On April 20, 2011, the Federal Circuit granted the petition by Akamai Technologies for rehearing en banc its appeal in Akamai Technologies, Inc. v. Limelight Networks, Inc. The order vacated the earlier opinion of December 20, 2010. The order includes a request to file new briefs addressing this question:
If separate entities each perform separate steps of a method claim, under what circumstances would that claim be directly infringed and to what extent would each of the parties be liable?
This question asks for a definition of what constitutes joint infringement and how to apportion liability. Joint infringement is based on a theory is that one acts as a “mastermind” who orchestrates the infringement and that the activities of the other joint infringer(s) must be under the “direction and control” of the mastermind. The result is as if the mastermind performed the infringement by itself. BMC Res., Inc. v. Paymentech, L.P., 498 F.3d 1378, 1380 (Fed. Cir. 2007).
The latest tests for what constitutes “direction and control” have been selective. For example, the court in BMC Resources referenced a legal principle that imposed “vicarious liability on a party for the acts of another in circumstances showing that the liable party controlled the conduct of the acting party.” And in the Akamai opinion of December 20, 2010 (just vacated), the Federal Circuit panel had set forth a standard that required an agency relationship between the parties. It reiterated that joint infringement occurs when a party is contractually obligated to the accused infringer to perform its part of the method, according to cases like Muniauction, Inc. v. Thomson Corp., 532 F.3d 1318 (Fed. Cir. 2008) and BMC.
Questions of joint infringement are encountered frequently in patent litigation of software, e-commerce, and internet-related inventions. It is not uncommon to find method claims reciting a step or two that a consumer or other user of the system might perform. Consequently, it can be difficult to prove “direction and control” for a lot of software/internet method patents that involve more than one actor to perform the recited method steps (typically a consumer plus at least one other actor). Accordingly, patent prosecutors endeavor to draft claims that require actions by a single actor whenever possible to avoid the extra hurdle that such cases have made to proof of joint infringement. Of course, there are times when this is difficult to do because software systems are always evolving and it can take years for patents to issue.
Patents that have method claims requiring activities by multiple actors to infringe may not easily be corrected with reexamination, since valid claim amendments in reexamination cannot broaden claim scope. Such corrections can be made in a broadening reissue application, but it must be filed within two years of issue of the original patent.
We shall have to wait for the decision of the en banc Court (and any resulting new law) to determine the best way to correct claims in view of any changes to joint infringement law.