By Simon Heimowitz
Seventh Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Copyright Infringement Suit Against Elton John
In Hobbs v. John, No. 12-3652 (7th Cir. July 17, 2013), the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois’ dismissal of a lawsuit brought against Sir Elton John, alleging that his hit song “Nikita” illegally borrowed numerous themes from “Natasha”, a song copyrighted by Guy Hobbs. Hobbs, slip op. at 15. Both songs describe a relationship between a westerner and a woman in Communist Russia. Id. at 2. In determining that there was no copyright infringement by Elton John, the court looked to “two well-established principles of copyright law.” Id. at 11. First, U.S. copyright law “does not protect general ideas, but only the particular expression of an idea.” Id. The court concluded that the expression of the themes in the two songs were not substantially similar. While both dealt with a romantic relationship during the Cold War, the court parsed the lyrics to determine that each song presented “different stories about impossible romances during the Cold War.” Id. at 12. Secondly, “even at the level of particular expression, the Copyright Act does not protect ‘incidents, characters or settings which are as a practical matter indispensable, or at least standard, in the treatment of a given topic.’” Id. at 11 (citations omitted). A number of other similarities between the two songs, including the names of the songs, both being Russian and beginning with the letter “N” and ending with the letter “A,” were not enough to establish infringement. Id. at 14. “[T]he United States Copyright Office’s Registered Works Database reveals that numerous works share the titles ‘Natasha’ and ‘Nikita’” Id. (citation omitted). As such, the court considered the songs’ similarities “commonplace in love songs” and not “substantially similar” enough to warrant a finding of infringement. Id. at 15. Hollywood Reporter and Radio.com provide commentary on the case.
Marvel Exempt from Paying Royalties for Spiderman Web Blaster after Patent Expiration
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona’s summary judgment that Marvel was no longer required to pay royalties to Stephen Kimble for his patented Spiderman web (foam)-shooting toy, a design that Kimble claimed he had created and pitched to Marvel in 1990. Kimble v. Marvel Enterprises, Inc., No. 11-15605 at 23 (9th Cir. July 16, 2013). In 2001, after a district court had found that Marvel had not infringed Kimble’s patent but had breached their contract, the parties had agreed to a settlement. Id. at 5–6. Disagreement between the two parties concerning royalties instigated the current suit, with Marvel claiming that since the patent had expired, the settlement agreement was no longer enforceable. Id. at 8. The circuit court determined that, based on Brulotte v. Thys Co., 379 U.S. 29 (1964), “a license for inseparable patent and non-patent rights involving royalty payments that extends beyond a patent term is unenforceable for the post-expiration period unless the agreement provides a discount for the non-patent rights from the patent-protected rate.” Id. at 16. In this case, the court found that no discount was provided, and thus Marvel was no longer required to pay royalty fees to Kimble for its Spiderman Web Blaster. Id. at 17. Patently-O describes the holding of the case and its implications, and azstarnet.com provides commentary.
Senator Leahy Suggests that the NIH “March-In” on Myriad’s Patent Rights
As reported by JDSupra, Senator Patrick Leahy wrote a letter earlier this month to the NIH, requesting that the agency exercise its right to “march-in” and demand that Myriad license its patented diagnostic testing kits. Letter from Patrick Leahy, Senator (D-VT), to Francis Collins, Director, NIH (July 12, 2013) (“Letter”). The Supreme Court recently ruled unpatentable Myriad’s claims to isolated DNA encoding the BRCA genes, mutations of which correlate strongly with the development of breast and ovarian cancer. Ass’n for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., No. 12-398 at 1 (569 U.S. ___ June 13, 2013). However, the court found patentable Myriad’s claims to complementary DNA (“cDNA”) encoding the same genes. Id. Under the Bayh-Dole Act, 35 U.S.C. § 203(a)(2) (2006), a federal agency may require a “small business firm or nonprofit organization” that received funding from the agency to license its patent rights if “action is necessary to alleviate health or safety needs which are not reasonably satisfied by the [patent] contractor, assignee, or their licensees . . . .” Myriad received federal funding in developing its diagnostic tests, which it now markets for between $3,000 and $4,000. In his letter, Senator Leahy expressed concern “that the health needs of the public are not reasonably satisfied by the patentee in this situation because . . . many women are not able to afford the testing,” Letter at 2, which would justify the NIH’s use of march-in rights to force Myriad to license the patents.