The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit overturned a ruling against the military that will spare the Army millions in damages and royalties. Last year the Court of Federal Claims found that the Army owed Liberty Ammunition damages and royalties for patent infringement. This reverses that decision.
The Army has been developing new rifle cartridges to replace their standard infantry rounds for several years. Called the M855A1 and M80A1 Enhanced Performance Rounds, the new cartridges use a two-piece core and reverse-jacketed construction. Liberty claimed the bullet design was their intellectual property.
The lower court agreed. In January 2015 the Court of Federal Claims awarded Liberty Ammunition $15.6 million in damages. The court also said that the government would have to pay a 1.4-cent royalty for every round they produce through 2027. Even though the cartridges are not in widespread use today, the Army still shoots millions of rounds a year in testing.
What the appeals court found was that the lower court did not properly interpret Liberty’s patent language. It holds the patent doesn’t cover any part of the new cartridge designs. Liberty also claimed that the government was in breach of contract with them but the court held that “no enforceable contract [was] ever formed between the parties.”
The appeals court rejected Liberty Ammunition’s patent claim based on a two key description of their bullet. One part of their patent describes their bullet design as having reduced contact with barrel rifling compared to conventional bullets.
“As the trial court correctly noted in this case, there are no clues within [the claim] as to what the area of contact has been reduced from,” reads the decision (.pdf). “What constitutes a conventional projectile?”
Liberty compared the Army’s projectiles to a spread of other bullets but did not include the M855 or M80 rounds in their testing. When the government’s experts compared the new rounds to the rounds they were replacing, they showed that the enhanced projectiles had increased contact with the barrel, not reduced contact.
Liberty’s patent also described a bullet with “intermediate opposite ends,” describing a bullet with a front and rear section. The Army’s projectiles only have one exposed core component, the steel tip. The jacket fully contains the copper slug inside the bullet.
“Because the accused Army rounds meet neither the ‘intermediate opposite ends’ limitation nor the ‘reduced area of conduct’ limitation,” continues the ruling, “we hold that the government has not violated Liberty’s patent rights.”
Liberty Ammunition’s P.J. Marx met with Directorate of Combat Developments Chief of Small Arms Lt. Col. Glenn Dean in 2005 to discuss their bullet technology. However, Dean was not authorized to sign any non-disclosure contracts with them, and without proof that there was a violation of contract with the Army, the appellate court upheld the lower court’s finding that Liberty Ammunition cannot hold the Army accountable for breach of contract.
Although the Army is mum on many details surrounding the new cartridges, it has touted the new bullet designs as safer and more effective. The lead-free design is safer for soldiers with a lot of exposure to ammo. And the ammo is said to out-perform existing M855 and M80 cartridges.
The new cartridges are supposed to be more effective and accurate, but they may cause more wear on the guns that shoot it. They run at higher pressures and temperatures, but could be the future for U.S. military projectiles.