Judge Hughes and the New § 101 Dichotomy

By Jason Rantanen

Enfish v. Microsoft (Fed. Cir. 2016) Download Enfish
Moore, Taranto, Hughes (author)

In re TLI Communications Patent Litigation (Fed. Cir. 2016) Download TLI
Panel: Dyk, Schall, Hughes (author)

This month’s decision in Enfish was an overnight sensation—almost literally, as mere days later the PTO issued the new examiner guidance to implement the decision that Dennis wrote about last week.  That guidance emphasizes the Federal Circuit’s recognition of Mayo Step-1 as a meaningful inquiry and focuses on particular aspects of Enfish that relate to that inquiry: comparisons to prior abstract idea determinations; a caution against operating at too high a level of abstraction of the claims, and the rejection of the tissue-paper argument that use of a computer automatically dooms the claim (it doesn’t).

Although receiving only light treatment in the guidance, in my view the critical analytical move in Enfish is more than just the court’s recognition of Mayo Step 1 as meaningful—it is the analytical framework that the Federal Circuit constructs that ultimately determines the outcome.  At its heart, Enfish contains a seemingly simple categorization scheme, one that offers the promise of a quick and easy way out of the § 101 maelstrom.  Yet, looking deeper, my sense is that it would be a mistake to rely too heavily on the Enfish framework as a universal solution, even in the computer technology space.

On its own terms, the Enfish framework sets up a choice between “whether the focus of the claims is on the specific asserted improvement in computer capabilitiesor, instead, on a process that qualifies as an “abstract idea” for which computers are invoked merely as a tool.”  Enfish Slip Op. at 11.  In other words, is the claimed invention something that makes a computer work better?  Or are computers merely being used to do another task?  If the former, the subject matter is patentable; if the latter, the claim must be subjected to Mayo Step-2.  This distinction sets up the ultimate conclusion in Enfish that the claims are not directed to an abstract idea and serves as the analytical difference between Enfish and In re TLI Patent Litigation, a subsequent opinion concluding that the challenged claims are not directed to patentable subject matter.

In Enfish, Judge Hughes introduced the “improvement in computer capabilities”/”invoked merely as a tool” dichotomy after rejecting the idea that “all improvements in computer-related technology are inherently abstract and, therefore, must be considered at step two.”  Id. In broad terms, the inquiry involves considering “whether the claims are directed to an improvement to computer functionality versus being directed to an abstract idea,” but the framework is made more concrete in the next sentence.  That sentence contains the language quoted above, a binary categorization whose importance grows as it is repeated throughout the remainder of the discussion of patentable subject matter:

  • “In this case [] the plain focus of the claims is on an improvement to computer functionality itself, not on economic or other tasks for which a computer is used in its ordinary capacity.”  Id. at 12.
  • “we find that the claims at issue in this appeal are not directed to an abstract idea within the meaning of Alice.  Rather, they are directed to a specific improvement to the way computers operate.”  Id.
  • “the claims here are directed to an improvement in the functioning of a computer.  In contrast, the claims at issue in Alice and Versata can readily be understood as imply adding conventional computer components to well-known business practices.”  Id. at 16.
  • “And unlike the claims here that are directed to a specific improvement to computer functionality, the patent ineligible claims at issue in other cases recited use of an abstract mathematical formula on any general purpose computer.”  Id. at 17.
  • “In other words, we are not faced with a situation where general-purpose computer components are added post-hoc to a fundamental economic practice or mathematical equation.  Rather, the claims are directed to a specific implementation of a solution to a problem in the software arts.  Id. at 18.

Central to the Enfish framework is a recognition and definition of what is not patentable subject matter.  The opinion does not try to fight the idea that there is some subject matter that is not patentable.  Instead, it acknowledges that there are limits on patentable subject matter and works with those limits.  Judge Hughes considers the precedents in this area and identifies them as fundamentally involving the use of a computer as a general-purpose tool.  By defining what is not patentable subject matter in this way, Judge Hughes is freed to identify some “other” that is outside that impermissible category: developments that improve on the operation of the computer itself. Here, although the claimed invention could conceivably be articulated as an abstract idea, placing it within the framework leads to only one outcome: it is an improvement in computer capability, and thus patentable subject matter.

But viewing Enfish as the end-all of abstract ideas analysis, while appealing, would a mistake.  Judge Hughes’ next patentable subject matter opinion, issued just a few days latter, suggests that there is more to the analysis than just mechanically applying the Enfish framework.  At first, In re TLI Patent Litigation starts out with the Enfish framework: that “a relevant inquiry at step one is ‘to ask whether the claims are directed to an improvement to computer functionality versus being directed to an abstract idea.'” TLI Slip Op. at 8, quoting Enfish.  In Enfish, he observed,:

“We contrasted claims ‘directed to an improvement in the functioning of a computer’ with claims ‘simply adding conventional computer components to well-known business practices,’ or claims reciting ‘use of an abstract mathematical formula on any general purpose computer,” or “a purely conventional computer implementation of a mathematical formula,’ or ‘generalized steps to be performed on a computer using conventional computer activity.'”

Id., quoting Enfish. Unlike in Enfish, however, “the claims here are not directed to a specific improvement to computer functionality.  Rather, they are directed to the use of conventional or generic technology in a nascent but well-known environment, without any claim that the invention reflects an inventive solution to any problem presented by combining the two.”  Id. 

In re TLI raises two additional points to consider, however.  First, in addition to defining what is not patentable subject matter, Judge Hughes articulates some characteristics of subject matter that is patentable: “a solution to a ‘technological problem’ as was the case in Diamond v. Diehr” or an “attempt to solve a challenge particular to the Internet.”  Id. at 10.  Left unclear is the meaning of this discussion: does one only get to the solution to a technological problem inquiry if the claims are not directed to a specific improvement to computer functionality?  Or is the analysis more flexible than Enfish implies?

