Can a YouTube Video Invalidate a Patent? It’s Certainly Possible

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One of the most common defenses to patent infringement is that the asserted patent is invalid. The reasons for invalidity regularly range from lack of utility, to incorrect inventorship, and even to fraud (as I’ve recently written about). Often, the defendant asserts that the patent is invalid for lack of novelty or non-obviousness–pointing to some piece of evidence that the defendant says conclusively shows that the invention was already in the public domain before the plaintiff even applied for the patent. That evidence is called invalidating “prior art.”

Prior art can spell the unexpected demise of an otherwise valid patent, and it comes in many forms. For several decades, published prior art (not to be confused with prior art in the form of prior uses or sales) consisted of already-existing patents (and applications), trade journals, drawings, articles, websites, standards, whitepapers, etc. But Congress expanded the scope of published prior art dramatically in passing the America Invents Act in 2012. Whereas before prior art consisted merely of “printed publications,” post-AIA, prior art also encompasses things that are “otherwise available to the public.”

The larger–and more modern–universe of possible published prior art is easy to imagine. For example, prior art references are no longer limited to traditional publications and documentary evidence. Instead, additional forms of multimedia come into play–which is fitting in today’s multimedia-packed times. Videos, movies, broadcasts, and recordings all now qualify as prior art, so long as they are available to the public.

But despite this expansion, litigants have not yet fully taken advantage of the change. There have been a few recent uses of video as prior art, such as the iconic iPhone keynote speech made by the late Steve Jobs demonstrating a technology described in an Apple patent. Ironically, in commenting on the “bounce-back” effect that was the subject of the patent, Steve Jobs stated, “boy have we patented it.” But Apple failed to patent it fast enough after the speech.

Samsung used clips from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to argue that Apple’s design patent for the shape of a tablet was invalidating prior art.

Apple really seems to be taking the brunt of video prior art challenges.

Just one week ago, a Federal district judge in the Northern District of Florida addressed–apparently for the first time–whether a YouTube video could constitute prior art. The court, in HVLPO2, LLC v. Oxygen Frog, LLC, 4:16-CV-336 (MW/CAS) (Dkt. No. 133), held that a YouTube video can constitute prior art and that YouTube videos are “sufficiently accessible to the public interested in the art.” Not exactly a groundbreaking finding to someone of my generation, who grew up with YouTube and the internet. Indeed, the USPTO’s own training guides (slide 15) specifically state that YouTube videos are a perfectly acceptable form of prior art. The USPTO has stated that videos qualified prior to the AIA, but there is conflicting authority.

The plaintiff in HVLPO2 had argued that the particular YouTube video in question was uploaded on a random account, so no one interested in the art would have found it. The court (in an order most likely written by the clerk in this section) pushed back in eccentric fashion, stating:

It appears that Plaintiff is unfamiliar with how YouTube works. A familiar user would know that you don’t need to search for a particular channel to watch the videos uploaded on it. For example, if you want to watch a video of a cat skateboarding, you can search “cat skateboarding”; you don’t need to know that it might have been “CatLady83” who uploaded the video you end up watching.

The court held that the YouTube video in question appeared within the first 20 videos when using appropriate search terms on the site. “Surely, the effort involved in composing a basic search query and scrolling down the page a few times does not exceed the ‘reasonable diligence’ that the law expects of a hypothetical prior art subject.” I couldn’t agree more, and I recommend this fun cat skateboarding video:

But even though most YouTube videos are generally accessible, not all are available to the public. For example, YouTube videos may be “private” or “unlisted,” potentially removing them from the “otherwise available to the public” category or at least undermining the argument for their accessibility. Thus, as even the court in HVLPO2 noted, the defendant still has to prove the existence of public access to the video prior to the applicable date. This can be accomplished by proffering screenshots of the video in the browser and evidence of that video’s publication date (which is disclosed on the YouTube website and many other video sharing platforms).

Besides the above, there are few other examples of videos (online or otherwise) being used as prior art. This is probably due in part to the current difficulty of searching the vast amount of video and audio–as opposed to text, for example–available on the internet. But as computer learning gets better and better, I expect audiovisual prior art will play a bigger role in both patent prosecution and litigation, so long as that prior art is “otherwise available to the public.”

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