Supreme Court: Splitting patent’s steps is not infringement

The Supreme Court ruled Monday in a case between two tech companies that a person or company must carry out all of the steps described in a patent to infringe that patent.

A patent is not infringed if a person or company only completes most of the steps described in a method patent and directs a third party to carry out the remaining steps, the court said in a unanimous opinion delivered by Justice Samuel Alito in the case between Limelight Networks and Akamai Technologies.

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The companies were battling over a method patent for Internet traffic delivery through Content Delivery Networks (CDN) — the networks of third-party servers that allow websites to more quickly and efficiently deliver content to Internet users.

Akamai is the exclusive licensee for a CDN patent developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Limelight’s systems replicate some of the steps involved in the MIT patent but require customers to complete one step on their own, and the company gives its users information and assistance to complete that step.

Akamai charged that Limelight induced infringement of the patent by having its customers carry out that step, an argument that the Federal Circuit agreed with when conducting an en banc review.

On Monday, the Supreme Court reversed that decision, ruling that one person or company would have to carry out all of a method patent’s steps to be guilty of directly infringing that patent. 

A person or company cannot induce infringement if no direct infringement has occurred, the court said.

"The line of argument put forward by the Federal Circuit during its en banc review “fundamentally misunderstands what it means to infringe a method patent,” Alito wrote.

“A method patent claims a number of steps; … the patent is not infringed unless all the steps are carried out.”

The decision is one in a series of cases before the Supreme Court this year dealing with patent law as Congress walks back from its attempts to overhaul the patent litigation system.

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