More significant are concerns about the bright-line nature of the Enfish approach.  While bright-line rules can be helpful, Bilski v. Kappos demonstrates the risk associated with their use in the patentable subject matter area.  Judge Hughes recognizes this concern in TLI, noting “the Supreme Court’s rejection of ‘categorical rules’ to decide subject matter eligibility.'”   Id.  The Federal Circuit will need to be careful to avoid becoming overly reliant on the Enfish framework, especially in areas where it does not fit well.  With the benefit of the last few years of experience, hopefully the Federal Circuit will be able to avoid this pitfall.  Even as this issue works its way out, however, I suspect to see the Enfish framework drawn upon heavily at the PTO and in district courts in the near future.

DTSA Litigation Updates

Universal Protection Services v. Thornburg et al, Docket No. 2:16-cv-00097 (N.D. Tex. May 19, 2016)

In this newly filed DTSA case, Universal Protection (a company providing security guards, etc.) has sued its former employee Thornburg for trade secret misappropriation (as well as various breach contract claims involving his non-compete agreement and breach of loyalty).  In the case, Thornburg apparently developed a good relationship as head of security for a customer (JBS) and decided to quit his job and start-up a competing company where he could charge the company less and make more money.  The primary trade-secret at issue here is apparently the pricing plan provided to JBS and the security plan (developed by Thornburg while at JBS).  [Read the complaint: UniversalProtectionServiceDTSA].



Apple v Samsung: Mooting the Injunction

In my recent update on Supreme Court patent cases I skipped over a new Samsung v. Apple petition since one Samsung v. Apple case has already been granted a writ of certiorari.  Although both cases involve smartphone patents, they are entirely separate procedurally.

  • Already PendingSamsung Electronics Co., Ltd. v. Apple Inc., No 15-777 (design patent damages calculation) (certiorari granted, merits briefing ongoing), appeal from Apple, Inc. v. Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd., 786 F.3d 983 (Fed. Cir. 2015)
  • Newly Filed: Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd.  v. Apple Inc., No 15-1386 (vacating injunction mooted by later opinion) (petition filed), appeal from Apple Inc. v. Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd., 809 F.3d 633 (Fed. Cir. 2015).

The new case itself involves a pair of appeals: In a 2015 decision, the Federal Circuit found that an injunction against Samsung to halt infringement was proper under the eBay standards. The first case did not, however, reach the merits issues involving patent validity and infringement. Then, in February 2016, the court reversed the jury verdict and held that all of the asserted claims were either invalid or not infringed.

The decision on appeal here is that first injunction decision that, up to now, the Federal Circuit has not expressly vacated (even though the underlying basis for the injunction has now been proven not to exist).  Thus, in its petition, Samsung asks simply that the Supreme Court vacate the Federal Circuit’s decision. Question presented:

Should the Court grant the petition, vacate the judgment below, and remand to dismiss the appeal as moot, in accordance with United States v. Munsingwear, Inc., 340 U.S. 36 (1950), where the Federal Circuit’s opinion requiring a permanent injunction is mooted by a later Federal Circuit opinion eliminating all basis for liability by holding two of the three patents at issue invalid and the other one not infringed?

The one big caveat here is that an en banc petition is still pending on the merits side and therefore is not moot. The petition merely glosses over this issue without offering any explanation as to why the Supreme Court shouldn’t just wait for the outcome of the en banc petition. Of course, Samsung understands all of this – and likely would have delayed the filing were it not for the looming deadline for its petition filing. [SamsungInjunctPetition]  To me, it seems that the Federal Circuit panel in the still pending validity/infringing case would permit a motion for stay of relief pendant lite. 

Apple’s En Banc request in the merits case (validity/infringement) is in the midst of briefing.  Apple’s basic argument is that the appellate panel unduly substituted its judgment for that of the jury:

After a thirteen-day trial and three-and-a-half days of deliberation, a jury found that Samsung’s smartphones infringed three Apple patents, confirmed the validity of Apple’s asserted patents, and awarded damages of nearly $120 million. The issues on appeal were primarily factual and subject to deferential substantial evidence review. Yet, in an unprecedented decision, the panel reversed nearly every aspect of the verdict that favored Apple. The panel reached that result by deciding the case on a different record than the jury had before it, and by shifting Samsung’s burden to prove invalidity to require instead that Apple prove validity.


New Guidance to Examiners: Follow Enfish and TLI.

by Dennis Crouch

The Enfish case is important in the way that it gives teeth to step-one of the Alice/Mayo test for subject matter eligibility.  Notably, the unanimous panel of Judges Moore, Taranto, and Hughes (author) held that neither the software-implemented data structure nor its method of creation were “directed to a patent-ineligible abstract idea” and thus did not pass Step-1 of Alice/Mayo.  Prior courts usage of the “gist” analysis for Step-1 left many of us with the feeling that almost all inventions could be boiled-down to an ineligible concept.  Enfish rejects that conclusion and instead held that that Step-1 is designed as a meaningful test.

With quick-response, the USPTO has issued a set of examiner guidance – asking examiners to immediately begin implementing the Federal Circuit’s re-interpretation of Alice/Mayo.  The guidance also highlights the contrasting May 17 decision in TLI. The challenged claims in TLI involved recording, administration and archiving of digital images, and the appellate panel (again with Hughes as author) held that the claims were directed to the abstract idea of classifying and storing digital images in an organized manner.

The guidance is copied in full below, but I thought I would begin with the conclusion:

In summary, when performing an analysis of whether a claim is directed to an abstract idea (Step 2A), examiners are to continue to determine if the claim recites (i.e., sets forth or describes) a concept that is similar to concepts previously found abstract by the courts. The fact that a claim is directed to an improvement in computer-related technology can demonstrate that the claim does not recite a concept similar to previously identified abstract ideas.

I would suggest that the PTO would have more accurately followed the Enfish guidance by affirmatively stating in its summary that an “improvement in computer-related technology” can include a software implementation as well as a new data structure.

In any event, these cases are tough ones for the Federal Circuit because they require line-drawing that is inherently policy based and that lack full guidance from the USPTO.  However, it appears that the court is endeavoring to accomplish its task of providing improved guidance to the USPTO while simultaneously fully following binding Supreme Court precedent.

The holding in Enfish also offers additional support to the PTO’s initially questionable call of suggesting that examiners limit their abstract idea constructs to only concepts “similar to concepts previously found abstract by the courts.”

