Friday, August 20, 2010

Where In The World Is The “Offer to Sell”?

It Doesn’t Matter for Liability Under 35 U.S.C. 271(a)

In Transocean v. Maersk Contractors, 2009-1556 (Fed. Cir., Aug. 18, 2010) the Federal Circuit dealt squarely with the issue of an offer to sell made outside the U.S. for use of a product in the United States. The facts were largely undisputed. A contract was entered into in Norway by two U.S. companies for the use of an oil drilling ship within the U.S. waters in the Gulf of Mexico. The ship was made outside the U.S. pursuant to the contract. The ship was later modified to be non-infringing (pursuant to an earlier order entered in a different case), so use of the actual modified ship was found not to be an act of infringement. However, the contract contemplated the unmodified design and this design was therefore the subject of the “offer to sell.”

The Federal Circuit held that:
Opinion at 19.  Thus, it is now clear: It doesn’t matter where the offer is made, only where the future sale is contemplated. If that contemplated sale is directed to the U.S., liability for infringement under 35 U.S.C. 271(a) may attach for the offer. Of course, if there is only an offer and no actual infringing sale, damages may become a difficult question. That, however, is a question for another day.
In order for an offer to sell to constitute infringement, the offer must be to sell a patented invention within the United States. The focus should not be on the location of the offer, but rather the location of the future sale that would occur pursuant to the offer.

Although not an issue squarely presented in Transocean, the language of this opinion suggests that an “offer” that is made within the United States, but contemplates performance outside the United States would not be within the scope of 35 U.S.C. 271(a).  In reaching its holding, however, the Court noted the policy considerations that underlie it holding.  The Court stated that “[a company making an offer outside the U.S.] would generate interest in its product in the U.S. to the detriment of the U.S. patent owner, the type of harm that offer to sell within the U.S. liability is meant to remedy.”  Despite this policy guidance, it would seem that, at least in some cases, an offer made in the U.S. for a sale contemplated outside the U.S. could also have a negative impact on the U.S. patent owner, yet under a fair reading of Transocean may not be actionable.

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