Christianson v. Colt Industries Operating Corp.

Decision Date19 August 1986
Docket NumberNo. 86-1145,86-1145
Citation230 USPQ 840,798 F.2d 1051
Parties, 230 U.S.P.Q. 840, 1986-2 Trade Cases 67,252 Charles R. CHRISTIANSON, and International Trade Services, Inc., a Massachusetts corporation, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. COLT INDUSTRIES OPERATING CORPORATION, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit

Anthony M. Radice, Parker, Auspitz, Neesemann & Delehanty, P.C., New York City, for defendant-appellant.

John Camerson McNett, Woodard, Weikart, Emhardt & Naughton, Indianapolis, Ind., for plaintiffs-appellees.

Before CUMMINGS, Chief Judge, BAUER, Circuit Judge, and ESCHBACH, Senior Circuit Judge.

ESCHBACH, Senior Circuit Judge.

The primary question we address in this appeal is whether this court has appellate jurisdiction over the dispute. For the reasons stated below, we will hold that the instant case "arises under" the patent laws of the United States and, therefore, that exclusive jurisdiction over the appeal from the district court's decision lies in the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit under 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1295. We will order the case transferred pursuant to 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1631.


In 1959, the defendant-appellant, Colt Industries Operating Corporation ("Colt") acquired a license from another company for sixteen patents and other rights relating to the seller's "AR-10" and "AR-15" rifles. Colt refined these designs and developed a weapon, known as the "M16," that was adopted by the United States Army in 1964 as its standard small-arms rifle. It remains the standard today. Colt granted the Army a manufacturing license to produce the weapon, and entered into contracts with various suppliers in the United States for the manufacture and sale of component parts of the rifle. The defendant also sells the M16 to non-military customers, such as law enforcement agencies, and to several foreign governments and has provided a number of foreign governments with manufacturing licenses; most of the latter agreements, however, have expired.

Colt produces several versions of the M16. In the course of refining the weapon, the company has obtained additional patents, some of which have been incorporated into the weapon. Many of these patents have expired. However, much of Colt's engineering work for the M16 was not for patents, but for the refinement of the specifications of the components of the rifle, because it was essential that all parts function effectively, be mass-producible, and remain interchangeable. Much of the work on the weapon has been devoted to the selection of materials and the development of tooling, testing, and manufacturing processes to control the tolerances of the rifle's parts.

Colt seeks to maintain the secrecy of these conventional (i.e., nonpatentable) techniques in a number of ways. It places proprietary legends on its drawings, which state that the information contained therein is owned by Colt and cannot be disclosed to third parties. In its contracts, Colt prohibits its suppliers and licensees from using the drawings outside the scope of their agreements and from disclosing the information to third parties. Colt also sends letters to its suppliers reminding them of their obligations. Its employees must agree not to disclose, even after they leave Colt, the confidential information they obtain while working for the defendant. The company has sent cease-and-desist letters and initiated legal proceedings against those parties it considered to be misappropriating its allegedly proprietary information.

Prior to the instant case, Colt filed in 1983 a suit in the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois against Springfield Armory, Inc., and a related corporation, Rock Island Armory, Inc., (referred to collectively as "Springfield"), to enjoin the performance of a contract Springfield had for the sale of M16-type rifles to El Salvador. Colt claimed that it would be irreparably damaged by Springfield's alleged infringement of Colt's patents and alleged unauthorized use of Colt's drawings and proprietary information, which Colt claimed were trade secrets and its exclusive property. Springfield sought to show that it had "reverse engineered" the weapon. After a hearing, the district court found that Springfield had simply copied Colt's proprietary documents and granted a preliminary injunction against Springfield.

After the injunction was issued, Colt added Charles Christianson (a former Colt employee) and Christianson's company, International Trade Services, Inc., (referred to collectively as "Christianson") as parties to the Springfield action on the ground that Christianson was the source of information for Springfield. Colt voluntarily dismissed its complaint against Christianson after the district court denied Colt's motion for a preliminary injunction against Christianson.

