The Changing Landscape of Willful Infringement: The Effect of Willfulness as a Question of Law

By Shawna S. Boothe* and John D. Kendzior**

I. Introduction

Under the United States Patent Act, “whoever without authority makes, uses, offers to sell, or sells any patented invention, within the United States or imports into the United States any patented invention during the term of the patent therefor, infringes the patent.”[1]  A finding of willful patent infringement allows the court, at its discretion, to “increase the damages up to three times the amount found or assessed.”[2]  While a finding of willfulness is a sufficient basis for awarding enhanced damages, it does not compel such an award.[3]  Additionally, the court may award reasonable attorney fees to the prevailing party for willful infringement.[4]

Willful infringement significantly affects the technology that patents protect.  In the recent high-profile Apple v. Samsung trial, the patents at issue concerned smartphones and tablets.  The San Jose, California nine-person jury found that Samsung infringed six of seven Apple patents.[4]  The jury awarded Apple $1,049,393,540 in damages—one of the largest awards in an intellectual property case to date.[5]  Moreover, the jury found that Samsung willfully infringed on five of six Apple patents.  Thus, presiding Judge Koh can grant Apple’s request to treble the $1.05 billion jury award and to award attorney fees under 35 U.S.C. §§ 284, 285.

II. Background

The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit articulated a standard for evaluating willful infringement in Underwater Devices, Inc. v. Morrison-Knudsen Co.  “Where . . . a potential infringer has actual notice of another’s patent rights, he has an affirmative duty to exercise due care to determine whether or not he is infringing.”[6]  The affirmative duty of a potential infringer included, inter alia, the duty to seek and obtain competent legal advice from counsel before the initiation of any possible infringing activity.  Ensuing case law shaped the willfulness landscape and evaluates willfulness under the totality of the circumstances.

III. Seagate’s Willfulness Standard

Twenty-four years later, the Federal Circuit overruled Underwater Devices and established a two-prong test for proving willful infringement in In re Seagate Technology, LCC.  First, “a patentee must show by clear and convincing evidence that the infringer acted despite an objectively high likelihood that its actions constituted infringement of a valid patent.”[7]  This first prong is a threshold objective standard in which the state of mind of the accused infringer is not relevant.  If the threshold objective prong is satisfied, the patentee must also demonstrate the second prong: “that this objectively-defined risk (determined by the record developed in the infringement proceeding) was either known or so obvious that it should have been known to the accused infringer.”[8] This second prong is a subjective inquiry.  The Court left the development and application of Seagate’s willfulness standard to future cases.  Subsequent case law established that the objective prong tends not to be met where an accused infringer relies on a reasonable defense to a charge of infringement.[9]  Examples of defenses that negate the objective prong of willfulness include invalidity and noninfringement assertions.[10]

Seagate significantly altered two aspects of the willfulness landscape.  First, it elevated the previously lower threshold for establishing willfulness.  Seagate moved away from Underwater Device’s affirmative duty of care—which was akin to negligence—and adopted a more rigorous objective recklessness standard.  The Federal Circuit reasoned that a higher standard of recklessness permitting enhanced damages comports with Supreme Court precedent requiring a showing of recklessness before civil punitive damages are allowed.[11]  Seagate’s heightened standard has made it more difficult for a prevailing party to recover enhanced damages.[12]>  Second, resulting from Seagate’s abandonment of an affirmative duty of care, potential infringers are no longer required to obtain opinion of counsel in order to avoid liability for willful infringement.

IV. Willfulness As a Question of Law

Under Seagate precedent, the willfulness two-pronged inquiry has long been treated as a question of fact.[13]  On June 14, 2012, the Federal Circuit once again transformed the landscape of willfulness by announcing, in Bard Peripheral Vascular, Inc. v. Gore & Associates, Inc., that the threshold prong is henceforth a question of law.  The Bard Court held, “the objective determination of recklessness, even though predicated on underlying mixed questions of law and fact, is best decided by the judge as a question of law subject to de novo review.”[14]  In Bard, the Federal Circuit delineated a rule for two distinct circumstances.  When a defense or noninfringement theory asserted by an accused infringer is purely legal, the objective recklessness of such a theory is a purely legal question to be determined by the judge.  Such purely legal defenses include claim construction and reexamination.  Alternatively, when the objective prong turns on fact questions or on legal questions dependent on the underlying facts, the judge remains the final arbiter of whether the defense was reasonable, even when the underlying fact question is sent to a jury.  Such underlying factual defenses include anticipation or obviousness.  Under the second circumstance, if the defense is a question of fact or a mixed question of law and fact, the court may allow the jury to determine the underlying facts relevant to the defense first, and then it would determine the reasonableness of the defense as a matter of law.

