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It’s that time of year when seemingly every blog and online publication posts year-end “listicles,” and, for better or worse, we are no exception. It’s more difficult for us, though, because as engineers and intellectual property attorneys, we prefer objective analysis. “Biggest,” “best,” and other superlatives are invariably laden with subjective judgment.

In a year filled with important intellectual property developments, we have picked three that stand out. You can decide for yourself whether they were the “biggest” or “best.”

A Web Stretched Too Thinly

First, in June, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the 20-year term on U.S. patent protection. The Court in Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment Inc. concluded that the inventor and patent holder of a toy that launched “webs” of pressurized foam string was not entitled to further licensing payments from Marvel Entertainment after the patent expired in 2010. Stephen Kimble, the inventor, negotiated the licensing agreement with Marvel after suing them in 1997 for infringing his patent with a “Spider-Man” branded toy that launched “webs” in a manner similar to Kimble’s invention.

The national media was entertained by the numerous “Spider-Man” references in the majority opinion written by Justice Elena Kagan.

Lanham Act 7, Washington Redskins 0, but Slants Win in Overtime

Second, in July, the National Football League’s Washington Redskins lost federal trademark protection when Judge Gerald Bruce Lee ruled that the team’s name disparaged Native Americans and ordered the trademark’s cancellation. In doing so, Lee affirmed an earlier decision by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, which had found the team’s name ineligible for the trademark protections of the Lanham Act.

The team immediately appealed the ruling, as the Redskins played on; their trademark registration remains in place during the appeals process (and the dispute didn’t prevent them from winning the woefully mediocre NFC East).

The prospects for the Redskins appeal may be improved by a mid-December ruling by the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The decision in the case over the name of the Asian-American rock band The Slants held that the Lanham Act’s “disparagement” clause violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Google’s Fairly Used “Snippets”

And lastly, in October, the Courts ruled that Google Books is legal. The Internet behemoth’s full-text book search service had spent most of its 10-year existence fending off a copyright lawsuit by the Authors Guild, a professional writers’ association that claimed Google was stealing its members’ intellectual property. McGraw-Hill, Simon & Schuster, and several other publishing companies had signed onto the Authors Guild suit.

A three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, however, found that Google’s scanning of more than 20 million books into the Google Books database was protected by the “Fair Use” provisions of U.S. copyright law. Key to the court’s ruling was Google’s practice of restricting public views of copyrighted book to so-called “snippet” views, which displayed only a few lines of the text that surrounded the search terms entered by a Google Books user.

“Snippet view … adds importantly to the highly transformative purpose of identifying books of interest to the searcher,” Judge Pierre Laval wrote for the court.

What IP developments do you feel should be included in our 2015 list? Use the comment section below to let us know.


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