Justice ALITO delivered the opinion of the Court.
We consider whether a party who "actively induces infringement of a patent" under 35 U.S.C. § 271(b) must know that the induced acts constitute patent infringement.
This case concerns a patent for an innovative deep fryer designed by respondent SEB S.A., a French maker of home appliances. In the late 1980's, SEB invented a "cool-touch" deep fryer, that is, a deep fryer for home use with external surfaces that remain cool during the frying process. The cool-touch deep fryer consisted of a metal frying pot surrounded by a plastic
In 1997, Sunbeam Products, Inc., a U.S. competitor of SEB, asked petitioner Pentalpha Enterprises, Ltd., to supply it with deep fryers meeting certain specifications. Pentalpha is a Hong Kong maker of home appliances and a wholly owned subsidiary of petitioner Global-Tech Appliances, Inc.
In order to develop a deep fryer for Sunbeam, Pentalpha purchased an SEB fryer in Hong Kong and copied all but its cosmetic features. Because the SEB fryer bought in Hong Kong was made for sale in a foreign market, it bore no U.S. patent markings. After copying SEB's design, Pentalpha retained an attorney to conduct a right-to-use study, but Pentalpha refrained from telling the attorney that its design was copied directly from SEB's.
The attorney failed to locate SEB's patent, and in August 1997 he issued an opinion letter stating that Pentalpha's deep fryer did not infringe any of the patents that he had found. That same month, Pentalpha started selling its deep fryers to Sunbeam, which resold them in the United States under its trademarks. By obtaining its product from a manufacturer with lower production costs, Sunbeam was able to undercut SEB in the U.S. market.
After SEB's customers started defecting to Sunbeam, SEB sued Sunbeam in March 1998, alleging that Sunbeam's sales infringed SEB's patent. Sunbeam notified Pentalpha of the lawsuit the following month. Undeterred, Pentalpha went on to sell deep fryers to Fingerhut Corp. and Montgomery Ward & Co., both of which resold them in the United States under their respective trademarks.
SEB settled the lawsuit with Sunbeam, and then sued Pentalpha, asserting two theories of recovery: First, SEB claimed that Pentalpha had directly infringed SEB's patent in violation of 35 U.S.C. § 271(a), by selling or offering to sell its deep fryers; and second, SEB claimed that Pentalpha had contravened § 271(b) by actively inducing Sunbeam, Fingerhut, and Montgomery Ward to sell or to offer to sell Pentalpha's deep fryers in violation of SEB's patent rights.
Following a 5-day trial, the jury found for SEB on both theories and also found that Pentalpha's infringement had been willful. Pentalpha filed post-trial motions seeking a new trial or judgment as a matter of law on several grounds. As relevant here, Pentalpha argued that there was insufficient evidence to support the jury's finding of induced infringement under § 271(b) because Pentalpha did not actually know of SEB's patent until it received the notice of the Sunbeam lawsuit in April 1998.
The District Court rejected Pentalpha's argument, as did the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which affirmed the judgment, SEB S.A. v. Montgomery Ward & Co., 594 F.3d 1360 (2010). Summarizing a recent en banc decision, the Federal Circuit stated that induced infringement under § 271(b) requires a "plaintiff [to] show that the alleged infringer knew or should have known that his actions would induce actual infringements" and that this
We granted certiorari. 562 U.S. ___, 131 S.Ct. 458, 178 L.Ed.2d 286 (2010).
Pentalpha argues that active inducement liability under § 271(b) requires more than deliberate indifference to a known risk that the induced acts may violate an existing patent. Instead, Pentalpha maintains, actual knowledge of the patent is needed.
In assessing Pentalpha's argument, we begin with the text of § 271(b)—which is short, simple, and, with respect to the question presented in this case, inconclusive. Section 271(b) states: "Whoever actively induces infringement of a patent shall be liable as an infringer."
