by patent assertion entities or “trolls.” The majority stressed that Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and 35 U.S.C. § 285 allow district courts to award sanctions and attorney fees against parties who bring frivolous cases. Slip Op. at 14. According to the majority, these deterrents, combined with post-grant review proceedings at the Patent Office, warrant maintaining the separation between infringement and validity.