The Guidance in full:

On May 12, 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (Federal Circuit) in Enfish, LLC v. Microsoft Corp. held that the claimed database software designed as a “self-referential” table is patent eligible under 35 U.S.C. § 101 because it is not directed to an abstract idea. While the decision does not change the subject matter eligibility framework, it provides additional information and clarification on the inquiry for identifying abstract ideas (Step 2A of the subject matter eligibility examination guidelines).

In reaching its conclusion, the Federal Circuit highlighted several important points regarding the subject matter eligibility analysis, in particular regarding whether a claim is directed to an abstract idea (Step 2A). First, the court noted that when determining whether a claim is directed to an abstract idea, it is appropriate to compare the claim to claims already found to be directed to an abstract idea in a previous court decision. Second, the court emphasized that the “directed to” inquiry applies a filter to claims, when interpreted in view of the specification, based on whether their character as a whole is directed to a patent ineligible concept. Third, the Federal Circuit cautioned against describing a claim at a high level of abstraction untethered from the language of the claim when determining the focus of the claimed invention. Fourth, the court stated that an invention’s ability to run on a general purpose computer does not automatically doom the claim. The subject matter eligibility examination instructions, as set out in the 2014 Interim Eligibility Guidance, July 2015 Update, and May 4, 2016 memorandum to examiners, are consistent with these points.

The Federal Circuit in Enfish stated that certain claims directed to improvements in computerrelated technology, including claims directed to software, are not necessarily abstract (Step 2A). The court specifically noted that some improvements in computer-related technology, such as chip architecture or an LED display, when appropriately claimed, are undoubtedly not abstract. Explaining that software can make non-abstract improvements to computer technology just as hardware can, the court noted that claims directed to software, as opposed to hardware, also are not inherently abstract. Therefore, an examiner may determine that a claim directed to improvements in computer-related technology is not directed to an abstract idea under Step 2A of the subject matter eligibility examination guidelines (and is thus patent eligible), without the need to analyze the additional elements under Step 2B. In particular, a claim directed to an improvement to computer-related technology (e.g., computer functionality) is likely not similar to claims that have previously been identified as abstract by the courts.

The claims of the patents at issue in this case describe the steps of configuring a computer memory in accordance with a self-referential table, in both method claims and system claims that invoke 35 U.S.C. § 112(t). The court asked whether the focus of the claims is on the specific asserted improvement in computer capabilities (i.e., the self-referential table for a computer database), or instead on a process that qualifies as an “abstract idea” for which computers are invoked merely as a tool. To make the determination of whether these claims are directed to an improvement in existing computer technology, the court looked to the teachings of the specification. Specifically, the court identified the specification’s teachings that the claimed invention achieves other benefits over conventional databases, such as increased flexibility, faster search times, and smaller memory requirements. It was noted that the improvement does not need to be defined by reference to “physical” components. Instead, the improvement here is defined by logical structures and processes, rather than particular physical features. The Federal Circuit stated that the Enfish claims were not ones in which general-purpose computer components are added after the fact to a fundamental economic practice or mathematical equation, but were directed to a specific implementation of a solution to a problem in the software arts, and concluded that the Enfish claims were thus not directed to an abstract idea (under Step 2A).

Closely following Enfish, the Federal Circuit decided TLI Communications LLC v. A. V. Automotive, LLC on May 17, 2016, which provides a contrast between non-abstract claims directed to an improvement to computer functionality and abstract claims that are directed, for example, to generalized steps to be performed on a computer using conventional computer activity. Specifically, the court stated that the TLI claims describe steps of recording, administration and archiving of digital images, and found them to be directed to the abstract idea of classifying and storing digital images in an organized manner (Step 2A). The court then found that the additional elements of performing these functions using a telephone unit and a server did not add significantly more to the abstract idea because they were well-understood, routine, conventional activities (Step 2B).

In summary, when performing an analysis of whether a claim is directed to an abstract idea (Step 2A), examiners are to continue to determine if the claim recites (i.e., sets forth or describes) a concept that is similar to concepts previously found abstract by the courts. The fact that a claim is directed to an improvement in computer-related technology can demonstrate that the claim does not recite a concept similar to previously identified abstract ideas.

We will continue to cover these issues in some depth over the next few weeks.

DTSA Litigation Begins

The first couple of DTSA lawsuits have been filed.

M.C. DEAN, INC. v. City of Miami Beach, Docket 16-cv-21731-CMA (S.D. Fla filed May 16, 2016) and Bonamar, Corp. v. Turkin and Supreme Crab, Docket 16-CV-21746 (S.D. Fla. filed May 16, 2016).

In M.C.Dean, the plaintiff is attempting to stop the Miami Beach from disclosing his payroll information to the local electric workers union. [Complaint: MC Dean v. City of Miami Beach]

In Bonamar, the crab-meat dealer is suing a major competitor after its VP jumped ship and started targeted undercutting of Bonamar’s prices. [Complaint: CrabCase]


Pending Supreme Court Patent Cases 2016 (May 18 Update)

by Dennis Crouch

It is now time to begin looking for an opinion in the Halo/Stryker regarding whether the Federal Circuit’s test for willful infringement is too rigid. Those cases were argued in February 2016.  We can also expect a decision in Cuozzo prior to the end June 2016.

Supplying Components Abroad: The Solicitor General has finally filed its brief in Life Tech v. Promega. The brief supports certiorari — but only for one of the two questions presented: namely,

whether a supplier can be held liable for providing ‘all or a substantial portion of the components of a patented invention’ from the United States when the supplier ships for combination abroad only a single commodity component of a multi-component invention

The patent in the case involves a DNA amplification kit used for personal identification.  And, although the allegedly infringing kids were made in the UK, one commodity-component (the Taq polymerase) was supplied from the U.S.  Focusing on the language of the statute, the Solicitor Generals argues that liability for export of a single component of a multi-component invention “is contrary to Section 271(f)’s text and structure, and it is inconsistent with the presumption against extraterritoriality.”  Separately, the brief argues that the Federal Circuit was correct in its holding that a party can actively induce itself – thus 271(f)(1) inducement does not require a third party to be induced. [USPromega CVSG Petition].

