For the last five years, the law with respect to liability for inducement of a method claim was relatively clear and fairly consistently applied. (A rare treat in patent law!) When infringement of a method claim was based on inducement, there needed to be either one party performing all of the steps of the claimed method or, if more than one party was involved in performing the method, there needed to be a “mastermind” directing all of the parties to perform the various steps of the method. Without a "mastermind" (later clarified as requiring a contractual or agency relationship) there was no direct infringement of the method and, therefore, no liability for inducement. The Federal Circuit took two cases en banc to consider the propriety of this “single actor” requirement. Akamai Technologies, Inc. v. LimelightNetworks, Inc., 2009-1372 and McKessonTechnologies, Inc. v. Epic Systems Corp., 2010-1291. In a deeply divided decision, including a per curiam opinion along with dissenting opinions by Newman and Linn (joined by Dyk, Prost and O’Malley), the Federal Circuit announced a dramatic change in the law, holding that “we reconsider and overrule the 2007 decision of this court in which we held that in order for a party to be liable for induced infringement, some other single entity must be liable for direct infringement. BMC Resources, Inc. v. Paymentech, L.P., 498 F.3d 1373 (Fed. Cir. 2007). To be clear, we hold that all the steps of a claimed method must be performed in order to find induced infringement, but that it is not necessary to prove that all the steps were committed by a single entity.”
The majority opinion sets out the elements of the inducement claim in the context of multiple actors as follows: When the party accused of infringement does not itself perform any steps of the claimed method, such as in the McKesson case, “a party can be found liable for inducing infringement if it can be shown that (1) it knew of [the] patent, (2) it induced the performance of the steps of the method claimed in the patent, and (3) those steps were performed.” Majority Opinion at 35. In the case where the party accused of inducement performs some steps and another party performed other steps, as in Akamai, the elements are slightly modified to “1) it knew of [the] patent, (2) it performed all but one of the steps of the method claimed in the patent, (3) it induced the [other party] to perform the final step of the claimed method, and (4) the [other party] in fact performed that step.” Majority Opinion at 36. From these two statements from the court, we can generalize a bit, and set out the current law of inducement for a method claim as a single set of elements: (1) the defendant knew of the patent; (2) it either performed certain steps of the method claimed in the patent itself and/or induced others to perform those steps; and (3) all steps of the method were performed.
Interestingly, and much to the chagrin of J. Newman, this holding only applies to inducement under 35 U.S.C § 271(b). With respect to direct infringement, the majority punted, stating that “[b]ecause the reasoning of our decision today is not predicated on the doctrine of direct infringement, we have no occasion at this time to revisit any of those principles regarding the law of divided infringement as it applies to liability for direct infringement under 35 U.S.C. 271(a)." Majority Opinion at 13. As a result, the law remains that for direct infringement liability, a single party needs to perform all steps of a method. Those parties that perform only some of the steps, but do not induce the performance of the remaining steps of a claimed method, can still invoke divided infringement as a viable defense to an allegation of infringement and likely face no liability.
J. Newman, in her dissent, harshly criticizes the majority, stating “[t]he majority’s theory is a spontaneous judicial creation. And it is wrong.” Newman dissent at 7. J. Newman argues that precedent, legislative history and cannons of construction all indicate that under 271(a) direct infringement can be established when multiple actors perform the steps of the method and this act of direct infringement is the necessary predicate for finding liability for inducement.
The Linn camp’s dissent is equally harsh on the majority, arguing that “[t]he majority opinion is rooted in its conception of what Congress ought to have done rather than what it did.” Linn dissent at 3. The Linn dissent argues that the single actor rule is properly founded in 271(a) and, like J. Newman, argues that precedent requires an act of direct infringement before there can be liability for inducement.
As a result of this dramatic shift in the law, we can expect an increase in patent cases asserting inducement for method claims. There are certainly patents out there with claims that were not asserted due to a divided infringement issue, but now are back in play. Companies that have previously evaluated patents and determined that they likely did not have exposure for infringement of method claims based on a divided infringement theory may need to revisit those patents and reevaluate those claims under this new law.
Given the import of this issue and the deep divide in the Federal Circuit, it would not be surprising to see this case go on the Supreme Court for final resolution.