A person who actively induces another person to infringe a patent is liable as an infringer. 35 U.S.C. §271(b). On Tuesday, May 31, 2011, the United States Supreme Court held that “willful blindness” to the existence of a patent can be sufficient evidence of knowledge of the patent to support a finding of induced infringement. Global-Tech Appliances, Inc. v. SEB S.A., 563 U.S. ___ (2011). The Court rejected a more lenient standard adopted by the Federal Circuit — deliberate indifference to a known risk that a patent exists. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court affirmed the Federal Circuit’s judgment by applying its new standard. Justice Alito wrote the majority opinion from which Justice Kennedy dissented.
Summary of the Case
SEB S.A. (“SEB”) is a French manufacturer of home appliances. It owns a patent that relates to deep fryers. Sunbeam Products, Inc. (“Sunbeam”) is a competitor of SEB in the United States. Pentalpha Enterprises, Ltd. is a Hong Kong manufacturer of home appliance and a wholly-owed subsidiary of Global-Tech Appliances, Inc. (collectively “Pentalpha”). Slip op. at 2–3.
Pentalpha developed a deep fryer for Sunbeam by copying all but the cosmetic features of a SEB deep fryer it purchased in Hong Kong. The SEB deep fryer had no U.S. patent markings because it was made for sale in a foreign market. Before selling the deep fryers to Sunbeam, Pentalpha retained an attorney to conduct a right-to-use study of the deep fryer it had developed for Sunbeam. Pentalpha refrained, however, from telling its attorney that it had copied SEB’s deep fryer to develop its deep fryer. Slip op. at 2.
After conducting a search that failed to locate the SEB patent, the attorney issued his opinion that the deep fryer developed by Pentalpha did not infringe any of the patents that he had found. Pentalpha immediately began selling its deep fryer. Slip op. at 2.
SEB sued Pentalpha for patent infringement alleging direct infringement under section 271(a) and induced infringement under section 271(b) by actively inducing Sunbeam and other retailers to sell Pentalpha’s deep fryer in violation of SEB’s patent rights. Slip op. at 3. After trial, the jury returned a verdict of direct infringement under section 271(a) and induced infringement under section 271(b) and found that Pentalpha’s infringement was willful. The district court entered judgment against Pentalpha. Slip op. at 3.
On appeal, Pentalpha argued the judgment of induced infringement had to be reversed because there was no direct evidence that Pentalpha knew of the SEB patent before it received notice of the Sunbeam lawsuit. The Federal Circuit held that section 271(b) requires that the patentee “’show that the accused infringer knew or should have known that his actions would induce actual infringement’ and that this showing requires proof that the accused infringer knew of the patent.” Slip op. at 3. The Federal Circuit found, however, sufficient evidence to support a finding that “’Pentalpha deliberately disregarded a known risk that SEB had a . . . patent.’” Id. According to the Federal Circuit, such disregard “’is not different from actual knowledge, but is a form of actual knowledge.’” Id.
Section 271(b) Requires Knowledge of the Patent that is Infringed
In 1952, Congress codified the principles of contributory infringement that had been part of the case law for about 80 years. See 35 U.S.C. § 271(b) & (c). Section 271(b) addresses conduct where a person actively induces infringement of a patent. 35 U.S.C. § 271(b). Section 271(c) addresses conduct where a person sells a component that is not itself patented, but may enable another party to make or use a patented machine. Neither the language of section 271(b) nor the pre-1952 cases provided an affirmative answer to the first question before the Court- is knowledge of the patent required to find induced infringement under section 271(b).
The Court found the answer in Aro Mfg. Co. v. Convertible Top Replacement Co. 377 U.S. 476 (1964). In Aro, the Supreme Court considered the issue of contributory infringement under section 271(c). A majority in Aro concluded that knowledge of the patent was needed to violate section 271(c). Id. at 8–9 (citing Aro, 277 U.S. at 488 n.8; id. at 415 (White, J., concurring); id. at 524–27 (Black, J., dissenting)). Since section 271(b) and (c) both were aspects of contributory infringement, the Court unanimously concluded that knowledge of the patent was likewise needed to find inducement in violation of section 271(b). Id.; Dissenting op. at 1.
The Court Adopts the Doctrine of Willful Blindness From Criminal Law to Find Knowledge of the Patent Infringed Under Section 271(b)
Lacking direct evidence that Pentalpha knew of the patent, the Court had to address whether the evidence was nonetheless sufficient to support a finding of knowledge. The Court rejected the standard applied by the Federal Circuit for two reasons. “First, it permits a finding of knowledge when there is merely a ‘known risk’ that the induced acts are infringing.” Slip op. at 14. “Second, in demanding only ‘deliberate indifference’ to that risk, the Federal Circuit’s test does not require active efforts by an inducer to avoid knowing about the infringing nature of the activities.” Id. Instead, the Court applied the doctrine of willful blindness, which had been widely adopted by federal courts in the area of criminal law, to support a finding of knowledge. Slip op. at 10–11.
The doctrine of willful blindness has two basic requirements: (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. The Court explained that these requirements “give willful blindness an appropriately limited scope that surpasses recklessness and negligence.” Id. Neither recklessness, i.e., merely knowing of a substantial and unjustified risk of such wrongdoing, nor negligence, i.e., should have know of a similar risk, but in fact did not, will suffice to prove that the accused infringer had knowledge of the patent. Accordingly, “a willfully blind defendant is one who takes deliberate actions to avoid confirming a high probability of wrongdoing and who can almost be said to have actually known the critical facts.” Id.
Although the Court rejected the test applied by the Federal Circuit, it affirmed the judgment of the Federal Circuit “because the evidence in this case was plainly sufficient to support a finding of Pentalpha’s knowledge under the doctrine of willful blindness.” Slip op. at 10.
The affirmance in Global-Tech Appliance shows that in many cases, the result will be the same under the willful blindness test adopted by the Court as under the now rejected deliberate indifference test. Nonetheless, at the margin, proving inducement has been made more difficult where actual knowledge cannot be established.