Today, a divided Federal Circuit panel issued a decision that vacates district court’s decision not to permanently enjoin Samsung from selling mobile devices having features found to infringe Apple’s patents.  The majority decision breaths life back into injunctive relief against multi-component/multi-featured devices (like mobile phones) by not requiring the patent owner to show that its patented feature “drive[s] customer demand” for the infringing product in order to show a nexus between the infringement and alleged irreparable harm required for injunctive relief.  Rather, the patent owner need show “some connection” between the patented feature and consumer demand for the infringing product, which can be shown in “a variety of ways.”  For example, evidence that the patented features “is one of several features that cause consumers to make their purchasing decisions” or “makes a product significantly more desirable.”

Background

This case involves three Apple patents directed to features in touchscreen mobile devices:

  1. Slide-to-unlock image on touchscreen to unlock mobile device (the ‘721 Patent)
  2. Generating links within text upon detecting data structures, such as detecting a phone number in a text message and creating a link to dial that number (the ‘647 Patent)
  3. Automatic spell check and correction on touchscreen (the ‘172 Patent)

In 2012, Apple sued Samsung for infringing those patents (as well as others).  Samsung was found to infringe the three patents and a jury awarded Apple over $119 million in damages.  Apple then sought to enjoin Samsung from selling mobile phones or tablets with those infringing features — i.e., did not seek to enjoin sales of the mobile phone or tablets per se, just use of the infringing features in those devices.  Further, Apple proposed a 30 day “sunset period” before products would be enjoined, which time period coincided with Samsung’s representations at trial that it could quickly and easily remove the infringing features from the accused infringing Samsung devices.

But Judge Koh denied Apple’s request for a permanent injunction, finding that Apple failed to show it would suffer irreparable harm without an injunction.  Among other things, Apple had not shown that it lost sales to Samsung infringing devices, because Apple had not shown that the patented features drove customer demand for those products.

Decision

Judge Moore wrote the majority decision, which was joined by Judge Reyna, who also wrote a concurring opinion.  Judge Prost dissented.

The Federal Circuit’s standard of review here is whether the district court abused its discretion in deciding whether to grant injunctive relief based on the four eBay factors, which are whether the party seeking a permanent injunction has shown:

  1.  that it has suffered an irreparable injury;
  2. that remedies available at law, such as monetary damages, are inadequate to compensate for that injury;
  3. that, considering the balance of hardships between the plaintiff and defendant, a remedy in equity is warranted; and
  4. that the public interest would not be disserved by a permanent injunction.

The majority then walked through each of the four factors, the most decisive one in this instance being whether Apple had shown irreparable harm through a “causual nexus relat[ing] the alleged harm to the alleged infringement.”

Irreparable Harm.  The patent owner satisfies this first factor by showing it has been “irreparably harmed by the infringement” based on “proof that a ‘causal nexus relates the alleged harm to the alleged infringement.'”  The majority rejected Apple’s argument that there is no causal nexus requirement when the patent owner seeks only to enjoin infringing features, rather than an entire product.  The majority explained that “[t]he causal nexus requirement ensures that an injunction is only entered … on account of a harm resulting from the defendant’s wrongful conduct, not some other reason.”  This is “entirely independent of the scope of the proposed injunction.”

But the majority found that the district court erred by requiring Apple to show that the infringing features “drive consumer demand for Samsung’s infringing products” in order to establish irreparable harm based on a causal nexus between the infringement and Apple’s lost sales.  While making such a showing would establish the causal nexus, it is not required and may be “nearly impossible from an evidentiary standpoint [to show] when the accused devices have thousands of features, and thus thousands of other potential causes that must be ruled out.”  Rather, the patent owner need only “show ‘some connection’ between the patented features and the demand for the infringing products”:

Thus, in a case involving phones with hundreds of thousands of available features, it was legal error for the district court to effectively require Apple to prove that the infringement was the sole cause of the lost downstream sales.  The district court should have determined whether the record established that a smartphone feature impacts customers’  purchasing decisions.  Though the fact that the infringing features are not the only cause of the last sales may well lessen the weight of any alleged irreparable harm, it does not eliminate it entirely.

In a footnote, the majority provide more insight into the range of ways that “some connection” between the patented feature and customer demand may be shown, which provides further insight into this issue:

As we explained in Apple III [735 F.3d 1352 (Fed. Cir. 2013)], “some connection” between the patented feature and consumer demand for the products may be shown in “a variety of ways,” including, for example, “evidence that a patented feature is one of several features that cause consumers to make their purchasing decisions,” “evidence that the inclusion of a patented feature makes a product significantly more desirable,” and “evidence that the absence of a patented feature would make a product significantly less desirable.”  These examples do not delineate or set a floor on the strength of the connection that must be shown to establish a causal nexus.  Apple III included a fourth example to demonstrate a connection that does not establish a casual nexus–where consumers are only willing “to pay a nominal amount for an infringing feaure.” (using example of $10 cup holder in $2000 car).  There is a lot of ground between the examples that satisfy the causal nexus requirement and the example that does not satisfy this requirement.  The required minimum showing lies somewhere in the middle, as reflected by the “some connection” language.

