Free Speech Shines Bright, Illuminates Patent Owner's Right to Allege Infringement
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The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed a district court's preliminary injunction prohibiting a patent owner from communicating its view that a competitor infringed, finding that the speech restriction was improper because the infringement assertions were not objectively baseless. Lite-Netics, LLC v. Nu Tsai Capital LLC, Case No. 23-1146 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 17, 2023) (Lourie, Taranto, Stark, JJ.)
Lite-Netics and Nu Tsai Capital d/b/a Holiday Bright Lights (HBL) compete in the market for holiday string lights. Both companies use similar magnetic mechanisms that allow users to secure the end of the lights. Lite-Netics owns several patents that describe and claim magnetically secured decorative lights. In June 2017, Lite-Netics sent a cease-and-desist letter to HBL demanding that it stop selling lights alleged to infringe Lite-Netics's patents. After remaining silent for five years, Lite-Netics sent another cease-and-desist letter in April 2022 demanding that HBL either explain why its products did not infringe the Lite-Netics patents or stop selling the products.
When HBL refused to stop selling the allegedly infringing products, Lite-Netics sent communications to HBL's customers notifying them of their infringement claim and threatening "all legal rights and remedies" to stop the sale of HBL's products. Lite-Netics then filed a lawsuit against HBL for infringement of the patents. HBL asserted counterclaims, including tortious interference with business relationships, defamation under Nebraska law and bad faith patent-infringement communications. HBL also sought a preliminary injunction to prevent Lite-Netics from publishing further accusatory statements. Finding that HBL would likely succeed on its tortious interference and defamation claims and that Lite-Netics' infringement allegations were "objectively baseless," the district court granted the preliminary injunction. Lite-Netics appealed.
The Federal Circuit reversed the district court, finding that in cases where an injunction restricts a party's rights to First Amendment protected speech about its federal patent rights, federal law preempts state tort law. The Court explained that federal law requires a higher "bad faith" standard of proof for a preliminary injunction that would impinge on those federal rights. The Court found that HBL had failed to show that Lite-Netics's allegations and the publication of its allegations were made in bad faith or that those allegations were objectively baseless. The Court therefore reversed and remanded to the district court for further proceedings.
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