Post Grant Admin: I previously discussed GEA Process Engineering. That case involves the Flip-side of Cuozzo and asks whether an appeal can follow when the PTAB exceeds its authority by terminating an already instituted IPR proceeding?  The respondent (Steuben Foods) had previously waived its right to respond, but the Supreme Court has now requested a response.  That move makes certiorari more likely, but the result will depend upon the outcome in Cuozzo.

Attorney Fees: Newegg Inc. v. MacroSolve, Inc., No. 15-1369.  Professor Mark Lemley’s brief on behalf of Newegg asks that the attorney-fee framework of Octane Fitness actually be implemented. [NewEggPetition].  Although Octane Fitness gives district courts discretion in determining whether to award fees, Newegg argues that the E.D. Texas court improperly applied “a special, heightened burden of proof.”  The Supreme Court is currently considering the Kirtsaeng attorney fee case for copyright law. That decision may shed some light on the patent cases as well.

A new petition in Automotive Body Parts, No. 15-1314,  focuses on a question of civil procedure regarding a clerk’s transfer of a design patent case out of E.D.Tx in a manner that violated the local rules.  Here, the clerk transferred the case immediately after the judge ordered transfer even though the local rules call for a 21 day delay.  The case is rising through a petition for mandamus, but my view is that the petition fails to show why transfer is so harmful (except for the reality that patent plaintiffs are usually given more respect in E.D.Tx.).

The court was scheduled to discuss Cooper v. Lee at its May 12 conference. No action was taken following that conference – lightly suggesting to me that the court is holding judgment until it resolves Cuozzo.  Apart from the AIA Trial challenges, most potential life changing case on the docket for patent attorneys is Cubist v. Hospira that focuses on the role of secondary indicia of non-obviousness. As with most Supreme Court patent cases over the past decade, Cubist argues that the Federal Circuit’s rules are too restrictive and should instead follow a looser factor-based analysis when considering the issue.  In the next couple of weeks, the court will consider the Cubist petition as well as that of Dow v. NOVA  (appellate review standard); Vehicle Intelligence (abstract idea); and WesternGeco (damages calculation for 271(f) infringement by exporting components).

Secret Offers to Sell: The Federal Circuit is not slowing down its patent jurisprudence in any way – except for the rash of R.36 affirmances. An important case is Helsinn that focuses on whether the AIA abrogated the rule in Metallizing Engineering.

The big list: (more…)

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Book Review: Patents After the AIA

By Jason Rantanen

Alan J. Kasper, Brad D. Pedersen, Ann M. Mueting, Gregory D. Allen, & Brian R. Stanton, Patents After the AIA: Evolving Law and Practice (Bloomberg BNA 2016).

Last fall, I sat next to Greg Allen at the AIPLA annual conference dinner.  After we started talking about the lingering effects of pre-America Invents Act 102(g), he excitedly told me about a treatise he was working on that dealt with that and many other complexities created by the AIA.  He enthusiastically described the detail into which the book went, including the dozens of timelines dealing with different chronological issues facing patent prosecutors today and the lengthy chapter on transition issues, a chapter that turned out to be surprisingly complex.

A few weeks ago, I received a copy of the book for reviewing purposes. The short version is that Patents After the AIA is massive and detailed, and aimed largely at those who practice before the Patent Office.  The tome, bigger even than Harmon’s Patents and the Federal Circuit, is about three inches thick with over 1,900 tissue-paper thin pages.   Packed inside is more detail on the changes and challenges posed by the AIA than anyone might imagine from just reading the (relative short) 58-page AIA itself.  The dozens of timelines are there, along with chapters on legislative history, regulations, prior art and grace periods, international issues and harmonization, transition issues and much more.   Paired with the discussions of the law are “Practice Tips”: practical advice for prosecuting attorneys.  There is a wealth of detail about post-AIA patent practice contained in this book, and it could become the go-to treatise for patent attorneys.

That detail, though, imposes its own limitations.  In trying to simultaneously be a treatise on all of patent law and a useful resource for prosecutors, its usability suffers. The substantive portion of the treatise begins with a history of patent law–starting with the Book of Genesis.   The first chapter includes an abstract, conceptual overview of “The Innovation Process and Terminology Used in This Treatise,” complete with “instantiations of an invention.”[1]   Many topics are covered in multiple chapters, sometimes in a redundant way.  Discussions of post-AIA § 102(a), for example, are sprinkled throughout the book, with overlapping discussions in chapters 5 (Prior Art, Grace Periods, and Exceptions After the America Invents Act: Global Considerations), 6 (Prior Art, Grace Periods, and Exceptions After the America Invents Act: Practical Considerations), and 9 (America Invents Act Patentability Standards–Issues and Commentary).

The authors recognize this limitation: before even the table of contents, the reader comes to an eight-page section on “How to Use This Treatise,” begging the reader to “PLEASE…take a few minutes to read and study this introductory section of the treatise.”  In chapter 1, after summarizing the AIA, the authors include another orientation section: a description of the treatise’s organization and summaries of the chapters.   The authors also attempt to address the complexity of the subject matter by defining terms, with two separate lexicographies (a short one at the front and a long one at the end).  In some cases, this helps the reader: for example, differentiating between “Post-AIA” and “Pre-AIA” is critical.  But numerous terms that the audience for this book would likely be familiar with, such as “appeal brief,” “evidence,” “malpractice,” and even “human” (“a member of the Homo sapiens species”) are also defined.[2]  While definitions can be useful in establishing precision of meaning, they lose their effectiveness with both length of the text and number of defined terms–here, 164 pages of them.  The index suffers from the opposite problem: its 37 pages tend to be less detailed in key spots than desirable.  For instance, there is just one index column for “Prior art under the AIA” but two columns of index entries for “Prior user rights.”   Yet much of the book (and probably the practical concerns of attorneys) relate to the former rather than the latter.  Readers will probably find the table of contents to be more useful than the index.

