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Good News for Patent Holders 07/22/2016

Posted by Morse, Barnes-Brown Pendleton in Intellectual Property, Legal Developments, New Resources.
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LMW Headshot Photo 2015 (M0846622xB1386)By: Lisa Warren

In what has been a seemingly rare occurrence in recent months, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit recently issued a pro-patentee decision in Immersion Corporation v. HTC Corporation and HTC America, Inc., holding that a continuing application filed on the same day as the parent application issues as a patent satisfies the requirement that the continuing application be filed before the parent is patented.  The decision noted the consistent judicial and agency interpretations of the statutory language at issue (35 U.S.C. 120) as supporting its decision, stating that, “…that history, we think, is so weighty as to be determinative.”  A cheer undoubtedly arose from patent holders, as, according to the decision, over-turning the PTO’s position allowing priority claims for such filings would have affected the priority dates of more than 10,000 patents currently in force.

With Seagate Overturned, More Careful Analysis of Competitor Patents May Be A Good Idea 06/14/2016

Posted by Morse, Barnes-Brown Pendleton in Client News, Intellectual Property, New Resources.
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Sean D. Detweiler (SDD)By: Sean D. Detweiler

The U.S. Supreme Court has just issued a decision in two unrelated cases[1] that overturns the 2007 Federal Circuit ruling[2], known as “Seagate”. The Supreme Court considers Seagate to be “unduly rigid” and overly limiting as to the potential for enhanced damages in patent infringement cases.

Since 2007, under the now-overturned-Seagate-analysis, a patent infringer could more easily avoid paying treble, or otherwise enhanced damages for their infringing activity, by simply demonstrating that they had not acted in an “objectively reckless” manner regarding their infringing activities. This essentially meant that a patent infringer could escape paying higher damages as long as they could present virtually any form of explanation or reason as to why they did not consider their activity to be infringing. This could even, in some instances, include asserting a defense during the patent infringement trial that they ultimately lost, with nothing else such as a non-infringement opinion or other legal analysis.

Now in 2016, based on this overturned decision, a court can assess enhanced damages under 35 U.S.C. §284, including treble damages, for patent infringement activities at the discretion of the court. This decision eliminates the more rigid test requirements of Seagate, which means courts can now assess enhanced damages more often for less egregious infringing activities.

How does this affect you? The Supreme Court decision did not go so far as to specify whether willful infringement is required for an enhanced damages award (vs. a requirement that the infringement be “egregious”). As such, in a patent infringement case where infringement is found, the court will take into account all evidence and at its discretion decide at the end of a trial whether the patent infringer should be on the hook for enhanced damages or not. Many had interpreted the Seagate ruling of 2007 as reducing the need for non-infringement opinions to be drafted by attorneys as a protection against enhanced damages should infringement be found.

Whether or not you had that view in 2007, it is clear that now with Seagate being overruled you may want to more carefully consider whether you should obtain at least a legal memorandum or analysis, if not a full-fledged legal opinion, from your patent attorney if you are concerned about a competitor patent and whether your product may infringe. If nothing else, it appears that in light of this Supreme Court decision such documents from your attorney will now do more to protect you from enhanced damages, including treble damages, if you are found to infringe another’s patents.

For more information concerning this issue, please contact Sean D. Detweiler.

[1] Halo Electronics, Inc. v. Pulse Electronics, Inc., U.S., No. 14-1513, 6/13/2016; Stryker Corp. v. Zimmer, U.S., No. 14-1520, 6/13/2016

[2] In re Seagate Technology, LLC, 497 F. 3d 1360

Register Now! Laying the Firm Foundation for Growth: Entity & Equity – Life Sciences Series – Panel 2 05/31/2016

Posted by Morse, Barnes-Brown Pendleton in Attorney News, Client News, Events, Intellectual Property, Life Sciences, MBBP news.
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Join us at our Waltham office on June 22nd for the second panel in our Life Sciences Series, Laying the Firm Foundation for Growth: Entity & Equity.  JMH Headshot Photo 2015 (M0846571xB1386)

Our expert panel will discuss whether a corporation or a limited liability company is more suitable for building an emerging company, and how to maximize the equity compensation of your team with restricted stock, stock options, or profits interests.

