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September 22, 2022

CAFC Pulls Final Loose Thread in Nike-Adidas Patent Row

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Issuing a third and final decision, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a Patent Trial & Appeal Board (Board) decision invalidating the last remaining claim of a Nike footwear textile patent. Nike, Inc. v. Adidas AG, Case No. 21-1903 (Fed. Cir. Sept. 1, 2022) (Prost, Chen, Stoll, JJ.) (non-precedential)

Adidas filed for inter partes review of a patent owned by Nike relating to a knitted shoe upper. After lengthy litigation, including two prior appeals to the Federal Circuit, all claims of the Nike patent were invalidated except for one substitute claim. In its second appeal, Nike successfully argued that the Board did not provide Nike an opportunity to respond to a patentability issue raised sua sponte by the Board, which included reference to a knitting textbook. On remand from the second appeal, the parties were given the opportunity to brief the Board on this new reference and argue which party bears the burden of persuasion for the patentability issue raised sua sponte by the Board.

On the merits, the Board determined that the knitting textbook did teach the disputed limitation, agreeing with adidas that a skilled artisan would have understood the textbook to teach the contested limitation, and that there was adequate reason to combine the textbook's teachings with those of the other prior art references. The Board also concluded that the burden of persuasion must fall on the Board itself when it raised the patentability issue sua sponte. Nike appealed, arguing that the Board effectively placed the burden of persuasion on Nike.

The Federal Circuit first addressed the burden of persuasion as it relates to the grounds first raised by the Board. The Court found that the Board juxtaposed its arguments with adidas's and that they both relied on the same disclosures and arguments. Because the Board and adidas's arguments mirrored each other, the Court found it unnecessary to determine whether the petitioner or the Board bears the burden of persuasion. The Court also rejected Nike's argument that the Board effectively shifted the burden to Nike by stating in its opinion that Nike's arguments were "unpersuasive" and "inadequate." The Court cited to its 2016 holding in In re Magnum Oil Tools International, in which it explained that the Board's language is not the concern but rather the actual placement of the burden of persuasion. The Court found that both the Board and adidas met the burden, and that the burden was not shifted to Nike.

Turning to the Board's obviousness determinations, the Federal Circuit rejected all of Nike's arguments. First, Nike argued that the knitting textbook did not teach the claimed method of creating apertures in the fabric by omitting stitches. The Court found that the Board relied on specific disclosures in the reference describing the use of empty needles to product "loop displacement." Nike also argued that there was no motivation to combine the textbook reference with the other two references and that the Board could not rely on "common sense" to combine them. The Board found (and the Court agreed) that the other two references shared a preference for minimizing waste, and that the textbook's method of omitting stitches provided a way to create apertures without punching out (and thus wasting) material. The Court also disagreed with Nike's argument that the Board could not use common sense as motivation to combine the references, citing to its previous decisions in which it found that common sense can be invoked to support a motivation to combine to reduce waste or increase efficiency. Finally, the Court rejected Nike's argument that the Board violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) by including two "see also" citations to portions of the textbook reference that were not cited by any party. The Court found that these two citations were not essential to the Board's analysis and that it had already sufficiently established its reasoning, thus not violating the APA. The Court thus affirmed the Board's decision on all issues raised.

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