Direct and Indirect Patent Infringement – Evolving Standards under Akamai v. Limelight

Though I’m not a litigator, infringement concerns are a primary concern for many of my clients. Those concerns evolve with time. Despite decades of case law, the courts are still developing some of the fundamentals of patent infringement. There are two basic types of infringement: direct and indirect (which is further subdivided as contributory infringement and induced infringement. Direct infringement is – generally – infringement that you yourself participate in: you sell something infringing, you make something infringing, you use something infringing, etc. Indirect infringement, on the other hand, occurs when you contribute to another’s infringement, make another’s infringement possible, or benefit from another’s infringement.

Yesterday the Federal Circuit issued an opinion regarding direct infringement after the Supreme Court gave its opinion and told the Federal Circuit to take another look. The case involves the question of whether, when a patent is directed to a method comprising a number of steps, a single party can infringe that patent even if it did not practice every single one of the steps. In another way, the case asked whether a defendant may be liable for inducing patent infringement when no other party has actually directly infringed the patent. As may seem immediately obvious, the Supreme Court said no; induced infringement will not lie unless there is at least a direct infringer first.

The Federal Circuit has now expanded the definition of infringement to include situations where all of the steps, while not necessarily being performed by the defendant, may still be attributed to the defendant. Now, liability can be found where the defendant “conditions participation in an activity or receipt of a benefit upon performance of a step or steps of a patented method and establishes the manner or timing of that performance.” This broadens the scope of liability beyond the earlier rule which required that the defendant either perform all the steps, use an agent to perform some or all of the steps, or contract with another or enter a joint venture to perform some or all of the steps. This new rule adopts the Supreme Court’s analysis of induced infringement under copyright law, which was used in the seminal case of MGM v. Grokster on internet-based peer-to-peer music file sharing (which happens to have been the subject of this author’s Law Review article).

The ruling indicates that infringement can now be found where a party performs some of the steps of the method claim even if the other steps are performed by another party.