MBBP Partner John Hession will moderate the panel, which will include Marc Cote, Chief Operating Officer of Accellient, and Jeff Solomon, Partner at Katz Nannis + Solomon.

The event will take place from 7-9:30am.  A light breakfast will be provided. Seating is limited – please register here.

Lisa Warren Speed Mentoring at Northeastern University School of Law 05/20/2016

Posted by Morse, Barnes-Brown Pendleton in Attorney News, Intellectual Property.
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Lisa WarrenMBBP Managing Partner Lisa Warren will partake in Northeastern University School of Law’s Annual Women in the Law conference this afternoon.  Warren will provide career guidance to attendees in 15-minute intervals during the “Speed Mentoring” breakout session, beginning at 1:45pm.

The Women in the Law conference aims at providing professional development and career guidance to women attorneys and professionals.  Session topics include Where Two Trails Converge: Navigating Social MediaPartnering Your Way to the Summit: Public/Private Partnerships, and Expanding Your Personal Public-Private Network to Create Opportunities.  It begins this morning and will take place in the law school.

Howard Zaharoff and Erin Bryan Speaking at 2016 Intellectual Property Law Conference 05/19/2016

Posted by Morse, Barnes-Brown Pendleton in Attorney News, Events, Intellectual Property, Litigation, MBBP news.
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EEB Headshot Photo 2015 (M0846503xB1386)IP and Technology Licensing Attorney Howard ZaharoffIntellectual Property Law 2016: The 19th Annual New England Conference will take place on June 23rd at the MCLE Conference Center in Boston, MA. This conference will focus on new developments, trends, and industry-specific guidance that IP, business, and litigation counsel must know. MBBP attorneys Howard Zaharoff and Erin Bryan are both on the Faculty, with Howard also serving as a Co-chair. Erin will be presenting at the conference on the topic of IP issues in 3D printing and bioprinting.

The conference will also be available by both live and recorded webcast.

Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016 Signed 05/11/2016

Posted by Morse, Barnes-Brown Pendleton in Employment, Intellectual Property.
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By Sandra E. Kahn

SEK Headshot Photo 2015 (M0912965xB1386)Today President Obama signed into law the Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016 (DTSA), which creates a new federal civil cause of action for trade secret theft. While claims for trade secret theft may still be brought under the various state laws which protect intellectual property, this new law will provide uniform protection on the federal level. The DTSA also provides protection for whistleblowers, granting immunity to parties who disclose a trade secret to the government or an attorney to report wrongdoing, or as part of an anti-retaliation lawsuit. Of particular interest is the requirement that employers must now provide a notice of this immunity protection in any contract or agreement with an employee (or an independent contractor or consultant) that governs the use of a trade secret or other confidential information. To learn more about the DTSA, click here.

MBBP Partner Joseph Martinez Participating in MIT Enterprise Forum’s Spring Start Smart Class 05/11/2016

Posted by Morse, Barnes-Brown Pendleton in Attorney News, Client News, Corporate, Employment, Events, Financial Services, Intellectual Property, Licensing & Strategic Alliances, MBBP news.
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Corporate partner Joseph Martinez will take part in MIT Enterprise Forum’s (MITEF) Spring Start Smart Class, which will run from May 23-June 20.  M0846610He will appear as a Guest Speaker during the third class, which will focus on legal issues for startups.  Specifically, Martinez will discuss the employment, financing, and intellectual property legal issues facing startups.

MITEF’s Spring Start Smart Class is an eight session program focused on providing expertise to entrepreneurs on how to launch a successful new business.  The program is structured as a hands-on workshop, and features guest speakers whose fields of expertise correlate with each class’s specific topic of discussion.

