Articles Copied Without Authorization In Patent Applications Is Copyright Fair Use

A Magistrate Judge for the District Court of Minnesota recommended that the District Court grant a defendant’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the defendant was entitled to fair use protection under the Copyright Act for using portions of scientific articles in patent applications.  American Institute of Physics, et al. v. Schwegman Lundberg & Woessner, P.A., et al., Case No. 12-528 (RHK/JJK) (D. Minn., July 30, 2013) (available here).  Plaintiffs American Institute of Physics (“AIP”) produce and distribute scientific journals containing scholarly articles.  Defendant Schwegman Lundberg & Woessner, P.A. (“Schwegman”) is a law firm specializing in prosecuting patent applications.  Schwegman copied 18 of AIP’s articles from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) and other sources.  AIP sued, alleging copyright infringement asserting that Schwegman’s downloading, storing, making internal copies of, and distributing AIP articles by email constituted infringement.  Schwegman and the USPTO argued that its copying of the articles constituted fair use under the Copyright Act and moved for summary judgment.  The District Court requested a report and recommendation from the Magistrate Judge.  The Judge concluded that Schwegman established its fair use defense and recommended that the District Court grant Schwegman’s motion for summary judgment.

The Judge began by stating that Schwegman’s use of the articles was directly connected to Schwegman’s practice as a patent prosecution law firm.  Thus, the patent application process and the USPTO requirements are relevant.  The USPTO requires a patent application to disclose all known information that may affect the patentability of an invention, which is known as “prior art.”  If a patent application is filed along with a disclosure statement, that lists the prior art, that statement must include a copy of each publication.  “Thus, when a patent applicant files a disclosure statement, the USPTO’s regulations require the applicant to submit copies of publications, in whole or in part, that are material to the applicant’s claims of patentability for her inventions.”  American Institute of Physics, Slip Op. P. 7.  Schwegman provided copies of the articles to the USPTO in order to comply with this duty to disclose the prior art.

Next, the Judge considered the intended audience for the articles.  AIP publishes its articles to inform their readers, which include academics, researchers, and the general public.  Thus, AIP argues that patent attorneys and investors should be within AIP’s target audience.  AIP had issued nine licenses to various law firms to allow these firms to copy AIP’s articles.  Schwegman argued that the academic journals were a two-way market: authors submit their articles in hopes of being published, and readers benefit from the content.  Schwegman’s expert witness, economist Dr. Jean-Pierre Dubé, testified that patent attorneys read these articles for a different purpose than AIP’s target audience; patent attorneys read the articles to determine whether they should be disclosed as prior art.  As such, Schwegman argued, patent attorneys are not within the target audience.

Schwegman obtained 11 of the 18 articles by downloading them from the USPTO’s website.  The remaining 7 articles were obtained different ways, such as from an email attachment or a university website.  Schwegman kept copies of the articles on its electronic file management system.  This system allows the attorneys at Schwegman to access documents stored on the firm’s server.  The system does not place restrictions on who can see the articles, or how the articles can be used, but it does not allow people to search the text of the articles.  AIP argued that this electronic file management system is essentially an electronic library.

Schwegman moved for summary judgment, arguing that its use of AIP’s articles was fair use. There are four non-exclusive factors for courts to consider when analyzing a fair use defense: “(1) The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; (2) The nature of the copyrighted work; (3) The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and (4) The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.” 17 U.S.C. § 107.

First, the purpose and character of Schwegman’s use of the articles was to comply with the legal requirement to provide prior art to the USPTO.  Schwegman provided a copy of each article and cited to each article in each of its patent applications.  Thus, Schwegman’s use was different than AIP’s use.  Even though Schwegman’s use of the articles was not transformative, because the articles were copied and not changed, the first factor still weighs in favor of Schwegman.  “[R]eproduction of an original without any change can still qualify as a fair use when the use’s purpose and character differs from the object of the original, such as photocopying for use in a classroom.” American Institute of Physics, Slip Op. Pp.  24-25.  Thus, the first factor weighs in favor of Schwegman.

Second, the Judge considered the last factor of the effect on the potential market for the articles, because it is related to the first factor involving the purpose and character of the use.  If Schwegman’s use of the articles does not usurp the market for the articles, then the fourth factor weighs in favor of fair use.  “[AIP] present[ed] no evidence that the patent lawyers’ use of the scientific Articles to meet their obligations to disclose prior art to the PTO adversely affects the traditional target market for these Articles, i.e., academics, physical scientists and researchers, engineers, educators, students, and members of the general public who want to read peer-reviewed scholarly, highly specialized articles about the physical sciences and other scientific disciplines.”  American Institute of Physics, Slip Op. P. 31.  Further, AIP presented no evidence to counter Dr. Dubé’s testimony that Schwegman was outside of AIP’s target market.  The only evidence AIP presented was that it lost revenues from patent attorneys who did not pay the licensing fee to obtain copies of the articles.  “But this is not the sort of negative effect on the market that weighs heavily against a finding of fair use. If it were, then the market factor would always weigh in favor of the copyright holder and render the analysis of this factor meaningless.”  American Institute of Physics, Slip Op. P. 32.  Therefore, the fourth factor weighs in favor of Schwegman.

Third, the nature of the articles was considered.  Generally, a “creative” work receives more copyright protection.  The Judge concluded that the nature of AIP’s articles weighs slightly in favor of Schwegman because the articles “are factual or informational,” primarily communicating very technical information about the results of scientific research.

Fourth, the Judge examined the amount and substantiality of the articles used by Schwegman.  Copying a work in its entirety does not prevent a defendant from claiming fair use protection.  The amount of the copying is related to how the copying furthered the purpose and character of the use.  Schwegman copied the articles in their entirety.  However, this copying was necessary for Schwegman’s purpose to disclose prior art on patent applications.  This purpose was different than AIP’s purpose in publishing the articles.  Thus, “Schwegman’s copying is consistent with the purpose and character of Schwegman’s new and different use of the Articles,” and therefore weighs in favor of fair use.  American Institute of Physics, Slip Op. P. 38.

AIP also argued that a finding of fair use was inappropriate because Schwegman did not have an authorized or licensed copy of the articles.  The Court found no legal authority supports this contention.  Further, there was no evidence presented that Schwegman acted in bad faith in copying the articles.  As such, the Judge concluded that Schwegman was entitled to the fair use defense.

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