Some of these issues may be due to the multi-author nature of the text, with too many cooks in the kitchen.  There’s unquestionably a lot to discuss here, but coupled with the amount of patent law covered there needs to be an emphasis on effectively communicating it.  For this treatise to become the go-to volume on patent law, the authors (or maybe just one person) need to focus on taking that next step.  Understandably, though, the authors were under significant time pressure in getting this project out the door, and they’re to be commended for what they accomplished.

Ultimately, Patents After the AIA is a useful treatise, with the potential to be more with some judicious editing.  Consolidating redundant sections, culling unnecessary text, simplifying (and consolidating!) the definitions, and refining the index would all help improve the accessibility and long-term usefulness of this book.  (Although if most readers are going to be using the online version of the text with its search-capability, improvements to the index are of lesser importance).   Little errors in execution need to be addressed as well.  Fortunately, just like with cooking, that’s an issue that can be remedied in subsequent versions.  Given the rapidity with which patent law continues to develop, and the certainty that there will be judicial interpretations of the open questions the authors identify, those versions are likely to be needed in the near future.

  1. The treatise defines “instantiation” as “[a] codification, manifestation, or representation of abstract subject matter or information as an actual, concrete, or real-world instance of that subject matter or information.”
  2. As is “and/or,” a term that should be excised from all writing, defined or not.

Disclosure: As I mentioned above, I received a (gratis) copy of this text so that I could write this review.  I also was a speaker at the AIPLA annual conference this past fall. 

Edit: Based on a reader’s comment, here’s a direct link to the Bloomberg/BNA page for the book: http://www.bna.com/patents-aia-evolving-p57982059262/

Query: Fictional Patent Lawyers (and their Trolls)

Professor Bob Jarvis (Nova Southeastern) is finishing up a law review article discussing the depiction of patent lawyers in popular culture (TV shows, movies, novels, comic strips, etc.).  Although he’s already found dozens of such characters, he’d like to hear from any Patently-O readers who know of such characters (he’s trying to make his piece as thorough as possible).

Bob can be reached at jarvisb@nova.edu.  His deadline is Friday, June 10.

I’ll highlight the Javris article once it is out. Meanwhile, you may want to check-out the article by Professor Ed Lee (Kent-IIT) titled Patent Trolls: Moral Panics, Motions in Limine, and Patent Reform. The article “provides the first empirical study of the use of the term “patent troll” by U.S. media.”


Extra-Territorial Application of the Defend Trade Secrets Act

by Dennis Crouch

When U.S. courts interpret U.S. statutes, they tend to read an inherent territorial limitation into the law.   “It is a long-standing principle of American law that legislation of Congress, unless a contrary intent appears, is meant to apply only within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States,” Morrison v. National Australia, 130 S.Ct. 2869 (2010) (internal quotation omitted). However, when Congress clearly requires a longer reach, the courts oblige.

The Economic Espionage Act (EEA) includes a provision regarding its “applicability to conduct outside the United States.” 18 U.S.C. § 1837.  Section 1837 was left unchanged with DTSA’s amendments to EEA, but seemingly applies to the new private civil cause of action for trade secret misappropriation. The provision offers important insight on how the new cause of action can be applied in the foreign context.  Most importantly, a (1) U.S. corporation or citizen can be held liable for trade secret misappropriation under the DTSA regardless of whether the misappropriation occurred abroad; and (2) an entity can be held liable under the DTSA for foreign misappropriation if “an act in furtherance of the offense was committed in the United States.”

The provision:

This chapter also applies to conduct occurring outside the United States if—

(1) the offender is a natural person who is a citizen or permanent resident alien of the United States, or an organization organized under the laws of the United States or a State or political subdivision thereof; or

(2) an act in furtherance of the offense was committed in the United States.

18 U.S.C. § 1837 (DTSA Amendments) (The EEA/DTSA is collectively codified in Chapter 90 of Title 18).   It will be interesting to watch this play-out, but I expect that we will see a number of extra-territorial and cross-border cases over the next few years.

= = = = =


  1. To be clear, a court would still need personal jurisdiction over the defendant. See International Shoe.  
  2. A possible but unlikely limitation on the extraterritorial application could occur if the courts read a territorial limitation into the definition of trade secret such that information is only protectable under the DTSA if created and/or stored in the U.S.


A Comparison of the EU Trade Secrets Directive and the US Defend Trade Secrets Act

Guest post by Mark Ridgway and Taly Dvorkis, Allen & Overy, LLP, London. 

It has been a busy year for law makers seeking better protection for trade secrets.  Much coverage has been given to the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA), which provides a federal private right of action for trade secret protection.  President Obama signed the DTSA on May 11, and the law takes effect immediately.  Patently-O has covered the DTSA legislation and legislative process in several posts here.

On May 17 the European Council is expected to formally adopt the Trade Secrets Directive, requiring all Member States to provide certain minimum standards for trade secret protection.  Member States will have two years to implement the provisions of the Directive into their own national laws.

How do the US and EU positions on trade secrets compare?  Below are the key similarities and differences between the DTSA and the European Trade Secrets Directive.

What has led to these Legislative Changes?

The desire for harmonization of trade secret protection has spurred these movements both in the US and the EU.  According to the European Commission, the lack of a uniform European approach has resulted in a “fragmentation of the internal market” and “weakening of the overall deterrent effect of the relevant rules.”  The EU Directive seeks to harmonize the laws of the various member states by providing a consistent definition of what qualifies as a “trade secret.”  Additionally, the Directive addresses the remedies available to trade secret holders and the measures courts can use to prevent the disclosure of trade secrets in legal proceedings.

In the U.S., the DTSA arose from a desire to federalize trade secret protection, which had thus far been dominated by state law (although most states had previously adopted the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (UTSA), published by the Uniform Law Commission in 1979).  While certain federal protection previously existed in the form of the Economic Espionage Act of 1996, the DTSA provides an individual right sue in federal court, thus obviating the need to bring private actions in various state courts where procedures differ greatly.

How is “Trade Secret” Defined?

Under both the EU Trade Secrets Directive and the DTSA, to qualify as a trade secret the information at issue must be kept confidential and must derive economic value from being kept confidential.