For more information and to register for the course, see the full details here.MITEF-Full-Color-e1438717228333

New Federal Law Protects Trade Secrets But Also Requires Changes to Employee and Contractor Agreements 05/05/2016

Posted by Morse, Barnes-Brown Pendleton in Client News, Employment, Intellectual Property, Licensing & Strategic Alliances, Privacy and Data Security, Public Companies.
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By, Sandra E. Kahn SEK Headshot Photo 2015 (M0912965xB1386)

It is expected that President Obama will soon sign into law the Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016 (DTSA), which creates a new federal civil cause of action for trade secret theft.  While claims for trade secret theft may still be brought under the various state laws which protect intellectual property, this new law will provide uniform protection on the federal level.

The DTSA defines trade secrets consistently with the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (UTSA), and applies broadly to any trade secrets “related to a product or service used in or intended for use in, interstate or foreign commerce.”  Along with the ability to bring a lawsuit to fight trade secret theft and pursue equitable remedies and the award of damages for the misappropriation of a trade secret, the DTSA also includes a provision for expedited relief on an ex parte basis to prevent the dissemination of misappropriated trade secrets, which may be obtained under “extraordinary circumstances.”

The DTSA also provides protection for whistleblowers, granting immunity to  parties who, under certain circumstances, disclose a trade secret to the government or an attorney to report wrongdoing, or as part of an anti-retaliation lawsuit.  Of particular interest to our clients is the requirement that employers must now provide a notice of this immunity protection in any contract or agreement with an employee (or an independent contractor or consultant) that governs the use of a trade secret or other confidential information.    If this notice is not included in all contracts which are signed or revised after the effective date of the act, the employer will not be able to recover exemplary damages and attorneys’ fees under the DTSA (although the employer may still pursue any available damages under other causes of action).  Employers are advised to consult with their counsel to revise all agreements with employees and contractors in order not to run afoul of this requirement.

The DTSA, by itself, may not be used to prevent a departed employee from entering into a new employment relationship with a competitor, and provides that any conditions placed on such employment must be based on “evidence of threatened misappropriation and not merely on the information the person knows,” in effect rejecting the doctrine of inevitable disclosure.

5/4/16 – Life Sciences Series Panel 1: Business and IP Strategy 04/21/2016

Posted by Morse, Barnes-Brown Pendleton in Events, Intellectual Property, Life Sciences, MBBP news.
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reg now buttonJoin us at MBBP‘s Waltham office on Wednesday, May 4th at 7:00am for a look at Building Your Product & Patent Strategy from the Ground Floor. This is the first of four events in the 2016 Life Science Panel Series.

This lively panel of experts will discuss how to structure a well-crafted intellectual property portfolio. They have all built and analyzed multiple portfolios and will share their experiences on the do’s and don’ts in both organically growing an IP portfolio and in-licensing key properties.

Panelists include:

  • William Edelman Social Entrepreneur and C-Level Executive, Paragonix Technologies, NewVert, VitaThreads, Flexicath, First Light Biosciences
  • Molly Hoult Vice President, Fletcher Spaght Ventures
  • Michael McDonald, Ph.D. Director of Intellectual Property, bluebird bio

Seating is limited. Register today!

Sequenom Petitions Supreme Court to Clarify Scope of Mayo in Sequenom v. Ariosa 04/05/2016

Posted by Morse, Barnes-Brown Pendleton in Intellectual Property, Legal Developments, Life Sciences, Medical Devices.
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M0846516Late last month, Sequenom, Inc. filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari requesting the United States Supreme Court to clarify the scope of its Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc., 132 S. Ct. 1289 (2012) decision, as applied to Sequenom’s claimed inventions.  The Mayo decision, which held that a method correlating a drug dosage regimen and levels of the drug in the blood was an unpatentable law of nature, has had the profound effect of narrowing the scope of patent-eligible subject matter in the United States and has cast doubt on the validity and enforceability of previously-issued United States patents.