Although the text of § 271(b) makes no mention of intent, we infer that at least some intent is required. The term "induce" means "[t]o lead on; to influence; to prevail on; to move by persuasion or influence." Webster's New International Dictionary 1269 (2d ed.1945). The addition of the adverb "actively" suggests that the inducement must involve the taking of affirmative steps to bring about the desired result, see id., at 27.
When a person actively induces another to take some action, the inducer obviously knows the action that he or she wishes to bring about. If a used car salesman induces a customer to buy a car, the salesman knows that the desired result is the purchase of the car. But what if it is said that the salesman induced the customer to buy a damaged car? Does this mean merely that the salesman induced the customer to purchase a car that happened to be damaged, a fact of which the salesman may have been unaware? Or does this mean that the salesman knew that the car was damaged? The statement that the salesman induced the customer to buy a damaged car is ambiguous.
So is § 271(b). In referring to a party that "induces infringement," this provision may require merely that the inducer lead another to engage in conduct that happens to amount to infringement, i.e., the making, using, offering to sell, selling, or importing of a patented invention. See § 271(a).
Finding no definitive answer in the statutory text, we turn to the case law that predates the enactment of § 271 as part the Patent Act of 1952. As we recognized in Aro Mfg. Co. v. Convertible Top Replacement Co., 377 U.S. 476, 84 S.Ct. 1526, 12 L.Ed.2d 457 (1964) (Aro II), "[t]he section
Unfortunately, the relevant pre-1952 cases are less clear than one might hope with respect to the question presented here. Before 1952, both the conduct now covered by § 271(b) (induced infringement) and the conduct now addressed by § 271(c) (sale of a component of a patented invention) were viewed as falling within the overarching concept of "contributory infringement." Cases in the latter category —i.e., cases in which a party sold an item that was not itself covered by the claims of a patent but that enabled another party to make or use a patented machine, process, or combination—were more common.
The pre-1952 case law provides conflicting signals regarding the intent needed in such cases. In an oft-cited decision, then-Judge Taft suggested that it was sufficient if the seller of the component part intended that the part be used in an invention that happened to infringe a patent. He wrote that it was "well settled that where one makes and sells one element of a combination covered by a patent with the intention and for the purpose of bringing about its use in such a combination he is guilty of contributory infringement." Thomson-Houston Elec. Co. v. Ohio Brass Co., 80 F. 712, 721 (C.A.6 1897).
On the other hand, this Court, in Henry v. A.B. Dick Co., 224 U.S. 1, 32 S.Ct. 364, 56 S.Ct. 645 (1912), overruled on other grounds, Motion Picture Patents Co. v. Universal Film Mfg. Co., 243 U.S. 502, 37 S.Ct. 416, 61 S.Ct. 871 (1917), stated that "if the defendants [who were accused of contributory infringement] knew of the patent and that [the direct infringer] had unlawfully made the patented article . . . with the intent and purpose that [the direct infringer] should use the infringing article . . . they would assist in her infringing use." 224 U.S., at 33, 32 S.Ct. 364 (emphasis added and deleted).
While both the language of § 271(b) and the pre-1952 case law that this provision was meant to codify are susceptible to conflicting interpretations, our decision in Aro II resolves the question in this case. In Aro II, a majority held that a violator of § 271(c) must know "that the combination for which his component was especially designed was both patented and infringing," 377 U.S., at 488, 84 S.Ct. 1526, and as we explain below, that conclusion compels this same knowledge for liability under § 271(b).
As noted above, induced infringement was not considered a separate theory of indirect liability in the pre-1952 case law. Rather, it was treated as evidence of "contributory infringement," that is, the aiding and abetting of direct infringement by another party. See Lemley, Inducing Patent Infringement, 39 U.C.D.L.Rev. 225, 227 (2005). When Congress enacted § 271, it separated what had previously been regarded as contributory infringement into two categories, one covered by § 271(b) and the other covered by § 271(c).