Thus the district court erred in requiring Apple to show that “the infringing features were the exclusive or predominant reason why consumers bought Samsung’s [infringing] products.”  Rather, the court should have required Apple to show that “the patented features impact consumers’ decisions to purchase the accused devices.”

The majority then went through the record in the case and concluded that Apple had made the requisite showing here:

In short, the record establishes that the [patented] features … were important to product sales and that customers sought these features in the phones they purchased.  While this evidence of irreparable harm is not as strong as proof that customers buy the infringing products only because of these particular features, it is still evidence of causal nexus for lost sales and thus irreparable harm. … Apple does not need to establish that these features are the reason customers bought Samsung phones instead of Apple phones–it is enough that Apple has shown that these features were related to infringement and were important to customers when they were examining their phone choices. [emphasis in original]

The majority thus concluded that this irreparable harm factor weighs in favor of granting Apple’s requested injunction.

Inadequate Remedy at Law.  This second factor considers whether “remedies available at law, such as monetary damages, are inadequate to compensate” for the irreparable harm caused by continued infringement.  The district court had found that Apple’s lost sales “were difficult to quantify,” but still concluded that this factor weighed against an injunction because Apple had failed to establish irreparable harm.  The majority found this was error given its ruling on irreparable harm, finding that this factor “strongly weighs” in favor of an injunction given “the extent of Apple’s downstream and network effect losses are very difficult to quantify.”

Balance of Hardships.  This third factor concerns “assess[ing] the relative effect of granting or denying an injunction on both parties.”  The district court found that this factor favored injunctive relief based on (1) the proposed injunction targeting specific features, not entire products; (2) the proposed 30-day sunset provision and (3) Samsung’s repeated argument to the jury that “designing around the asserted claims … would be easy and fast.”  The latter point raises the typical Catch-22 accused infringers encounter when arguing that a patented feature has little value in order to avoid a large damages award, and then that argument being used against them when trying to avoid injunctive relief.  The majority held that this factor strongly weighed in favor of injunctive relief:

On this record, it is clear–Samsung will suffer relatively little harm from Apple’s injunction, while Apple is deprived of its exclusivity and forced to compete against its own innovation usurped by its largest and fiercest competitor.  Given the narrow feature-based nature of the injunction, this factor strongly weighs in favor of granting Apple this injunction.

Public Interest.  This fourth and final factor requires the patent owner to show that “the public interest would not be disserved by a permanent injunction.”  The district court found this factor favors injunctive relief, because (1) “enforc[ing] patent rights … promote[s] the encouragement of investment-based risk” and (2) “an injunction may prompt introduction of new alternatives to the patented features.”  The majority agreed, and then some, stating that “the public interest stronglyfavors an injunction” here [emphasis in original]:

Samsung is correct–the public often benefits from healthy competition.  However, the public generally does not benefit when that competition comes at the expense of a patentee’s investment-backed property right.  To conclude otherwise would suggest that this factor weighs against an injunction in every case, when the opposite is generally true.  We based this conclusion not only on the Patent Act’s statutory right to exclude, which derives from the Constitution, but also on the importance of the patent system in encouraging innovation.  Injunctions are vital to this system.  As a result, the public interest nearly always weighs in favor of protecting property rights in the absence of countervailing factors, especially when the patentee practices his inventions.  The encouragement of investment-based risk is the fundamental purpose of the patent grant, and is based directly on the right to exclude.

The majority thus vacated the district court’s denial of an injunction and remanded the case back to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.  The majority concluded that, “[i]f an injunction were not to issue in this case, such a decision would virtually foreclose the possibility of injunctive relief in any multifaceted, multifunction technology.”

Judge Reyna Concurrence.  Judge Reyna issued a concurring opinion, noting that the decision “leaves open the door for obtaining an injunction in a case involving infringement of a multi-patented device, a door that appears near shut under current law.”  He also would have ruled that irreparable harm would arise based on “injury that the infringement causes Apple’s reputation as an innovator.”  This type of harm, when it occurs, is irreparable. The majority decision written by Judge Moore, which Judge Reyna joined, stated that it need not reach that issue given the finding of irreparable harm based on lost sales.

Judge Prost Dissent.  Judge Prost dissented, finding that “[t]his is not a close case.”  Among other things, Apple did not use the patented spell correction feature and the other two patented features were “minor features (two out of many thousands) in Apple’s iPhone.”  The record does not show “clear error” in the district court’s factual findings underlying its decision to deny injunctive relief.