Sequenom’s discovery related to the discovery of cell-free fetal DNA circulating in maternal plasma, which was used to invent a test for detecting fetal genetic conditions in early pregnancy, and thereby avoid subjecting the mother to dangerous, invasive techniques such as amniocentesis.  The Federal Circuit agreed that Sequenom’s invention combined and utilized man-made tools of biotechnology in a new way that revolutionized prenatal care; however, in view of Mayo, such inventions were deemed patent-ineligible as a matter of law, since their new combination involved only a “natural phenomenon” and techniques that were “routine” or “conventional” on their own.

Despite the Federal Circuit’s reluctant holding that Sequenom’s claimed inventions were not patent-ineligible, multiple judges wrote separately to explain that while this result was probably not intended by Mayo, that decision controlled and only the Supreme Court could clarify Mayo’s reach to prevent a “crisis of patent law and medical innovation.”  Sequenom’s petition now asks the Supreme Court to clarify the scope of its Mayo decision in view of Sequenom’s claimed inventions, and to determine whether a novel method is patent-eligible where: (1) a researcher is the first to discover a natural phenomenon; (2) that unique knowledge motivates him to apply a new combination of known techniques to that discovery; and (3) he thereby achieves a previously impossible result without preempting other uses of the discovery.

If the Supreme Court grants certiorari it will have a compelling set of facts before it to clarify the scope of Mayo, and we patiently await its decision, which will have high stakes for the life sciences community.

For more information, contact Patent Attorney Stan Chalvire.

MBBP Attorneys Speaking at Upcoming swissnex Boston Seminar 03/09/2016

Posted by Morse, Barnes-Brown Pendleton in Corporate, Employment, Events, Intellectual Property.
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This Friday, March 11th MBBP Attorneys Scott Bleier, Stan Chalvire, and Maura Malone, will present to Swiss MBA students at swissnex Boston, the consulate of Switzerland. The panel will discuss legal standpoints on conducting business in the U.S., focusing on topics including corporate, employment, and intellectual property law.

For more information regarding this seminar, please feel free to contact a member of our team.

Survey Says: Top NINE Intellectual Property Developments of 2015 03/04/2016

Posted by Morse, Barnes-Brown Pendleton in Computer Software & Hardware, Intellectual Property, Licensing & Strategic Alliances, Life Sciences, Privacy and Data Security, Publishing & Media.
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happy-birthdayBy: Callie L. Pioli

2015 was another busy year in terms of intellectual property law, but luckily, MBBP has been carefully monitoring all of the important developments. There were many contenders for spots in our list, but only a select few could make the cut.

Get a recap on 2015 (and prepare for success in 2016) by reading our list.

We cover:

  1. Happy Birthday to All! – Marya v. Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.
  2. Google Books (Authors Guild v. Google, Inc.)
  3. Disparagement versus Free Speech: In re Tam
  4. Issue Preclusion & The TTAB: B&B Hardware, Inc. v. Hargis Indus., Inc.
  5. Patient Infringement Liability: Akamai Techs., Inc. v. Limelight Networks, Inc.
  6. Biosimilarity: Amgen v. Sandoz
  7. ­Patentability of Natural Phenomena: Ariosa Diagnostics, Inc. v. Sequenom, Inc.
  8. Computer Fraud & Abuse Act
  9. Safe Harbor Down, EU-US Privacy Shield Up

 

Is Software Patentable? 03/03/2016

Posted by Morse, Barnes-Brown Pendleton in Computer Software & Hardware, Intellectual Property, Legal Developments.
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M0846496By: Brian J. Assessor

On June 19, 2014, the Supreme Court’s decision in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank International sent shockwaves through many areas of patent law and, as a result of that decision, patent attorneys, inventors, and companies working in the computer and software space are wondering “is software patentable?” and, if so, “what type of software is patentable?”. The impact of this case should be a primary consideration for anyone filing a patent application related to software, even those who were not previously aware of the Alice Corp. decision.

