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19 December 2019AmericasRory O'Neill

Fed Circuit says warning labels could be protectable by copyright

Syngenta will be allowed to raise claims that Willowood infringed its copyright by copying warning labels on pesticides, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled yesterday, December 18.

The US District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina previously dismissed the claims on summary judgment.

The dispute arose after Willowood applied for expedited review of a generic of Syngenta pesticide products.

Syngenta sued Willowood for patent and copyright infringement. On the copyright claims, Syngenta argued that Willowood copied the warning labels, which it said were protected under US copyright law.

According to the district court, the labels comprised of warnings required under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), as well as by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations.

Willowood had successfully argued before the North Carolina court that extending copyright protection to Syngenta’s warning labels “would make subsequent labelling practically impossible”.

The global pesticides manufacturer also contended that, in any case, the language contained in the warning labels was so commonplace in the industry that it should not qualify for copyright protection.

The district court dismissed Syngenta’s claims on the grounds that FIFRA “precludes copyright protection for the required elements of pesticide labels as against the labels of [generic] registrants”.

In yesterday’s ruling, the Federal Circuit held that the district court’s dismissal of the copyright claims on summary judgment was premature.

According to the Federal Circuit, FIFRA does not preclude a generic product from bearing an “independently composed label that relies solely on unprotected facts, concepts, and methods derived from the registered label” [original emphasis].

The Federal Circuit said copyright law already contained a number of checks and balances that would prevent protection of warning labels under copyright from going too far.

In the judgment, the appeals court said US copyright law does not extend protection against copying when there are so few ways of expressing an idea that “protection of the expression would effectively accord protection to the idea itself”.

“Copyright law has its own solution for the constraints inherent in the expression of certain information contained in pesticide labels,” the ruling stated.

Willowood also argued that it was forced into copying Syngenta’s labels by EPA regulations. In particular, Willowood said it was blocked by the EPA from restating a four-table column on the Syngenta label into narrative form.

The Federal Circuit said this element of the label could, given the circumstances, be permitted under the fair use doctrine.

The decision also held that the district court erred in “imposing a single-entity requirement on the performance of a patented process,” but affirmed all other aspects of the judgment.

The Federal Circuit remanded the case back to the district court for further proceedings consistent with yesterday’s ruling.

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