Post by Patrick Goold
Sir Edward Coke’s Institutes of the Lawes of England, first published in 1628, rarely influences the direction of modern U.S. patent law. But that might be about to change. This December, the Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari in the case of Impression Products, Inc. v. Lexmark International, Inc., Supreme Court Docket No. 15-1189, concerning the scope of the patent exhaustion doctrine. The case will interest readers of this blog because it highlights the conceptual and doctrinal relationship between IP exhaustion and common law rules regarding restraints on alienation.
The case involves the ongoing battle over refurbished printer toner cartridges. Lexmark International makes printer toner cartridges, over which it owns a number of patents. These cartridges fall into two types: “Regular Cartridges” are sold at full price; while “Return Program Cartridges” are sold at a discount but come with a “single-use/no-resale” restriction, meaning the buyer may neither reuse nor resell the cartridge after the toner has run out. Lexmark sells these cartridges both domestically in the U.S. and abroad. In 2014, Lexmark sued Impression Products for patent infringement. Impression Products had previously: (1) bought domestically-sold Return Program Cartridges, modified by third parties to allow refilling, and resold them in the U.S.; and (2) imported and resold both Regular and Return Program Cartridges from foreign markets. Lexmark maintained both of these actions infringed their U.S. patent rights under § 271 of the Patent Act. Impression argued that both of these acts were non-infringing due to the Patent Exhaustion doctrine, which holds that “the initial authorized sale of a patented item terminates all patent rights to that item.” Quanta Computer, Inc. v. LG Electronics, Inc., 553 U.S. 617, 625 (2008). John Golden has discussed the case in a prior New Private Law Blog post.