The Federal Circuit Fails to Connect Clearly with Modern Technology by Protecting Infringing Data Imports

Alden Abbott —  10 November 2015

Today, in ClearCorrect Operating, LLC v. International Trade Commission, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that electronic transmissions of digital data from abroad do not involve the importation of “articles” for purposes of Section 337 of the Tariff Act (“Section 337,” 19 U.S.C. § 1337), thereby stripping the U.S. International Trade Commission (“ITC”) of jurisdiction over infringement of intellectual property (IP) facilitated through such transmissions.  If allowed to stand, this unfortunate and ill-reasoned 2-1 panel decision will incentivize IP infringement schemes involving data imports, thereby harming U.S. IP holders (including holders of federally-protected patents, copyrights, trademarks, and designs) and rewarding unfair methods of import competition, contrary to the broad statutory purpose of Section 337.

Align Technology, Inc. held various patents covering the production of orthodontic tooth-straightening appliances, known as aligners.  ClearCorrect Operating, LLC (“ClearCorrect US”) used patented Align Technology without authorization to create digital models of patients’ teeth, and electronically transmitted those models to its Pakistani affiliate, Clear Correct Pakistan.  The Pakistani affiliate manipulated those models and then transmitted final digital models back to the United States, which ClearCorrect US utilized to make orthodontic aligners.  Align Technology complained to the ITC, which found that Clear Correct Pakistan engaged in infringing activity in Pakistan and that data transmission of its digital models to the U.S. violated Section 337(a)(1)(B)(ii), in that it involved the importation of articles covered by the claims of a valid and enforceable United States patent.  ClearCorrect appealed the ITC’s determination to the Federal Circuit.

Judge Sharon Prost’s majority opinion, while conceding that the term “articles” is not defined in the Tariff Act, nevertheless found that because “dictionaries point to the fact that ‘articles’ means ‘material things’”, the term “’articles’ does not cover electronically transmitted digital data.”  Thus, finding the term “articles” to be clear (“commonsense dictates that there is a fundamental difference between electronic transmissions and ‘material things[.]’”), Judge Prost rejected the ITC’s findings under step one (is there statutory ambiguity) of Chevron deference analysis.  Even assuming that “articles” is ambiguous, however, Judge Prost held that the ITC’s interpretation of that term was “unreasonable,” and thus failed step two (was the agency’s interpretation permissible) of Chevron analysis.  Specifically, Judge Prost deemed the ITC’s definition as inconsistent with dictionary definitions and with the Tariff Act’s legislative history.

In her short concurring opinion, Judge Kathleen O’Malley reasoned that the ITC’s definition of “articles” would give it jurisdiction over all incoming international Internet data transmissions, something Congress had not foreseen – “[b]ecause Congress did not intend to delegate such authority to the Commission, I would find the two step Chevron inquiry inapplicable in this case”.  Judge O’Malley added, however, that assuming Chevron applies, “I agree with the majority’s ruling that the Commission erred when it determined that it had jurisdiction over the disputed digital data.”  (Judge O’Malley’s apparent concern that upholding the ITC’s determination would have given that agency excessive regulatory control over the Internet appears to wrongly conflate the protection of property rights through a targeted and carefully-tailored provision (Section 337) with far-reaching command and control regulation – something that is clearly beyond the scope of the ITC’s authority.)

In her dissent, Judge Pauline Newman pointed out that Section 337 was written in broad terms that are adaptable to changes in technology.  She noted compellingly that contrary to the majority’s crabbed reading of “articles,” the term “was intended to be all-encompassing”, and “[t]he Supreme Court [itself] defined ‘articles of commerce’ to include pure information”.  Accordingly, limiting Section 337’s application to the non-digital technology that existed in the 1920s and 1930s (when the statutory core of the Tariff Act was enacted) makes no sense.  Summing it up, Judge Newman trenchantly concluded that “[o]n any standard, the Commission’s determination is reasonable, and warrants respect.  The panel majority’s contrary ruling is not reasonable, on any standard.”

U.S. patentees are not the only IP holders that face serious harm from the Federal Circuit’s regrettable holding.  For example, the Motion Picture Association of America stated that “[t]his ruling, if it stands, would appear to reduce the authority of the ITC to address the scourge of overseas web sites that engage in blatant piracy of movies, television programs, music, books, and other copyrighted works”.

An en banc Federal Circuit (or, better yet Supreme Court) reversal of this decision would prove helpful, but judicial processes move slowly.  Given the potential for serious harm to U.S. IP-dependent industries stemming from this holding, Congress may wish to seriously consider clarifying that the term “articles” in Section 337 is applicable to all forms of commerce, including digital transmissions.

Alden Abbott

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I am a Senior Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. I write on antitrust, domestic and international regulatory policy, and law and economics. I am an Adjunct Faculty Member at George Mason Law School.