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Supreme Court nixes idea of 'indirect' patent infringement

Akamai v Limelight decision overturns partial liability rule

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The US Supreme Court has issued a ruling that could help shield companies and end users from patent-troll lawsuits.

The court on Monday issued a unanimous ruling to overturn a Federal Circuit court ruling in the case of Akamai v. Limelight.

In the opinion, written by Associate Justice Samuel Alito on behalf of the unified court, the Supreme Court argued that in order for a patent infringement decision to be issued, a defendant has to have been shown to infringe upon all steps in a patent rather than a portion.

The ruling overturns an infringement decision against content delivery network operator Limelight. Rival Akamai had charged that Limelight had partially infringed upon its patents for delivering content over private networks, then provided its customers with instructions on how to perform the final steps in the process.

In issuing the ruling, the court said that in order for a group or individual to be found in violation of a patent, that single party must perform all the steps involved in the infringement. As end users performed the final steps in its process, Limelight could not be found liable.

"A defendant is not liable for inducing infringement under [US Code] §271(b) when no one has directly infringed under §271(b) or any other statutory position," Alito wrote in the ruling (PDF).

"Liability for inducement must be predicated on direct infringement."

The case had been seen as an important test for patent litigation, as opponents worried that a decision in Akamai's favor would open the door for "patent troll" entities to flood courts with more audacious claims of patent infringement by vendors and possibly even end users.

Among those groups who had petitioned against the Circuit Court ruling against Limelight was the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the digital rights group that has long stood in opposition to patent trolls and "stupid" patent claims.

Following Monday's ruling, the EFF said that in overturning the Circuit Court ruling, the nation's top court had protected users from being hit with infringement suits when they hadn't knowingly done so.

"The Federal Circuit reasoned that in this case, despite the text of the statute, Congress would have wanted the defendant to be found liable even though its customers performed one of the steps of the patent," wrote EFF staff attorney Vera Ranieri.

"The Supreme Court saw the mischief that the Federal Circuit's approach could cause, finding 'no principled reason' that would prevent the Federal Circuit from finding infringement in other circumstances based on a notion that 'Congress would have wanted it' (even though Congress never actually did)." ®

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