The “Strict Liability” of Direct Patent Infringement

Lynda J. Oswald · 19 Vand. J. Ent. & Tech. 993

Abstract

In 1995, the Federal Circuit summarily attached the label of “strict liability” to direct patent infringement, even though that term does not appear in any US Patent Act enacted in the past two centuries. The catechism of “strict” direct patent infringement liability is now so well engrained in patent doctrine that it is easy to lose sight of how recent the advent of this terminology is in the case law, and how troublesome application of this standard has proven, even to the Federal Circuit, which created it. The first Patent Act (1790) preceded the emergence of tort law as a distinct field of US common law (mid-1800s) by a half-century or more, and the products liability explosion of the mid-twentieth century radically altered our understanding of strict liability. The implications of this forgotten timeline are profound. “Strict liability,” particularly in its modern formulation, is not a neutral, descriptive term. Rather, the term evokes social policy choices and balancing considerations that may be appropriate within the case law context of products liability or abnormally dangerous activities, but which are incongruous and inapposite in the statutory context of patent law. Deeming direct patent infringement to be “strict liability” leads to two unanticipated and unwelcome effects. First, the adoption of the “strict liability” label for direct patent infringement liability improperly inflates the courts’ role in setting direct patent infringement liability standards and suggests—incorrectly—that patent liability is a case law construct, when in fact it is a statutory construct. Second, the “strict liability” label improperly shifts the focus of the patent infringement inquiry from the Patent Act’s protection of the plaintiff’s exclusive property interest in its patent right toward a value-laden examination of the social utility of the defendant’s conduct vis-à-vis the injury to the patent holder. Jettisoning the “strict liability” label for direct patent infringement would reframe the analysis and debate, moving direct patent infringement liability out of a policy framework and back toward its proper statutory setting.