Article 2 of the Trade Secrets Directive defines a trade secret as information which meets all of the following requirements:

  1. is secret in the sense that it is not, as a body or in the precise configuration and assembly of its components, generally known among or readily accessible to persons within the circles that normally deal with the kind of information in question;
  2. has commercial value because it is secret;
  3. has been subject to reasonable steps under the circumstances, by the person lawfully in control of the information, to keep it secret.

This definition tracks the definition for “undisclosed information” provided in article 39(2) of the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement), which requires all signatories to afford some level of protection for confidential information.

The DTSA definition of “trade secret”, meanwhile, consists of “all forms and types of financial, business, scientific, technical, economic, or engineering information, including patterns, plans, compilations, program devices, formulas, designs, prototypes, methods, techniques, processes, procedures, programs, or codes, whether tangible or intangible, and whether or how stored, compiled, or memorialized physically, electronically, graphically, photographically, or in writing if-

  1. the owner thereof has taken reasonable measures to keep such information secret; and
  2. the information derives independent economic value, actual or potential, from not being generally known to, and not being readily ascertainable through proper means by, the another person who can obtain economic value from the disclosure or use of the information.”

As seen, whether in Europe or in the U.S., to be considered a trade secret the information must be kept confidential and derive an economic value from the fact that it is confidential.  Both the EU Directive and the DTSA are aimed at protecting commercial confidential information.  What is not required is that the information be entirely novel, a distinction from other forms of intellectual property.  Further, the EU Directive makes explicit that combinations of otherwise publicly available information can be protected provided they are not readily accessible or generally known.

Confidentiality in Litigation

The EU Directive and DTSA have similar provisions for the preservation of confidentiality during legal proceedings for trade secret misappropriation.  In the U.S. the ability to file confidential documents under seal to maintain secrecy has long been an option open to litigants.  The DTSA specifically sets out that a court may not authorize or direct the disclosure of information unless the owner is first given the opportunity to file a submission under seal describing the interest in keeping the information confidential.  The DTSA therefore extends the option of filing briefs under seal to include disclosure at trial and in court opinions, and also allows non-parties to request that certain information be kept confidential.

The EU Directive similarly addresses preserving confidentiality during legal proceedings.  The Directive sets out that an applicant must first supply a “duly reasoned” application as to why certain information should be kept confidential.  The maintenance of secrecy is therefore not the default position, and requires court approval.  It remains to be seen how the national laws of the Member States will implement the Directive and how courts will interpret what qualifies as a “duly reasoned” application.  In some countries this will require minimum changes (for instance, in the U.K. no change will be required), while in others it will be a more significant cultural and legal shift.

Protection for Whistle-blowers

The protections for whistle-blowers and press freedom have been a significant part of the public debate concerning the EU Directive.  Opponents of the Directive expressed concern that, as a result of the Directive, journalists and whistle-blowers could be criminalized for publishing information that companies consider secret.  However, the EU Directive specifically sets out that it should not prevent whistle-blowers and those publishing trade secrets to serve the public interest from doing so.  Moreover, there are no criminal provisions in the Directive.  The Directive states:

The measures, procedures and remedies provided for in this Directive should not restrict whistleblowing activity. Therefore, the protection of trade secrets should not extend to cases in which disclosure of a trade secret serves the public interest, insofar as directly relevant misconduct, wrongdoing or illegal activity is revealed. This should not be seen as preventing the competent judicial authorities from allowing an exception to the application of measures, procedures and remedies in a case where the respondent had every reason to believe in good faith that his or her conduct satisfied the appropriate criteria set out in this Directive.

This exception for whistle-blower activity is much broader than that provided by the DTSA.  The DTSA provides immunity from liability for disclosing a trade secret only when the disclosure is confidential and made to the government or in a court filing (under seal).  There is no specified exception for journalists or other public good-doers, although arguably the First Amendment provides protection.  The DTSA does include a provision by which employers must notify their employees of the protection available under the new law, a notice requirement which is not present in the EU Directive.  Employee is defined broadly by the DTSA to include those working as contractors or consultants.


The most controversial part of the DTSA has been the introduction of an ex parte seizure order as a federal measure.  Under the DTSA, a court can issue an order for the seizure of property “necessary to prevent the propagation or dissemination of the trade secret that is the subject of the action.”  Additional remedies include injunctions and damages, where an injunction is deemed most appropriate for any continuing harm.  For previous harm, a court may award damages for actual loss or any unjust enrichment.  A court can also choose to award damages measured by a reasonable royalty for the unauthorized use of the trade secret.  As with other protection of intellectual property, violation of the DTSA done wilfully or maliciously may result in a court awarding enhanced damages as well as attorneys’ fees.

The EU Directive similarly allows for injunctions, damages measured as lost profits, account of profits, or a reasonable royalty for the trade secret use (paid as a lump sum).  The Directive also allows for provisional and precautionary measures, and says that Member States can provide for more far reaching protection, so long as the safeguards in the Directive are met.

The EU Directive does not call for enhanced damages for malicious activity, but rather approaches damages from the opposite viewpoint, specifying that Member States may limit the liability for damages of employees for misappropriating trade secrets if the employee acted without intent.

Employee Mobility and Non-Compete Agreements

In the sensitive area of employee mobility and competition, the Directive specifically states that it shall not offer any ground for restricting the mobility of employees.  However, the Directive does not include any requirement to harmonize the laws in relation to post-termination restrictions or non-compete clauses, meaning that national laws will continue to apply.

The DTSA addresses employee mobility in requiring that an injunction against a former employee be “based on evidence of threatened misappropriation” of trade secret information and not simply on the fact that the person may know certain information.  The DTSA also states that any injunction preventing or limiting future employment cannot conflict with applicable state laws protecting employee mobility.  Shortly before the DTSA took effect, the White House released a report that criticizes non-compete agreements and state laws that offer too much protection for such agreements.  While no immediate action is expected following the report, it is offered as a discussion point in considering what is necessary in non-compete agreements and how states should treat them.