Read the full article.

Learn more about our Patent Team.

MBBP Publishes February M&A Today Newsletter 03/01/2016

Posted by Morse, Barnes-Brown Pendleton in Corporate, Intellectual Property, Legal Developments, M&A, Taxation.
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MA Today Banner (M0620645)Hot off the press!

Articles include:

  • Tips for Enforcing Indemnification Provisions
  • Permanent Exclusion of Gain on Sales of Qualified Small Business Stock
  • IP Due Diligence: Patentability vs. Patent Infringement

Get more info on our M&A blog or read the full newsletter.

 

Clearing Away Cloud Confusion; MBBP Team to Illuminate Intricacies of Buying and Selling Cloud Services 02/01/2016

Posted by Morse, Barnes-Brown Pendleton in Computer Software & Hardware, Corporate, Events, Intellectual Property, Licensing & Strategic Alliances, Privacy and Data Security, Telecommunications & Networking.
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Lawyers for technology companies are increasingly asked to assess the risks of client companies shifting from standard sales and licenses to a cloud model, and lawyers for every company need to assess the pros and cons of receiving core technology as a service over the internet. On Wednesday February 3rd, at a NECCA (New England Corporate Counsel Association, Inc.) seminar  held at the Westin Waltham from 10:00 to noon, MBBP attorneys Howard Zaharoff, John Hession, Mark Tarallo and Faith Kasparian will address the complexities of cloud computing and offer guidance to in-house counsel and other professionals advising their clients on these critical issues.

Among the topics to be covered are understanding the legally relevant features of cloud computing, identifying the key contract issues, recognizing the terms a standard vendor contract should contain, and discovering the implications of  recent developments in data privacy, particularly in the EU, for companies that are purchasing or selling cloud services.

To explore these and many other aspects of this complex and rapidly -evolving subject, reserve your space for this important and edifying NECCA seminar. Lunch will be served at 12:30 p.m.

The Contours of Copyright #3: Too Short for Copyright? 01/04/2016

Posted by Morse, Barnes-Brown Pendleton in Attorney News, Intellectual Property, Licensing & Strategic Alliances, New Resources, Publishing & Media.
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M0846618It is axiomatic that copyrights do not protect words or short phrases. But how short is too short for copyright? 10 words? 5 words? 3 words? Consider Henny Youngman’s classic 4-word joke, “Take my wife … please.” Is that a copyrightable jocular expression, or an uncopyrightable short phrase (or, for you copyright pros, a merged idea)? The answer is important, not only to comedians, but also to epigrammatists, songwriters, poets … and anyone who wishes to include, in a work they are creating, word sequences they’ve seen used by another.

A recent case, William L. Roberts v. Stefan Kendal Gordy (U.S D.C., S.D. Florida 2015), provides helpful guidance, though not a definitive answer.

Discussion: The plaintiffs, Roberts et al., owned the musical composition Hustlin’, whose chorus consists of the repeated refrain “everyday I’m hustling.” The defendants, Gordy et al., had a hit song, Party Rock Anthem, which included the phrase “everyday I’m shuffling.” When the defendants began marketing their “shuffling” phrase on T-shirts and other merchandise, the plaintiffs sued, arguing that their copyright in the song included a copyright in the “hustlin’” refrain, and therefore they could prevent anyone from copying that refrain, whether in a similar song or standing alone on a garment.

The defendants disagreed, and the court sided with them. Yes, said the court, the plaintiff’s song was entitled to copyright protection. However, “copyright protection does not automatically extend to every component of a copyrighted work.” Rather, because “originality” is the sine qua non of copyright, and short phrases are common and unoriginal, the copyright in a work does not extend to individual short phrases (or, of course, single words) in the work. This doesn’t mean, the court explained, that the presence of “ordinary” phrases deprives a work of copyright protection; but it also doesn’t mean that the copyright umbrella shelters every word or phrase contained in a copyrighted work.