Aro II concerned § 271(c), which states in relevant part:
This language contains exactly the same ambiguity as § 271(b). The phrase "knowing [a component] to be especially made or especially adapted for use in an infringement" may be read to mean that a violator must know that the component is "especially adapted for use" in a product that happens to infringe a patent. Or the phrase may be read to require, in addition, knowledge of the patent's existence.
This question closely divided the Aro II Court. In a badly fractured decision, a
Four Justices disagreed with this interpretation and would have held that a violator of § 271(c) need know only that the component is specially adapted for use in a product that happens to infringe a patent. See id., at 488-490, n. 8, 84 S.Ct. 1526. These Justices thought that this reading was supported by the language of § 271(c) and the pre-1952 case law, and they disagreed with the inference drawn by the majority from the amendment of § 271(c)'s language. Ibid.
While there is much to be said in favor of both views expressed in Aro II, the "holding in Aro II has become a fixture in the law of contributory infringement under [section] 271(c)," 5 R. Moy, Walker on Patents § 15:20, p. 15-131 (4th ed.2009)— so much so that SEB has not asked us to overrule it, see Brief for Respondent 19, n. 3. Nor has Congress seen fit to alter § 271(c)'s intent requirement in the nearly half a century since Aro II was decided. In light of the "`special force'" of the doctrine of stare decisis with regard to questions of statutory interpretation, see John R. Sand & Gravel Co. v. United States, 552 U.S. 130, 139, 128 S.Ct. 750, 169 L.Ed.2d 591 (2008), we proceed on the premise that § 271(c) requires knowledge of the existence of the patent that is infringed.
Based on this premise, it follows that the same knowledge is needed for induced infringement under § 271(b). As noted, the two provisions have a common origin in the pre-1952 understanding of contributory infringement, and the language of the two provisions creates the same difficult interpretive choice. It would thus be strange to hold that knowledge of the relevant patent is needed under § 271(c) but not under § 271(b).
Accordingly, we now hold that induced infringement under § 271(b) requires knowledge that the induced acts constitute patent infringement.
Returning to Pentalpha's principal challenge, we agree that deliberate indifference to a known risk that a patent exists is not the appropriate standard under § 271(b). We nevertheless affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals because the evidence in this case was plainly sufficient to support a finding of Pentalpha's knowledge under the doctrine of willful blindness.
The doctrine of willful blindness is well established in criminal law. Many criminal statutes require proof that a defendant acted knowingly or willfully, and courts applying the doctrine of willful blindness hold that defendants cannot escape the reach of these statutes by deliberately shielding themselves from clear evidence
This Court's opinion more than a century ago in Spurr v. United States, 174 U.S. 728, 19 S.Ct. 812, 43 S.Ct. 1150 (1899),
Given the long history of willful blindness and its wide acceptance in the Federal Judiciary, we can see no reason why the doctrine should not apply in civil lawsuits for induced patent infringement under 35 U.S.C. § 271(b).
Pentalpha further contends that this Court in Grokster did not accept the Solicitor General's suggestion that Grokster and StreamCast could be held liable for inducing the infringement of copyrights under a theory of willful blindness. Reply Brief for Petitioners 14 (citing Brief for United States, O.T.2004, No. 04-480, pp. 29-30). But the Court had no need to consider the doctrine of willful blindness in that case because the Court found ample evidence that Grokster and StreamCast were fully aware—in the ordinary sense of the term—that their file-sharing software was routinely used in carrying out the acts that constituted infringement (the unauthorized sharing of copyrighted works) and that these acts violated the rights of copyright holders. See 545 U.S., at 922-927, 937-940, 125 S.Ct. 2764.
While the Courts of Appeals articulate the doctrine of willful blindness in slightly different ways, all appear to agree on two basic requirements: (1) the defendant must subjectively believe that there is a high probability that a fact exists and (2) the defendant must take deliberate actions to avoid learning of that fact.