Limitation Period

In the U.S., the limitation period for a company to bring an action under the DTSA is three years after the date on which the misappropriation is discovered or could have been discovered with reasonable diligence.  The EU Directive gives the Member States the freedom to set the limitation period for their respective national laws, but sets the maximum period at six years (albeit Member States have discretion as to when the clock starts to run).


It is obviously desirable that trade secret protection be consistent across borders, whether state or national, as protection is only as strong as its weakest link.  In the U.S., the DTSA specifically sets out a requirement that the Attorney General provide a report on the threats of trade secret theft outside the U.S. and the protection of trade secrets afforded by U.S. trading partners.  How the EU Directive and DTSA play out as Member States implement the Directive and courts interpret the laws will help shape trade secret protection around the globe.

By The Numbers: Is the PTO Underreporting the Rate They Institute IPRs and CBMs?

Guest post by Michael E. Sander, Founder and CEO of Docket Alarm, Inc.

The Patent Office routinely publishes statistics on IPR and CBM proceedings, but their methodology suggests that the petition institution rate is lower than it really is.

Inter partes review and covered business method review have undoubtedly changed patent litigation. No patent assertion campaign or defense strategy is complete without considering the implications of these AIA procedures.

The Patent Office publishes statistics on these new AIA trials roughly once a month. Practitioners can easily see how many petitions are filed in various technology areas, as well as how often claims survive or are canceled.  They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and this visual and easy-to-read resource gives stakeholders a quick sense of how the new tribunal is affecting patent law.

But as Mark Twain once said, “[f]acts are stubborn things, but statistics are more pliable.” In publishing these statistics, the PTO has made choices in methodology that may underreport the institution rate of IPR and CBM proceedings.

Background on AIA Trial Procedure

For those unfamiliar with PTAB trial practice, a PTAB proceeding starts with a petitioner filing a petition for inter partes review or covered business method review.[1] See Figure 1 (below). The petition lays out reasons why a claim or set of claims is invalid.

About six months[2] after a petition is filed, the PTAB issues an Institution Decision. See 35 U.S.C. 314(b). In the Institution Decision, the PTAB decides whether or not “there is a reasonable likelihood that the petitioner would prevail with respect to at least 1 of the claims challenged in the petition.” See 35 U.S.C. 314(a).  If the PTAB decides that the petitioner is unlikely to prevail, the proceeding is terminated, and the case is disposed of.

If the PTAB determines that the petitioner may prevail, a trial is instituted.  During this stage, evidence and testimony is presented, along with additional briefing.  Within one year of institution, the PTAB issues a Final Written Decision, in which they decide whether or not claims should be canceled.  See 35 U.S.C. 316(a)(11).


Figure 1: IPR and CBM Process

Statistics on AIA Trial Proceedings

The PTO has been regularly publishing statistics on a variety of aspects of AIA proceedings. One important piece of information to patent owners and petitioners alike is the average rate in which the PTAB institutes a petition for IPR or CBM, i.e., the Institution Rate. Fortunately, the Patent Office publishes exactly these figures.

Depicted in Figure 2 below is one page from the PTO’s published statistics. Their statistics depict a snapshot of every IPR petition filed as of February 29, 2016.  The PTO depicts the number of IPR petitions that have proceeded to each stage, including whether a proceeding was instituted or not, whether the case settled, and whether the instituted proceeding resulted in all instituted claims being canceled, some claims canceled, or no claims canceled.


Figure 2: PTAB Statistics
http://www.uspto.gov/sites/default/files/documents/2016-2-29%20PTAB.pdf at 9

This figure is deceptively simple. The figure states that out of 2731 total petitions, 1372 trials were not instituted while 1359 petitions were instituted.  Of the non-instituted cases, 540 were terminated due to non-substantive reasons.

Therefore, of the institution decisions decided on the merits, the PTAB’s reported Petition Institution rate is 62%.[3]

When I first studied the PTO’s chart and saw that the Petition Institution rate was 62%, I was puzzled. Docket Alarm, compiles statistics like these and more, and found that petitions were instituted in 71% percent of proceedings. See Figure 3. This nearly 10-point difference was too large to be explained.

As it turns out, deriving the overall institution rate from the chart provided by the PTO can be misleading.


Figure 3: Docket Alarm Statistics


The PTO’s Statistics Methodology

The understand why the PTO’s reported Institution Rate is lower than expected, one must understand the PTO’s methodology, and the implications of the dataset that they used.  Right at the top of the page, their figure states that only proceedings “Completed To Date” are considered in their statistics. See Figure 2.  This seemingly benign statement has profound implications on the result: If a trial is not instituted, it is included in their statistics immediately when the institution decision is published.  However, if a trial is instituted, the decision will not be included in the dataset until the case is disposed, up to a year later.  Petition denials are necessarily included at an earlier point in time than the decisions to institute.  This methodology skews the reported institution rate downward, suggesting that the PTAB is instituting far fewer trials than they are.

The effect is significant, consider the following hypothetical.  Suppose PTAB judges flip a coin to determine whether to institute: 50% of the time they decide to institute, and 50% of the time they decide to not institute.  Further suppose in our hypo that on January 1, 2013, 100 petitions are filed, and no further petitions are filed for the rest of the year.[4]

Given this hypothetical, one would assume that the reported Institution Rate should be 50%, but let’s see how it plays out.

After the first 6 months, on July 1, 2013, the PTAB flips a hundred coins, and 50 petitions are instituted, while 50 are denied. The proceedings that are not instituted are terminated. The instituted proceedings continue onwards.  Using the PTO’s methodology, only the denied petitions are included in the statistics.

Using the PTO’s methodology in the hypothetical above, the institution rate would be 0%. The 50 petitions that were denied are included in their statistics, while the 50 instituted decisions are not because they are not completed.

Taking the hypothetical to the following year, on Jan. 1, 2014, 100 additional petitions are filed.  Again, on July 1, 2014, 50 petitions are instituted and 50 denied. In addition, the 50 instituted petitions that were filed on Jan. 1, 2013, come to completion.  Using the PTO’s methodology, the institution rate calculated in the second year would be 25%, closer to reality but still a far cry from the “real” institution rate of 50%.

