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By Lisa M. Campbell, James V. Aidala, and Margaret R. Graham

In a two-page order issued on April 10, 2017, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina granted in part a motion for summary judgment filed by “me-too” registrants, Willowood, LLC, Willowood USA, LLC, Willowood Azoxystrobin, LLC, and Willowood Limited (Defendants), regarding Syngenta Crop Protection, LLC’s (Plaintiff) claims of copyright infringement.  Syngenta Crop Protection, LLC v. Willowood, LLC, Case No. 1:15-CV-00274.  The claims at issue (Counts V and VI of Plaintiff’’s complaint) were based on the Defendants’ use of Syngenta’s label.  The court stated that it was granting this part of Defendants’ motion “because the Federal Insecticide Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) precludes copyright protection for the required elements of pesticide labels . . . of me-too registrants.”

Counts V and VI of Plaintiff’s complaint stated that Defendant copied and used substantial portions of Syngenta’s copyrighted work, and that this infringement is “willful and knowing.”  The Defendants’ motion for summary judgment stated with regard to the copyright infringement counts of the complaint:

  • Counts V and VI fail as a matter of law because Defendants’ labels comply with applicable federal regulations and contain language that is mandated by federal law.  Moreover, under settled law, the portions of Plaintiff’s labels that Plaintiff asserts Defendants have copied are not entitled to federal copyright protection.  Finally, to the extent that any portions of Plaintiff’s labels are entitled to copyright protection, Defendants’ copying is permitted under the fair use doctrine.  

The order states that “in enacting FIFRA, Congress intended narrow exception to copyright protection for the required elements of pesticide labels as against me-too registrants.”  The court expressly rejects the lengthy 2005 decision issued by the District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, which reached a different conclusion in a similar case, stating that it finds the analysis in that decision “unconvincing.”  FMC Corp. v. Control Solutions, Inc., 369 F. Supp. 2d 539, 555-71 (E.D. Pa. 2005).  The court states:  “FIFRA contemplates that a ‘me-too’ applicant will copy from the original pesticide label in ways that would otherwise infringe a copyright.”

Of interest, the court states that its grant of the summary judgment motion with respect to the copyright claims does not need to take into account an expert report or declarations by, among others, former EPA Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP) officials Debra Edwards and Lois Rossi, filed by Defendants because “the Court is granting the summary judgment motion on legal grounds unrelated to the proffered evidence.” 

Plaintiff filed its complaint on March 27, 2015.  The complaint included seven counts against Defendants:  the infringement of four patents in violation of 35 U.S.C. § 271(a) (Counts I-IV), the two copyright infringement counts (Counts V-VI), and a violation of the Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act (N.C. Gen. Stat § 75-1.1) (Count VII).  Count VII of the complaint was dismissed on August 12, 2016, and on March 24, 2017, the court granted Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment regarding the infringement of two of the four patents; a decision on the infringement of the remaining two patents is still pending.

Commentary

This opinion, which squarely rejects the 2005 conclusion of another district court, is likely to be of controversy and is the most recent decision in a long-standing debate on this issue between basic registrants and me-too registrants.  EPA in the past has appeared to side with the me-too registrants.  For example, in an August 3, 2005, letter to the Chemical Producers and Distributors Association (CPDA), written in response to the FMC decision, EPA stated that it “has been the practice of [OPP] since the enactment of FIFRA section 3(c)(7)(a) in 1978 to strongly encourage ‘me-too’ product labels to be identical or substantially similar to the labels of the products on which their registrations are based.”  In that letter, EPA stated further:  “Conveying application instructions and safety messages for similar products in different ways increases the likelihood that the product will be misused.”  EPA at the time noted that there were over 650 mostly “me-too” products for just one herbicide (2,4,-D) -- and that having 650 products each having to say some of the required use instructions differently would be impossible.

Nonetheless, some elements of the label might be viewed as proprietary -- the “look and feel” of a product label, perhaps certain fonts, and trademarked product name (as opposed to the active ingredient name).  It remains to be seen whether the April 10, 2017, order is the last judicial word on this subject or whether the issue will continue to be litigated.  It is an issue that all registrants should monitor closely.