The Bard Court reasoned that the judge is in the best position to determine whether an accused infringer’s defenses are reasonable.[15]  Furthermore, judges have the discretion to award enhanced damages and attorneys fees for willful infringement; therefore, it is logical for judges also to decide the objective prong of willfulness.  To support its holding, the Bard Court also relied upon the Supreme Court’s conclusion that objective baselessness should be a question of law through analogizing objective baselessness for sham litigation to a finding of lack of probable cause to institute an unsuccessful civil law suit—which subjects mixed questions of fact and law to a de novo review.  Bard extended the Supreme Court’s analogy to encompass objective recklessness because Seagate’s objective recklessness and objective baselessness are identical under Federal Circuit precedent.

V. Bards Effect on the Willfulness Landscape

This most recent change to willfulness as a question of law substantially affects the overall willfulness landscape in two respects.  First, a question of law is determined by the court, either on a pretrial motion for partial summary judgment or on a motion for judgment as a matter of law at the close of the evidence.[16]  Prior to Bard, few of these motions were granted because willfulness was ultimately a question of fact to be decided by the jury after trial.  Now that willfulness is a question of law, an avenue is created for disposing of willfulness allegations by judicial decision prior to trial.   Therefore, courts will likely experience increased filings of such motions due to this new avenue, and movants likely will experience greater success—not necessarily on the merits of the motion but on the sheer ability of courts to grant the motions without needing to submit the issue to the jury.

Secondly, the decision in Bard creates a disjointed pairing of a question of law with a standard for proving facts.  Seagate requires that the threshold prong of objective recklessness be proven by clear and convincing evidence.  Typically, clear and convincing evidence is the standard for proving questions of fact, which was consistent when willfulness was a question of fact.  In holding that the threshold prong of objective recklessness is a question of law, the Bard court failed to address or change the standard of proof required for this prong.  Thus, Seagate and Bard, understood together, create an issue of law that still must be proven by the standard for an issue of fact.

In an earlier concurring opinion, Justice Breyer addressed the exact problem we now face with Seagate and Bard.[17] Justice Breyer, in his concurring opinion in Microsoft Corp. v. i4i Limited Partnership, firmly stated that the clear and convincing evidentiary standard should only apply to questions of fact and not to questions of law.  Additionally, Justice Breyer instructed courts to prevent “the ‘clear and convincing’ standard from roaming outside its fact-related reservations . . . .”[18]  One does not have to make a significant inferential leap to conclude that Justice Breyer would admonish the Federal Circuit for establishing willfulness as a question of law that applies the clear and convincing evidence standard of proof.  Although both remain “good” law, there is undeniable tension between Seagate and Bard that will likely be addressed in subsequent case law.

VI.       Conclusion

The willfulness landscape has undergone two significant changes within the last five years.  First, the willfulness standard in Underwater Devices was replaced by the standard set forth in Seagate, which heightens the burden of proving willfulness by requiring objective recklessness as opposed to negligence.  Additionally, Seagate abandoned Underwater Devices’ duty of care and duty to seek opinion of counsel.  However, no change could be more significant than the change that occurred in Bard, which held that willfulness is as a question of law rather than a question of fact.  As a question of law, judges may determine the threshold prong of willfulness without submitting the issue to the jury.  The judge could dispose of a willfulness allegation by granting a motion for summary judgment or judgment as a matter of law.  Thus, the authors posit that the courts will see an increase in such motions, and movants will experience greater success solely because of the new avenue to dispose of willfulness allegations.  Another effect of the change in Bard is the tension created by joining a question of law with the burden of proving a question of fact—clear and convincing evidence.  The authors posit that Justice Breyer would strongly disapprove of such joining based on his special concurrence in i4i, and the tension will be resolved in subsequent case law.

