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Computer builders breathe a collective sigh of relief

Companies seeking to “double dip” on patent royalties had their tactics curtailed by the Supreme Court on Monday, after it ruled against the collection of multiple royalties after a licensed product is sold by the licensee.

The Supreme Court’s ruling strengthened the idea of “patent exhaustion,” which removes the patent holder’s ability to exert patent rights over the customers of its licensees. While precedent for patent exhaustion already exists, plaintiff LG Electronics contends that it did not apply to certain kinds of patents – specifically, goods that rely on patented “methods and processes,” as was the case in its lawsuit against system builder Quanta Computer.

Specifically, LG claimed that Quanta Computer’s products “embodied” its patented methods beyond the terms of its licensing agreement with Intel. The company accused Quanta of patent infringement after it declined to pay royalties, and a federal appeals court initially sided with LG. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, in a unanimous ruling with the rest of the Court, reversed the appeals court’s decision, after it determined that patentable methods were no different than physical product with respect to how the patented idea manifests in the product itself.

“The authorized sale of an article that substantially embodies a patent exhausts the patent holder's rights and prevents the patent holder from invoking patent law to control postsale use of the article,” wrote Thomas. “It is true that a patented method may not be sold in the same way as an article or device, but methods nonetheless may be 'embodied' in a product, the sale of which exhausts patent rights. Our precedents do not differentiate transactions involving embodiments of patented methods or processes from those involving patented apparatuses or materials.”

Quanta v. LG Electronics saw outside input from a variety of heavyweights, including chip maker Qualcomm, the Bush Administration, and Consumer Reports publisher Consumers Union.

While the Bush Administration cited the “inconvenience, annoyance, and inefficiency” of allowing patent holders to demand licenses from multiple steps in the production chain, Qualcomm said failing to allow that would create an “unworkable” situation.

An analysis at Ars Tecnica notes that a ruling in the other direction would expose a wide variety of businesses to patent liability issues, from companies as large as Dell, HP, and Cisco to groups as small as individual eBay sellers. Unclear rules on patent exhaustion have “already … subjected eBay to patent-owner pressure,” forcing the auction company to remove “allegedly infringing items” from its listings and sanction the sellers who post them.





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