The International Trade Commission (ITC) received a lot of media attention in December of 2023 due to the patent dispute between Apple and Masimo resulting in a temporary ban on the importation and sale of certain models of the Apple Watch. While many people are familiar with State and Federal courts, most people are not familiar with ITC so Foresight created this primer to better understand the role of the ITC in patent disputes.
The ITC stands as a critical resource for patent holders, offering a unique avenue to counter patent infringements by preventing the importation of infringing products at U.S. ports of entry. However, the ITC’s procedures are distinct from those of Federal courts where patent disputes are normally litigated, demanding a nuanced understanding, especially for startups.
Filing a Complaint and Building Your Case
Initiating an ITC investigation is akin to commencing a lawsuit in Federal court. A formal complaint, known as a Section 337 action, is submitted, alleging that products arriving in the U.S. violate a valid patent. Simultaneously, the complaint must demonstrate the presence of a “domestic industry” linked to the allegedly infringed patented products.
Proving a “domestic industry” involves showcasing substantial investments in areas like labor, facilities, or research and development that support both the infringing products and the complainant’s own products. Following the complaint, the ITC evaluates whether to commence an investigation, typically within 30 days. Once initiated, the investigation becomes official and is documented in the Federal Register. Concurrently, any ongoing court cases dealing with the same issues and involving the same parties are temporarily paused during the ITC’s investigation.
The Role of the Judge and Special Staff
Throughout the investigation, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) assumes a central role as the fact-finder. The ALJ presides over hearings, issues decisions on motions, and substantially influences the investigation’s course. Adding to the complexity is the “Staff,” an attorney appointed from the Office of Unfair Import Investigations (OUII), who maintains an independent role during the investigation.
Timetables and Procedural Rules
The ITC strives for expedited investigations, determining an ultimate “target date” for the final decision, usually within 16 months of commencement. The ALJ establishes a procedural schedule encompassing deadlines for various aspects such as discovery, claim interpretation, motions, and hearings.
Collecting Evidence and Safeguarding Sensitive Information
After the investigation begins, both parties embark on evidence gathering, adhering to the established schedule. They employ tools like questions, document requests, and interviews. It is worth noting that in the ITC, responses to discovery requests must be provided within a shorter timeframe, just 10 days, in contrast to the more extended periods typically allowed in standard court proceedings. Renowned for its efficiency, an ITC investigation often concludes in months rather than the year or more typical in district court cases.
To safeguard sensitive information revealed during discovery, protective orders are issued, requiring attorneys to adhere to specific guidelines. Confidential business information (CBI) remains accessible only to specific individuals, including outside lawyers, experts, the Staff, ALJ, and the Commission.
Hearings and Witness Testimonies
ITC hearings depart significantly from traditional court trials. A jury is absent, and the ALJ serves as the fact-finder. Additionally, many ALJs opt for written witness statements instead of live testimony, with cross-examinations conducted during the hearing.
Initial and Final Decisions and Post-Investigation Remedies
Following the hearing and post-hearing arguments, the ALJ delivers an initial determination (ID). This document determines whether a violation of Section 337 occurred, based on evidence and the presence of a domestic industry. It also scrutinizes patent claims individually. Once the ITC’s determination has been finalized, and if a violation is established, remedies specified in the final determination (FD) become accessible.
Typically, the ITC offers exclusion orders or cease and desist orders. Exclusion orders direct U.S. Customs and Border Protection to block infringing products at ports of entry, with two types available – general (applicable to all infringing products) and limited (specific to identified manufacturers or importers). Cease and desist orders prohibit respondents from selling infringing products already within the U.S.
Presidential Review and Appellate Processes
Given that the ITC is a government agency, the President reviews exclusion orders within 60 days of the FD’s issuance. If no action is taken during this period, the ITC’s decision becomes final. Subsequently, either party can launch an appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
The ITC is an important forum for startups to become familiar with due to the impact of an exclusion order. Patent infringement is a common issue that startups are dealing with, the ITC is an important venue to addressing infringement involving products imported into the U.S. For a recent example of the role of the ITC in patent disputes and the impact of an exclusion order, please see our next blog focused on the ITC dispute between Apple and Masimo.