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Causation and Harm in a Multicomponent World

On September 17, 2015, the Federal Circuit issued another decision in the epic Apple v. Samsung smartphone war. This was the fourth court decision in the ongoing saga to deal with injunctions. Apple IV explained the level of proof necessary to satisfy the “causal nexus” requirement for obtaining an injunction. This requirement had emerged as a response to patent litigation involving products with thousands of features, the vast majority of which are unrelated to the asserted patent. To prove a causal nexus, patentees seeking an injunction have to do more than just show that the infringing product caused the patentee irreparable harm. The harm must be specifically attributable to the infringing feature. In Apple IV, the Federal Circuit noted that proving causation was “nearly impossible” in these multicomponent cases. The court decided to water down the causal nexus requirement, saying that it was enough for Apple to show that the infringing features were “important” and customers sought these particular features.

This lower standard is an ill‐advised mistake that leaves multicomponent product manufacturers more susceptible to patent holdup. My critique takes two parts. First, I argue that a single infringing feature rarely, if ever, “causes” consumers to buy the infringer’s multicomponent products. The minor features at issue in Apple IV vividly illustrate this point. Thus, the new causal nexus standard does not accurately reflect how causation and harm operate in a multicomponent world. Second, I explain why the court was so willing to accept such little evidence of real injury. It improperly applied notions of traditional property law to patents. Specifically, the court viewed patent infringement as harmful in and of itself, regardless of any concrete consequences. This view may resonate for other forms of property where an owner’s rights are paramount and a trespass is considered offensive in and of itself. But the same concepts do not apply to patent law where the Supreme Court has consistently said that private interests must take a back seat to the public good. Based on these principles, the courts should restore the “causal nexus” requirement and not presume causation.