By Jeffrey Whittle, CLP; Karthika Perumal, Ph.D., CLP; & Sam Savanich, CLP-A

In a split opinion issued Tuesday, and based on language in an assignment clause of a contract, the Federal Circuit overturned a district court's summary judgment that Core Optical lacked standing to sue Nokia, Cisco, and ADVA for infringement.

The case, involving a fiber optic patent, centers on the interpretation of the phrase "entirely on my own time" within an assignment clause of the inventor's contractual agreement with his former employer, TRW Inc.

Nokia, Cisco, and ADVA contended that Dr. Mark Core's assignment of his patent rights to Core Optical was invalid because these rights allegedly had been automatically assigned to Dr. Core's employer, TRW, at the time of the invention. The inventor's contract with TRW stipulated that any inventions developed during work hours were to be assigned to the company, while inventions developed entirely on his “own time” remained Dr. Core’s property.

Initially, the lower court granted Nokia and the defendants summary judgment, ruling that the invention was developed as part of the Dr. Core’s research, funded by TRW, and was at least in part “TRW time” and not “entirely” Dr. Core’s “own time.” Therefore, this court concluded that the patent was automatically assigned to TRW, and Core Optical, Dr. Core’s company, lacked standing to sue.

The Federal Circuit majority, however, decided on appeal that it was not clear if the Ph.D. research conducted by Dr. Core constituted the inventor's own time. On one hand, Dr. Core was free to use particular hours or days for his research with no accountability to TRW; and, on the other hand, he worked on projects connected to TRW’s business on TRW-funded fellowship, with reporting obligations to TRW. Therefore, the Federal Circuit vacated the judgment and remanded the case back to the district court for further proceedings, thereby allowing Dr. Core to proceed with his patent infringement lawsuit.

The majority opinion noted, “[b]oth Core Optical’s and Nokia's interpretations of how the years-long, TRW-funded research should be treated under the 1990 invention agreement are plausible based on the undisputed facts presented. However, which interpretation prevails has not been determined, acknowledging that the contract language does not have an unambiguous meaning when applied to these facts.”

In dissent, U.S. Circuit Court Judge Haldane Robert Mayer argued that the lower court was correct in ruling that the inventor did not develop the fiber optic patent on his own time.

This majority decision underscores the complexities and nuances surrounding intellectual property rights and the importance of clear contractual terms regarding intellectual property issues, especially for intellectual property developed by an individual during non-traditional employment, such as employees permitted to pursue research or consulting projects. Care should be taken when drafting assignment and other intellectual property related language to reduce risk of a finding of ambiguity as in this instance.