The test applied by the Federal Circuit in this case departs from the proper willful blindness standard in two important respects. First, it permits a finding of knowledge when there is merely a "known risk" that the induced acts are infringing. Second, in demanding only "deliberate indifference" to that risk, the Federal Circuit's test does not require active efforts by an inducer to avoid knowing about the infringing nature of the activities.
In spite of these flaws, we believe that the evidence when viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict for SEB is sufficient under the correct standard. The jury could have easily found that before April 1998 Pentalpha willfully blinded itself to the infringing nature of the sales it encouraged Sunbeam to make.
SEB's cool-touch fryer was an innovation in the U.S. market when Pentalpha copied it. App. to Brief for Respondent 49. As one would expect with any superior product, sales of SEB's fryer had been growing for some time. Ibid. Pentalpha knew all of this, for its CEO and president, John Sham, testified that, in developing a product for Sunbeam, Pentalpha performed "market research" and "gather[ed] information as much as possible." App. 23a. Pentalpha's belief that SEB's fryer embodied advanced technology that would be valuable in the U.S. market is evidenced by its decision to copy all but the cosmetic features of SEB's fryer.
Also revealing is Pentalpha's decision to copy an overseas model of SEB's fryer. Pentalpha knew that the product it was designing was for the U.S. market, and Sham—himself a named inventor on numerous U.S. patents, see id., at 78a-86a— was well aware that products made for overseas markets usually do not bear U.S. patent markings, App. in No.2009-1099 etc. (CA Fed.), pp. A-1904 to A-1906. Even more telling is Sham's decision not to inform the attorney from whom Pentalpha sought a right-to-use opinion that the product to be evaluated was simply a knockoff of SEB's deep fryer. On the facts of this case, we cannot fathom what motive Sham could have had for withholding this information other than to manufacture a claim of plausible deniability in the event that his company was later accused of patent infringement. Nor does Sham's testimony on this subject provide any reason to doubt that inference. Asked whether the attorney would have fared better had he known of SEB's design, Sham was nonresponsive. All he could say was that a patent search is not an "easy job" and that is why he hired attorneys to perform them. App. 112a.
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The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit is
Justice KENNEDY, dissenting.
The Court is correct, in my view, to conclude that 35 U.S.C. § 271(b) must be read in tandem with § 271(c), and therefore that to induce infringement a defendant must know "the induced acts constitute patent infringement." Ante, at 2068.
Yet the Court does more. Having interpreted the statute to require a showing of knowledge, the Court holds that willful blindness will suffice. This is a mistaken step. Willful blindness is not knowledge; and judges should not broaden a legislative proscription by analogy. See United States v. Jewell, 532 F.2d 697, 706 (C.A.9 1976) (en banc) (Kennedy, J., dissenting) ("When a statute specifically requires knowledge as an element of a crime, however, the substitution of some other state of mind cannot be justified even if the court deems that both are equally blameworthy") In my respectful submission, the Court is incorrect in the definition it now adopts; but even on its own terms the Court should remand to the Court of Appeals to consider in the first instance whether there is sufficient evidence of knowledge to support the jury's finding of inducement.
The Court invokes willful blindness to bring those who lack knowledge within § 271(b)'s prohibition. Husak & Callender, Wilful Ignorance, Knowledge, and the "Equal Culpability" Thesis: A Study of the Deeper Significance of the Principle of Legality, 1994 Wis. L.Rev. 29, 35; see also L. Alexander & K. Ferzan, Crime and Culpability: A Theory of Criminal Law 34-35 (2009) (cautioning against the temptation to "distort" cases of willful blindness "into cases of knowledge"); G. Williams, Criminal Law: The General Part § 57, p. 157 (2d ed.1961). The Court's definition of willful blindness reveals this basic purpose. One can believe that there is a "high probability" that acts might infringe a patent but nonetheless conclude they do not infringe. Ante, at 2070; see also ibid. (describing a willfully blind defendant as one "who can almost be said to have actually known the critical facts"). The alleged inducer who believes a device is noninfringing cannot be said to know otherwise.
