Supreme Court Makes it Tougher to Defend Method Patents

In a unanimous decision earlier this month the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that in order for an infringement suit defending a method patent to succeed, every step in the method must be infringed by the same party or parties under its direct control.

The case, Limelight Networks, Inc. v. Akamai Technologies, Inc., involved a situation in which Akamai claimed that Limelight had violated a process patent. A process patent typically sets out two or more steps to be carried out to accomplish some purpose. If anyone reproduces all of those steps in its own process or does so by collaborating with others over whom it exerts “control or direction,” then they can be found to infringe the patent.

In this specific case, Limelight Networks apparently reproduced all but one of the steps in the Akamai patent. Its customers, who were not within Limelight’s control, then carried out the remaining step, known as “tagging.” Akamai filed suit for constructive infringement.

The Court ruled that, “where there is no direct infringement, there can be no inducement of infringement.”

As a result of the ruling, those who seek a process patent protection will have to be much more careful to describe processes where there are no separately executable steps that don’t depend on the flow of the process. Any such step can be left to others to carry out so long as the alleged infringing party doesn’t control that step, and the process patent will be negated.