Or, as the court puts it: “The question presented … is not whether the lyrics of Hustlin’, as arranged in their entirety, are subject to copyright protection. The question is whether the use of a three-word phrase appearing in the musical composition, divorced from the accompanying music, modified, and subsequently printed on merchandise, constitutes an infringement of the musical composition Hustlin’. The answer, quite simply, is that it does not.”

To add insult to injury, the court also notes that the terms “hustling” and “hustlin’” were used in many earlier songs, and that the plaintiffs never asserted that the phrase “everyday I’m hustlin’” originated with them – which in itself could have killed their copyright claim (to be copyrightable, a work needn’t be novel, as in the patent sense of never before appearing anywhere, but does need to be original, in the copyright sense of having composed it oneself without copying from another). Finally, says the court, there is no substantial similarity between the original musical composition, containing the (uncopyrightable) phrase “everyday I’m hustlin’,” and the defendant’s T-shirts, containing the (uncopyrightable) phrase “everyday I’m shuffling.”  In short, none of the plaintiff’s original expression was infringed by the defendant’s apparel.

An Interlude for Copyright Aficionados: There was nothing earthshaking about this decision, though it is interesting to read the court’s sampling of many short phrases that failed to win copyright protection, including: “so high” (2 words), “get it poppin’” (3 words), “fire in the hole” (4 words – uh-oh, Henny), “most personal sort of deodorant” (5 words), and “You Got the Right One, Uh-Huh” (5 words, plus an “Uh-Huh”). So, one might conclude, a half dozen words or more are probably the minimum required for copyrightability.

Perhaps the reason this court – and no court I’m aware of – has stated a bottom line number below which copyright cannot apply is that no one can be absolutely certain that a creative author couldn’t be original in even a handful of words. Let’s cheat, make up a word, and stick it in a short phrase: “She’s my joyzilla mama.” Four words – really 3 plus a mashup – which have never appeared before (a Google search more or less confirmed this).  Can I use copyright law to prevent another person from using my original phrase in a song or on a T-shirt?

My answer is a definite “maybe.” The epigrammatist Ashley Brilliant has successfully registered – and once successfully asserted – copyrights in his epigrams, many of which are quite short (such as, “When all else fails … Eat” = 5 words). Poets and songwriters often feel that their short but creative phrasings are worthy of protection. So maybe we can’t state an absolute bottom line because we can’t guaranty that a brilliant writer or composer won’t dash our assumptions.

Conclusion. Still, it’s hard to imagine anyone successfully claiming copyright in any 2- or even 3-word (real words, not coined) phrase – if for no other reason than given the relatively small number of meaningful 2- and 3-word phrases, and the exhaustive output of English speakers, each of those short phrases would have already appeared so frequently that no one using such a phrase could convincingly assert it originated with them, or that they should have the right to keep anyone else from using it.

So, unlike Roger Bannister running a mile under 4 minutes, the possibility of someone writing a copyrightable phrase of under 4 words (probably 5, possibly 6) should stand the test of time.

For more information on this topic, please contact Howard Zaharoff.

Star Wars And Technology: May The Patent Office Be With You… 12/18/2015

Posted by Morse, Barnes-Brown Pendleton in Intellectual Property, Licensing & Strategic Alliances, New Resources.
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Today, December 18, 2015, is the official release in the U.S. of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which is the seventh installment in the film series. The original trilogy began in 1977, and 38 years later is still going strong; a highly regarded film franchise to say the least. In part, the film series owes some of its success to the technology that “surrounds and penetrates” the movies.

Since the original trilogy, inventors have focused on creating or improving upon such Star Wars technologies as human prosthetics, solar power, robotics, lasers, rocket and missile technology, force fields, clones and genetic engineering, cybernetics, forms of levitation, and holography.

