On May 30, 2017, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its opinion in Impression Products v. Lexmark International, a case involving patent exhaustion. By an 7-1 margin, the Court found that a patent holder cannot enforce contractual restrictions on downstream sales through a patent infringement case and that international exhaustion applies to patents, just as the Court confirmed international exhaustion to apply to copyright in Kirtsaeng v. Wiley.
Lexmark essentially tried to restrict the refill of its cartridges by third parties by selling cartridges that restricted further use or resale. Lexmark then tried to enforce these restrictions through patent infringement cases against the downstream purchasers/third party resellers. The Court ultimately found that while Lexmark could potentially bring a breach of contract case against the initial purchasers for violating these restrictions, it could not bring a patent infringement suit to assert these claims. Relying on long-standing precedent, the majority opinion (authored by Chief Justice Roberts) notes “even when a patentee sells an item under an express restriction, the patentee does not retain patent rights in that product.”
Additionally, Lexmark asserted that exhaustion did not apply to cartridges sold abroad. The Court “conclude[s] that a patentee’s decision to sell a product exhausts all of its patent rights in that item, regardless of any restrictions the patentee purports to impose or the location of the sale.” The Court notes that the question of the first sale doctrine came up in the context of copyright in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, which ruled that the first sale of a copyrighted product exhausts the rights whether made in the United States or abroad. The majority opinion also points out that while differential pricing may occur, this fact has no bearing on patent exhaustion: “The patentee may not be able to command the same amount for its products abroad as it does in the United States. But the Patent Act does not guarantee a particular price, much less the price from selling to American consumers.”
One of the more interesting passages in the majority’s opinion is an illustration on the dangers that would occur without exhaustion:
Take a shop that restores and sells used cars. The business works because the shop can rest assured that, so long as those bringing in the cars own them, the shop is free to repair and resell those vehicles. That smooth flow of commerce would sputter if companies that make the thousands of parts that go into a vehicle could keep their patent rights after the first sale. Those companies might, for instance, restrict resale rights and sue the shop owner for patent infringement. And even if they refrained from imposing such restrictions, the very threat of patent liability would force the shop to invest in efforts to protect itself from hidden lawsuits. Either way, extending the patent rights beyond the first sale would clog the channels of commerce, with little benefit from the extra control that the patentees retain. And advances in technology, along with increasingly complex supply chains, magnify the problem.
The use of auto repair as an example of the problems created through overzealous claims of intellectual property protection is compelling given the issues of embedded software in automobiles and anti-circumvention measures. With a growing number of vehicles containing embedded software, some rightholders are claiming that purchasers of these vehicles should not be free to modify, repair or tinker with these items. An article in Wired in 2015 highlighted the fact that John Deere (and other automakers) opposed an exemption to allow circumvention of technological protection measures in order to repair purchased vehicles during the DMCA 10201’s triennial exemption process.
Ultimately, exhaustion of copyright and patent rights serves a critical purpose in ensuring that purchasers can freely repair, re-sell, and lend legitimately purchased items just as they would for goods that are not encumbered by intellectual property rights.