The Court justifies its substitution of willful blindness for the statutory knowledge requirement in two ways, neither of which is convincing.
First, the Court appeals to moral theory by citing the "traditional rationale" that willfully blind defendants "are just as culpable as those who have actual knowledge." Ante, at 2063. But the moral question is a difficult one. Is it true that the lawyer who knowingly suborns perjury is no more culpable than the lawyer who avoids learning that his client, a criminal defendant, lies when he testifies that he was not the shooter? See Hellman, Willfully Blind for Good Reason, 3 Crim. L. & Philosophy 301, 305-308 (2009); Luban, Contrived Ignorance, 87 Geo. L.J. 957 (1999). The answer is not obvious. Perhaps the culpability of willful blindness depends on a person's reasons for remaining blind. E.g., ibid. Or perhaps only the person's justification for his conduct is relevant. E.g., Alexander & Ferzan, supra,
Second, the Court appeals to precedent, noting that a "similar concept" to willful blindness appears in this Court's cases as early as 1899. Ante, at 2069. But this Court has never before held that willful blindness can substitute for a statutory requirement of knowledge. Spurr v. United States, 174 U.S. 728, 735, 19 S.Ct. 812, 43 S.Ct. 1150 (1899), explained that "evil design may be presumed if the [bank] officer purposefully keeps himself in ignorance of whether the drawer has money in the bank or not, or is grossly indifferent to his duty in respect to the ascertainment of that fact." The question in Spurr was whether the defendant's admitted violation was willful, and with this sentence the Court simply explained that wrongful intent may be inferred from the circumstances. It did not suggest that blindness can substitute for knowledge. Neither did Turner v. United States, 396 U.S. 398, 90 S.Ct. 642, 24 L.Ed.2d 610 (1970), or Leary v. United States, 395 U.S. 6, 89 S.Ct. 1532, 23 L.Ed.2d 57 (1969). As the Court here explains, both cases held only that certain statutory presumptions of knowledge were consistent with due process. Ante, at 2069-2070. And although most Courts of Appeals have embraced willful blindness, counting courts in a circuit split is not this Court's usual method for deciding important questions of law.
The Court appears to endorse the willful blindness doctrine here for all federal criminal cases involving knowledge. It does so in a civil case where it has received no briefing or argument from the criminal defense bar, which might have provided important counsel on this difficult issue.
There is no need to invoke willful blindness for the first time in this case. Facts that support willful blindness are often probative of actual knowledge. Circumstantial facts like these tend to be the only available evidence in any event, for the jury lacks direct access to the defendant's mind. The jury must often infer knowledge from conduct, and attempts to eliminate evidence of knowledge may justify such inference, as where an accused inducer avoids further confirming what he already believes with good reason to be true. The majority's decision to expand the statute's scope appears to depend on the unstated premise that knowledge requires certainty, but the law often permits probabilistic judgments to count as knowledge. Cf. Connecticut Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Lathrop, 111 U.S. 612, 620, 4 S.Ct. 533, 28 S.Ct. 536 (1884) (Harlan, J.) ("[B]eing founded on actual observation, and being consistent with common experience and the ordinary manifestations of the condition of the mind, it is knowledge, so far as the human intellect can acquire knowledge, upon such subjects").
The instant dispute provides a case in point. Pentalpha copied an innovative fryer. The model it copied bore no U.S. patent markings, but that could not have been a surprise, for Pentalpha knew that a fryer purchased in Hong Kong was unlikely to bear such markings. And Pentalpha failed to tell the lawyer who ran a patent search that it copied the SEB fryer. These facts may suggest knowledge that Pentalpha's fryers were infringing, and perhaps a jury could so find.
For these reasons, and with respect, I dissent.
The italicized language above may suggest that it was necessary to show that the defendants had notice of Neostyle's patent rights. See also Tubular Rivet & Stud Co. v. O'Brien, 93 F. 200, 203 (CC Mass. 1898) ("a necessary condition of the defendant's guilt is his knowledge of the complainant's patent").