In Global-Tech Appliances, Inc. v. SEB S.A., 131 S. Ct. 2060 (2011), the Supreme Court held that knowledge is the applicable standard for imposing liability under Section 271(b) of the Patent Act, which concisely provides that “[w]hoever actively induces infringement of a patent shall be liable as an infringer.” Of equal importance, it held that the willful blindness doctrine (developed in criminal cases) can be applied to establish knowledge in civil patent infringement cases.

Global-Tech reverse-engineered an SEB-patented deep fryer to make and market a competing deep fryer, but argued that it did not “actively” induce infringement because it was unaware of SEB’s patent and also had obtained a legal opinion that it had a right to use its product (albeit, without informing its attorney that Global-Tech had copied SEB’s commercially available fryer). SEB responded that Global-Tech’s re-engineering of the SEB fryer was sufficient to support a claim of active inducement.

The Supreme Court concluded unanimously that induced infringement under Section 271(b) requires knowledge that the induced acts constitute patent infringement. In doing so, the Court rejected the Federal Circuit’s holding that deliberate indifference to a known risk that a patent exists would constitute active inducement. It is now insufficient simply to show that the defendant knew there was a chance its activities could violate a patent, but paid no attention to the attendant risk.

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court affirmed the Federal Circuit’s judgment, holding that Global-Tech’s actions supported a finding of knowledge under the doctrine of willful blindness. Willful blindness requires a showing that: “(1) the defendant must subjectively believe that there is a high probability that a fact exists and (2) the defendant must take deliberate actions to avoid learning of that fact.” With implications that may reach far beyond the field of civil patent litigation, the Court’s opinion suggests that criminal statutes requiring proof of knowing or willful conduct are satisfied by proof of willful blindness under the Court’s articulated standard.