The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has now ruled that a supplier vendor has standing to commence a declaratory judgment action if a patent holder accuses the supplier’s customers of direct infringement and if the supplier’s product functions as a material component in the allegedly infringing system or the supplier’s product is used in the performance of the allegedly infringing method. Arris Group v. British Telecommunications PLC, Case No. 10-1292 (Fed. Cir., May 19, 2011) (Dyk, J.).
Arris makes and sells cable telephony and data products for use in networks with Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephone services. British Telecommunications (BT) sent Arris’ customer, Cable One, a letter accusing Cable One’s network of infringing various system and method claims of the patents-in-suit. Licensing discussions ensued. BT sent Cable One a 118-page presentation comparing the patent claims to Cable One’s network, which included repeated identification of Arris’ products as meeting certain system claim elements and steps of the method claims. BT’s presentation identified Cable One (not Arris) as a direct infringer. Thereafter, at Cable One’s request, Arris became involved in the licensing discussions. BT offered Cable One a license but declined to license Arris. Arris filed a declaratory judgment action against BT; the district court dismissed the action, finding that Arris lacked standing because there was no case or controversy between Arris and BT. Arris appealed.
The Federal Circuit rejected Arris’ argument that case or controversy exists because Arris has suffered an economic injury as a result of BT’s infringement threats. The Court held that a mere adverse economic interest was insufficient to create declaratory judgment jurisdiction and that the Supreme Court’s MedImmune decision did not alter the prior law in this regard. What is required to establish jurisdiction is an adverse legal interest of sufficient immediacy and reality. However, the Federal Circuit found an adverse legal interest because BT implicitly asserted that Arris contributorily infringed the BT patents when it accused Cable One of direct infringement. Arris’ products were “central” to the BT’s direct infringement allegations against Cable One and, for many of the asserted claims, BT identified Arris’ products as meeting virtually all of the claim elements. The Court further found that, at a minimum, BT identified Arris’ products as satisfying at least one central element of every asserted claim. BT allegations that Arris’ products complied with industry standards also suggested that Arris’ products were especially made or adapted for uses that infringe and are not staple articles of commerce. Other relevant factors to the Court’s conclusion included Arris’ involvement in the prior licensing negotiations, as well as BT’s refusal to grant Arris a covenant not to sue.
Practice Note: The “central” nature of Arris’ products in the infringement allegations entitled the Court to finding that standing existed. However, the nature and quantity of contacts between the Arris and BT also strongly supported the Court’s conclusion. Patent holders seeking to avoid declaratory judgment battles with indirect infringers should take care to minimize the nature of the allegations made about indirect infringers and should not rely on non-binding disclaimers that suppliers are not being accused of infringement.