A recent cases handed down by the United States Court of Appeals provides a good example that, even today, in an age where courts have largely abandoned formalism, yes, some legal documents still need to reflect precise words to express certain things and make certain things happen.
The case at issue, Omni Medsci, Inc. v. Apple Inc., stems from a lawsuit by a company called Omni Medsci, Inc. (“Omni”) against the Apple corporation, for patent infringement. Omni thus sought to avail itself of certain remedies that American patent law affords patent holders, when a third party uses their invention, once it’s been patented, without first obtaining a license to do so.
Unfortunately for Omni in this case, Apple was diligent about making its homework, and obtained a copy of the 1992 employment agreement of a university researcher. The rub? This agreement, which purported to transfer the invention (patent) rights of this inventor to the University of Michigan (the “University”), did so by using language which was, shall we say, less than ideal. Indeed, the clause of the employment agreement at issue supposed to transfer the intellectual property (“I.P.”) rights over the work of this employee (to the University), tried to do so by a somewhat ellipical sentence, to the effect that I.P. which resulted from research by this employee “shall be the property of the University,”. That’s right, no active verb, no present tense, just a statement of (apparent) fact that his work would (eventually) belong to the University. Oh ho.
The court of appeals agreed with Apple that this fell somewhat short of actually expressing an intent to assign I.P. rights right then and there, including because of the future tense and the fact that nowhere were the verbs “assigning” or “transferring” used in the key sentence. Rather than using usual phrasings like “assigns”, “agrees to assign” ou “does hereby grant title to…”, the University elected to use relatively convoluted and obscure language to express what could have been expressed plainly by using simple words that would adequately one’s intent to actually transfer I.P. on the spot. For the court, such language does NOT express an intent to transfer I.P., merely some sort of promise to eventually assign the signor’s rights, nothing more.
This being the case, the University did not possess the I.P. over the invention (patent) at issue when it purported to assign it to Omni. Classic case of: you can’t transfer something you don’t have. As a result, Omni is not the owner of the patent at issue and, thus, cannot legally sue Apple for infringement thereof. Checkmate.
Even though it may be a U.S. decision, this case nevertheless provides us with an excellent example of the fact that, yes, even in 2021, certain words DO matter, and should be used when attempting to effect certain things. Even though courts may, by and large, no longer get hang-up on formalities in legal documents, there remain certain essential things that will be required once you get in front of a judge. Eh, what do you know? Proper legal drafting is still important, who knew?