* J.D. Candidate, University of Illinois College of Law, expected 2013. B.A., Mathematics and Philosophy, University of Saint Thomas, 2010.  Firstly, I would like to thank James Hanft at Schiff Hardin LLP for his insights and guidance during the 2012 summer associate program, which sparked my interest in this topic.  Secondly, I am grateful to the editors of the Journal of Law, Technology, and Policy for their support while writing this piece.  Lastly and most importantly, I would like to thank my family for their continued support throughout the years.

** J.D. Candidate, University of Illinois College of Law, expected 2013. B.S., Finance and Information Technology, Marquette University, 2010.  Firstly, I would like to thank my co-author for introducing me to this topic and being a pleasure to work with.  I would also like to thank my fellow Journal of Law, Technology, and Policy editors and members for their insights and advice throughout the writing and publication process.  Lastly, I would like to thank my family for their encouragement of my legal education.

[1] 35 U.S.C. § 271 (2010).

[2] 35 U.S.C. § 284 (2011); e.g., In re Seagate Tech., LLC, 497 F.3d 1360, 1368 (Fed. Cir. 2007) (“Absent a statutory guide, we have held that an award of enhanced damages requires a showing of willful infringement.”).

[3] State Indus., Inc. v. Mor-Flo Indus., Inc., 948 F.2d 1573, 1576 (1991) (citing Modine Mfg. Co. v. Allen Grp., Inc., 917 F.2d 538, 542–43 (Fed. Cir. 1990)).

[4] 35 U.S.C. § 285 (1952).

[5] Apple, Inc. v. Samsung Elecs. Co., No. 11-cv-01846-LHK at 2–7 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 24, 2012) (amended verdict form), available at; Jessica E. Vascellaro, Apple Wins Big in Patent Case, Wall St. J. (Aug. 25, 2012, 1:41 PM),

 [6] Apple, No. 11-cv-01846-LHK at 15.

[7] Underwater Devices, Inc. v. Morrison-Knudsen Co., 717 F.2d 1380, 1389–90 (Fed. Cir. 1983).

[8] > In re Seagate Tech., LLC, 497 F.3d 1360, 1368 (Fed. Cir. 2007).

[9] Id.

[10] Spine Solutions, Inc. v. Medtronic Sofamor Danek USA, Inc., 620 F.3d 1305, 1319 (Fed. Cir. 2010).

[11] Advanced Fiber Techs. (AFT) Trust v. J & L Fiber Servs., Inc., 674 F.3d 1365, 1377 (Fed. Cir. 2012).

[12]See Safeco Ins. Co. of Am. v. Burr, 551 U.S. 47, 71 (2007) (noting that a reckless disregard of a requirement of the Fair Credit Reporting Act would qualify as a willful violation that makes a person civilly liable to the consumer).

[13] Siraj Husain, Note, The Willfulness Pendulum Swings Back: How Seagate Helps Level the Playing Field, 28 Loy. L.A. Ent. L. Rev. 239, 239–240 (2008).

[14] Cohesive Techs., Inc. v. Waters Corp., 543 F.3d 1351, 1374 (Fed. Cir. 2008); Stryker Corp. v. Intermedics Orthopedics, Inc., 96 F.3d 1409, 1413 (Fed. Cir. 1996).

[15] Bard Peripheral Vascular, Inc. v. Gore & Assocs., Inc., 682 F.3d 1003, 1007 (Fed. Cir. 2012).

[16] > Id. at 1006.

[17] DePuy Spine, Inc. v. Medtronic Sofamor Danek, Inc., 567 F.3d 1314, 1324 (Fed. Cir. 2009) (quoting Warner Jenkinson Co., Inc. v. Hilton Davis Chem. Co., 520 U.S. 17, 39 n.8 (1997)).

[18] Microsoft Corp. v. i4i Ltd. P’ship, 131 S.Ct. 2238, 2253 (2011) (Breyer, J., concurring).

[19] Id.