Territorial Jurisdiction of Software Patents
Most often software in computer systems is located within a user device (client) and a remote computing resource (server). The client can be at one location, connected over a network (e.g., the internet) to the server. A user accesses the internet with a device to request or upload data to the server over the network. The server processes the request, or stores the data and delivers the result over the network.
Software related inventions as a whole can be operated across territorial borders. Thus, the question arises whether the software patent can be enforced, since it is known that patents rights are territorial in nature.
Consider a patented software invention in the United States covering a “product recommendation” method and system. A competitor enables users in the United States to download an application onto a mobile device. The user accesses the application to browse through products. The activity of the user is sent to a server located in India. The server processes the information in India and provides product recommendations. The product recommendations would then be available to the user on his device in the United States.
Patent Infringement Liability:
Continuing from the above example, an owner of such a software patent would be in a dilemma as to whether the competitor is liable for infringement of his patent, given the fact that, his patent only covers United States, and the competitor is carrying out part of the invention outside United States.
Such scenarios have come before courts in US and UK, and the decisions are encouraging for software patent owners. We will be discussing a case between NTP Inc. and Research In Motion Ltd, in US, and another case between Menashe Business Mercantile Ltd. & Anor and William Hill Organization Ltd, in UK. In both the cases, even though the competitors argued that part of their systems was outside the jurisdiction of the patents, the competitors were held liable for infringement.
Case 1: NTP Inc. v Research In Motion Ltd
In November 2001, Research in Motion(RIM) was sued by NTP Inc. RIM is the manufacturer of the BlackBerry device, NTP sued RIM for infringement of five US patents, which NTP alleged covered the BlackBerry system.
The five patents of the NTP were covering the components and process necessary for integrating an email service and wireless network.
BlackBerry enabled its users, through its devices, to not only make conventional telephone calls, but also to have email access through the BlackBerry "push technology”. The BlackBerry email system intercepts a message to an email user and then routes the message to a relay component that in turn routes the message to a network. The BlackBerry "Relay" component, which was equivalent to one of the claim limitations in NTP patents, was located in Canada.
In the District court, the jury found RIM infringing on all the claimed elements, except for RIM's relay component, which was located in Canada, all the other elements of NTP's claims was present within the United States. However, the jury found that the operation of the BlackBerry was accomplished according to method claim described in NTP's patent and awarded monetary damages and entered a permanent injunction enjoining RIM from further manufacture, use, importation and sale of accused BlackBerry devices.
RIM appealed to the Federal Circuit, challenging the District Court’s claim interpretation, as well as disputing the applicability of § 271(a) to its extraterritorial operations, based on the point that the relay component of the BlackBerry system was located in Canada. The Federal circuit considered this argument, but reasoned that
"even though one of the accused components in RIM’s BlackBerry system may not be physically located in the United States, it is beyond dispute that the location of the beneficial use and function of the whole operable system assembly is the United States".
The Federal circuit concluded that:
“the location of RIM’s customers and their purchase of the BlackBerry devices establishing control and beneficial use of the BlackBerry devices within the United States satisfactorily establish territoriality under section 271(a).”
Case 2: Menashe Business Mercantile Ltd. & Anor v William Hill Organization Ltd.
In October 2001, William Hill was sued by Menashe in UK. The patent granted to Menashe is "Interactive, computerized gaming system with remote control".
William hill enabled users in UK to install software program on their computers. This allowed the users to access a server which was part of William Hill’s on-line gaming system. However, the servers were located in Antigua. Menashe sued William hill for a contributory infringement.
William accepted that the CD containing the software program was an essential element of the invention, but disputed that the patent was not put into effect in UK, since the server was located in Antigua. William took the above line of argument as defense.
However, the decision was in favor of Menashe. The judge affirmed that:
“The claimed invention requires there to be a host computer. In the age that we live in, it does not matter where the host computer is situated. It could be in the United Kingdom, on a satellite, or even on the border between two countries. Its location is not important to the user of the invention nor to the claimed gaming system. In that respect, there is a real difference between the claimed gaming system and an ordinary machine. For my part I believe that it would be wrong to apply the old ideas of location to inventions of the type under consideration in this case. A person who is situated in the United Kingdom who obtains in the United Kingdom a CD and then uses his terminal to address a host computer is not bothered where the host computer is located. It is of no relevance to him, the user, nor the patentee as to whether or not it is situated in the United Kingdom.”
The Judge’s view was:
“it would be wrong to apply the old ideas of location to inventions of the type under consideration in this case.” Instead, it is pertinent to ask who uses the claimed gaming system. The answer must be the punter. Where does he use it? There can be no doubt that he uses his terminal in the United Kingdom and it is not a misuse of language to say that he uses the host computer in the United Kingdom. It is the input to and output of the host computer that is important to the punter and in a real sense the punter uses the host computer in the United Kingdom even though it is situated in Antigua and operates in Antigua. In those circumstances it is not straining the word "use" to conclude that the United Kingdom punter will use the claimed gaming system in the United Kingdom, even if the host computer is situated in, say, Antigua. Thus the supply of the CD in the United Kingdom to the United Kingdom punter will be intended to put the invention into effect in the United Kingdom”.
From both the cases, we can conclude that, patent rights may be enforced even though one of the elements in the claimed system or method is located outside the territory of the patent, provided that the beneficial use of the system occurs within the territory of the patent granted.
In this new age of complex patent enforcement scenarios, to strengthen the patent rights of an invention relating to cloud computing, a careful strategy should be adopted for drafting and filling patent applications.
We hope you found this article useful. You may be interested in reading our article "Are software inventions patentable in India?"
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