If you are thinking about trying to make something from the Star Wars universe a reality, “do…or do not. There is no try.” “You can’t stop change any more than you can stop the suns from setting.” And if you invent something, remember that it is “unwise to lower your defenses.”

Read the full article here!

Changes to Canadian Trademark Law 11/17/2015

Posted by Morse, Barnes-Brown Pendleton in Intellectual Property, Legal Developments, New Resources.
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On June 19, 2014, Bill C-31, Canada’s Economic Action Plan 2014 Act, No. 1, received Royal Assent. The Bill contains a large series of amendments to Canada’s Trade-marks Act and will allow Canada to (among other things) accede to three key international treaties: (1) the Protocol Relating to the Madrid Agreement Concerning the International Registration of Marks (the Madrid Protocol); (2) the Singapore Treaty on the Law of Trademarks (the Singapore Treaty); and (3) the Nice Agreement Concerning the International Classification of Goods and Services for the Purposes of the Registration of Marks (the Nice Agreement).

The new regime is expected to come into force by late 2016 or early 2017. Those already owning or considering registration of a Canadian trademark should be aware of these new changes to Canadian trademark law. Read the full article here.

For more information on trademark matters, please contact Thomas Dunn or Sean Detweiler.

Happy Birthday Coca-Cola® Bottle! 11/16/2015

Posted by Morse, Barnes-Brown Pendleton in Intellectual Property.
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Coke Bottle100 years ago today, inventor Alexander Samuelson was granted the design patent for the bottle that would come to be known as the iconic Coca-Cola® bottle. The design patent lasted 14 years and then expired, but obviously the design has lived on, and is now considered protected under trade dress laws. The term of design patents filed on or after Dec. 18, 2013 is now 15 years from the date of grant. However, if the ornamental features covered by the design patent are sufficiently distinctive, such as the Coca-Cola® bottle, then over time the design may be protected by common law trade dress, and may even be registered at the Patent and Trademark Office, both of which can provide intellectual property protection for years beyond the design patent term.

For questions about design patents – or to Share a Coke® – please contact Sean D. Detweiler.

The Contours of Copyright #2: Can You Copyright Yoga Poses? 11/06/2015

Posted by Morse, Barnes-Brown Pendleton in Intellectual Property, Legal Developments, New Resources.
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Attorney Howard ZaharoffBy Howard Zaharoff

Section 102 of the Copyright Act tells us that “choreographic works” – i.e., dances – are protected by copyright. So if you’re Alvin Ailey or Saroj Khan, the copyright police will protect you if someone copies or publicly performs your original choreography.

But what if you’re Beto Perez, who created Zumba; or Arnold Schwarzenegger (governor, actor, bodybuilder), who developed his own workout routines; or Bikram Choudhury (yoga guru and plaintiff), who in 1979 published a book describing his “Sequence,” 26 asanas and two breathing exercises performed for 90 minutes in a room heated to 105 °F? Does copyright protect original workouts or yoga sequences?

Probably not. At least according to the 9th Circuit in the recent case, Bikram’s Yoga College v. Evolation Yoga.

Discussion: Bikram Choudhury, self-proclaimed “Yogi to the stars,” was important in popularizing yoga in the U.S. He claimed he developed his Sequence after many years of research and verification, and he touted its many health and fitness benefits. But when two students who attended his 3-month teacher training started their own studio, offering a “hot yoga” class very similar to his Sequence, he sued for infringement.

The district court ruled that the Sequence was a “collection of facts and ideas” not entitled to copyright protection. Choudhury appealed and the Circuit Court upheld the lower court’s finding.

The Court first reasoned that the Sequence is “an idea, process or system designed to improve health” (Choudhury himself described his Sequence as a “system” or “method” designed to “systematically work every part of the body”). Since Section 102 of the Copyright Act is clear that copyright does not protect any idea, process or system, the Court easily concluded that the Sequence was an unprotectable idea or system. Put differently: “Choudhury thus attempts to secure copyright protection for a healing art,” an obvious no-no.