Springfield sought review of the preliminary injunction before the Federal Circuit. Springfield did not pursue the "reverse engineering" theory on appeal, but argued instead that, because the weapon could not be reverse engineered, Colt should have revealed the dimensions, tolerances, and specifications of the rifle in approximately 30 patent applications in order to satisfy the disclosure requirements of 35 U.S.C. Sec. 112. 1 The Federal Circuit stated that Springfield's Sec. 112 arguments, particularly those related to "best mode," "have an appearance of validity" (citing White Consolidated Industries, Inc. v. Vega Servo-Control, Inc., 713 F.2d 788 (Fed.Cir.1983)), but found that "the evidence of record is almost totally lacking in specifics." The court noted further:

[A]s we understand it, the numerous Colt patents covered parts of the M-16, so that, at most, a best mode of each would be for use in the M-16 rifle--not for the M-16 itself. This would require an analysis, patent by patent, of the specifications (trade secrets) alleged to be essential in practicing each invention and/or meeting the best mode requirement; also a showing of why each individual invention could not be practiced and/or the best mode requirement satisfied in the absence of such specifications; further, whether such specifications were in existence at the time the Colt patent applications were filed.

Thus, the Federal Circuit found that these facts would have to be developed further and in a brief unpublished order affirmed the preliminary injunction granted in favor of Colt. Colt Industries Operating Corp. v. Springfield Armory, Inc., 732 F.2d 168 (Fed.Cir.1984).

In the meantime, Christianson filed the instant action against Colt. Its complaint was not artfully drafted. Even a cursory examination of the pleading suggests that little attention was given to some rather important details. For example, in the prayer for relief under the antitrust claim the plaintiff asks for "trouble damages." In addition, given the complexity of the factual and legal questions presented, the complaint is astoundingly brief. Nonetheless, the following allegations emerge: Colt controls nearly all of the domestic and foreign manufacture, marketing, and sale of 5.56mm automatic assault and semi-automatic rifles that fall within the M16 designation and also controls the domestic and foreign market for the manufacture, marketing, and sale of M16 parts and accessories. Colt had licensed the United States government and others with respect to the patents held by Colt for the M16, but the licenses extended beyond the patents. In addition, the complaint alleged:

As of 1980, the basic patents with respect to the Colt rifle within the M-16 designation and many of the Colt improvement patents on such rifle within the M-16 designation had expired.

The validity of the Colt patents had been assumed throughout the life of the Colt patents through 1980. Unless such patents were invalid through the wrongful retention of proprietary information in contravention of United States Patent Law (35 U.S.C. Sec. 112), in 1980, when such patents expired, anyone "who has ordinary skill in the rifle-making art" is able to use the technology of such expired patents for which Colt earlier had a monopoly position for 17 years.

[Christianson] and anyone else has the right to manufacture, contract for the manufacture, supply, market and sell the M-16 and M-16 parts and accessories thereof at the present time.

Complaint paragraphs 17-19.

In 1976, prior to the expiration of the Colt patents, Christianson expended funds for tooling to be used in the manufacture of M16 parts and accessories, and Colt initially gave Christianson permission to produce these products. Until shortly before May of 1984, Christianson was engaged in the manufacture of M16 parts and accessories. However, according to the complaint:

Contrary to the permission extended to [Christianson] to sell Colt parts and accessories and in violation of the anti-trust laws of the United States ..., Colt has embarked upon a course of conduct to illegally extend its monopoly position with respect to the described patents and to prevent [Christianson] from engaging in any business with respect to parts and accessories of the M16....

Complaint p 22.

The complaint describes various actions taken by Colt, such as the sending of letters to actual and potential customers of Christianson to discourage them from dealing with Christianson and the filing of lawsuits to enforce its monopoly. In addition, it alleged that Colt:

[s]ent additional correspondence to customers and potential customers of [Christianson] asserting illegally its claimed rights over M-16 drawings, specifications and parts and accessories to the M-16, and falsely stating that "Colt's right" to proprietary data had been "consistently upheld in various courts."

Complaint p 22(c).

As a result of these activities, Christianson was driven out of business. Alleging that its demise caused a generalized injury "in the domestic and foreign marketplaces and assured Colt of...

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