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What should you do when you become aware of the existence of a third party patent that claims subject matter possibly related to your company’s product? If you take no action to timely investigate the patent, and the product is subsequently held to infringe the patent at trial, the company may be at risk of a court finding that the infringement was willful and assessing enhanced damages. To mitigate this risk, “the law of willful infringement… requires prudent, ethical, legal and commercial actions” on which basis “a prudent person would have had sound reason to believe that the patent was not infringed or was invalid or unenforceable, and would be so held if litigated.” SIR International, Inc. v. Advanced Technology Laboratories, Inc., 127 F.3d 1462 (Fed. Cir. 1997).

Written opinions of counsel are gaining renewed interest as a valuable tool to limit liability for willful patent infringement. A patent opinion that is competently written by a registered patent attorney sets forth the factual and legal basis for finding a patent not infringed, invalid, and/or unenforceable. Although a patent opinion is not required to unequivocally state that the patent is not infringed, invalid, and/or unenforceable, the opinion must be reasonable and prudent. However, to be effective, the timing of the rendered patent opinion may be critical.

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