Nor does the grace and beauty embodied in the Sequence matter, since many processes can be beautiful –a surgeon’s movements, a baker’s kneading – without being copyrightable. In other words, “beauty is not a basis for copyright protection.”

The Court similarly dispensed with Choudhury’s argument that, even if individual yoga poses cannot be copyrighted, the original sequence of poses he developed is copyrightable as a “compilation,” that is, a work formed by “the collection and assembling of preexisting materials.” Not so, said the Court: because Choudhury himself claimed that “the medical and functional considerations at the heart of the Sequence compel the very selection and arrangement of poses and breathing exercises,” the entire Sequence, no less than the individual poses, is itself a process and “therefore ineligible for copyright protection.”

The final – and, as discussed below, least satisfying – part of the Court’s holding is that the Sequence cannot be protected as a “choreographic work.” The Court acknowledged that this term isn’t defined in the Copyright Act (though the legislative history makes clear that the term excludes “social dance steps and simple routines”). But that doesn’t matter, says the Court: “The Sequence is not copyrightable as a choreographic work for the same reason that it is not copyrightable as a compilation: it is an idea, process, or system to which copyright protection” may not extend.

The Court also noted that daily life consists of “many routinized physical movements, from brushing one’s teeth to pushing a lawnmower,” which could be characterized as forms of dance (by whom, the Court does not say). Only the idea/expression dichotomy prevents people from obtaining “monopoly rights over these functional physical sequences.” So at least in the 9thCircuit, arrangements of physical movements with a functional purpose, such as improving one’s health or fitness, no matter how aesthetic or beautiful, are merely unprotectable ideas or processes and therefore cannot be claimed as anyone’s copyright.

An Interlude for Copyright Aficionados: The Court’s final argument – that compilations of physical movements that “serve basic functional purposes” are unprotectable ideas/processes and not protectable choreography – begs the question. It’s cheating for a court to simply declare that a sequence of physical movements that functions as a means to health and fitness is thereby an uncopyrightable process without explaining why other sequenced movements that have similar fitness benefits are copyrightable choreography (which is surely true of the athletic choreographic routines of Alvin Ailey and Pilobulus).

Is it the functional purpose (or effect) of Choudhury’s sequence of poses – i.e., that despite their grace and beauty, they are particularly conducive to fitness – which makes the Sequence an uncopyrightable process? Why? Rarely does the functionality of a work completely deprive it of copyright. Even the designers of “useful articles” can claim copyright in any “pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features that can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects.” If functionality were a copyright killer, architecture and software would have no protection.

Indeed, why not treat physical movements like architecture and software? Just as copyright law provides no protection for “individual standard features” of architectural works, or for standard routines and features of software applications, can’t we conclude that, although individual poses (or short sequences of poses) that are included in the Sequence and that are unoriginal, standard, or highly effective for fitness cannot be monopolized by copyright, the original overall selection and order of the poses can be deemed sufficiently original and aesthetic to qualify as copyrightable choreography?

In short, nothing in the Court’s opinion explains why the entire 28-step Sequence was ruled an unprotectable idea and no aspect or feature of these graceful movements could be deemed choreographic and copyrightable. This is not to say the Court is wrong. Rather, right or wrong, the Court failed to articulate any principles that distinguish movements constituting “a healing art” from movements constituting athletic dance.

Conclusion: Despite its unfortunate failure to provide a principled distinction between copyrightable choreography and uncopyrightable workouts, it remains undeniable that, in the 9th Circuit at least, there is no copyright protection for sequences of yoga poses intended to improve health and fitness, no matter how graceful or beautiful they may be.

Still, given the gaping hole left by this decision, and the popularity of fitness and yoga, it’s hard to imagine that the issue of copyrightable choreography won’t reappear soon. Or, as Arnold Schwarzenegger (as actor, not bodybuilder) might say: “I’ll be back.”

For more information on this topic, please contact Howard Zaharoff.

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