One can continue this hypothetical forward, and while the gap between the reported rate and reality narrows, after five years, the difference between what is reported and the expected institution rate is still 10%.  See Table 1 (below).

Table 1: Calculating the Institution Rate Using PTO’s Methodology on Hypothetical Data

Obviously, Administrative Patent Judges do not flip a coin to decide whether to institute, more than 100 petitions are filed in a year, and petitions are not all filed on the first of the year.  However, the basic point holds true: if one only includes “completed” cases in their statistics, non-instituted cases will be over-counted, and instituted cases will be proportionally under-counted.


Because the PTO clearly states at the top of the chart that they are only including completed cases, technically, their statistics are not incorrect. However, as shown above, their methodology can lead one who is not bringing a critical eye to the statistics to believe that the Institution Rate is 10% lower than it actually is. Mark Twain would feel right at home.

= = = = =

[1] There are several other types of AIA trial proceedings, such as Post Grant Review and Derivation proceedings, but they are not nearly as popular as IPRs and CBMs.

[2] Six months is typical, but it can be earlier at the discretion of the court, or later if the petition is not quickly accorded a filing date.

[3] This value is calculated as:

Total Trials Instituted / (Total Petitions – Petitions Non-Substantively Terminated)
= 1359 / (2731 – 540)

= 62.03%

[4] We additionally assume that no parties settle, and that petitions are afforded a filing date on the same day they are filed. These assumptions are immaterial to the substantive point, but make the numbers easier to deal with.

Hotel Security Checking Co v Lorraine Co, 160 F 467 (2d Cir 1908).

Hotel Security Checking Co v Lorraine Co, 160 F 467 (2d Cir 1908).


OPINION:  Before LACOMBE, COXE, and WARD, Circuit Judges.

COXE, Circuit Judge. The Hicks patent describes and claims a “method of and means for cash-registering and account-checking” designed to prevent frauds and peculation by waiters and cashiers in hotels and restaurants. The object of the alleged invention is accurately to check the account of the cashier and of each waiter. In carrying out the system, each waiter is provided with slips of paper, so marked as to distinguish them from those used by the other waiters in the same establishment. The person in charge of each department,  which fills an order given by waiters, is provided with a sheet of paper ruled lengthwise in parallel columns, each waiter having a particular column exclusively appropriated to him. Each waiter is numbered or otherwise marked. If numbered, and this is the simplest method of designation, the number on the slips given him   will correspond with his own number and his orders will be entered in the sheet column bearing a similar number. For instance, waiter No. 6 is given a badge showing that number, which he is required to wear conspicuously; he is also given slips bearing that number and his orders are entered under column No. 6 by the person in charge of the department filling the orders. The large sheet on which the orders of the different waiters are entered is simply a sheet of plain paper with parallel lines ruled thereon, the columns being numbered at the top; a sheet of legal cap could easily be utilized for this purpose.Each waiter is given a number of slips about 3 1/2 by 5 1/2 inches in size, which are blank except that the waiter’s number is marked thereon. If, for instance, waiter No. 6 receives an order for food, he goes to the kitchen department and when the order is filled he exhibits his tray to the checker, who enters the price of each article on the waiter’s slip and also on his own sheet under the column No. 6. The slip is returned to the waiter, who presents it at the proper time to the customer. Either the waiter or the customer pays the amount to the cashier who retains the   slip. It is usually sufficient in practice to enter the total of any one order and not each item separately. If subsequent orders are given either from the kitchen, the bar or the cigar stand, the same process is repeated and the amounts entered upon the same slip. At the close of business the sum of the slips of waiter No. 6 in the hands of the cashier, can easily be compared with the sum of the items charged to him by the departments collectively and the same is, of course, true of all the other waiters. The amount charged to all the waiters can be compared with the total of all the items of all the slips in the hands of the cashier and with the cash reported by the latter. If there has been no carelessness or dishonesty, the amounts will agree and if there has been, it is easy to discover where the fault lies.

The specification enumerates ten separate results, which it is alleged are accomplished by the use of the patented system, all having in view the protection of the employer from peculation by his servants either individually or in combination with each other.

The claims are as follows:

“1. The herein-described improved means for securing hotel or restaurant proprietors or others from losses by the peculations of waiters, cashiers or other employes, which consists of a sheet provided with separate spaces, having suitable headings, substantially as described, said headings being designatory of the several waiters to whom the several spaces on the sheet are individually appropriated, in conjunction with separate slips, each so marked as to indicate the waiter using it, whereby the selling price of all the articles sold may be entered in duplicate, once upon the slip of the waiter making the sale, and once upon his allotted space upon the main sheet, substantially as and for the purpose specified.

“2. The herein-described improvement in the art of securing hotel or restaurant proprietors and others from losses by the peculations of waiters, cashiers or other employes, which consists in providing separate slips for the waiters, each so marked as to indicate the waiter using it, and in entering upon the slip belonging to each waiter the amount of each sale that he makes, and also in providing a main sheet having separate spaces for the different waiters and suitably marked to correspond with the numbers of the waiters and of their slips,  and in entering upon said main sheet all the amounts marked upon the waiters’ slips so that there may thus be a duplication of the entries, substantially in the manner and for the purpose specified.”

The principal defense is lack of novelty and invention. Section 4886 of the Revised Statutes (U.S. Comp. St. 1901, p. 3382) provides, under certain conditions, that “any person who has invented or discovered any new and useful art, machine, manufacture or composition of matter” may obtain a patent therefor. It is manifest that the subject-matter of the claims is not a machine, manufacture or composition of matter. If within the language of the statute at all, it must be as a “new and useful art.” One of the definitions given by Webster of the word “art” is as follows: “The employment of means to accomplish some desired end; the adaptation of things in the natural world to the uses of life; the application of knowledge or power to practical purposes.” In the sense of the patent law, an art is not a mere abstraction. A system of transacting business disconnected from the means for carrying out the system is not, within the most liberal interpretation of the term, an art. Advice is    not patentable. As this court said in Fowler v. City of New York, 121 Fed. 747, 58 C.C.A. 113:

“No mere abstraction, no idea, however brilliant, can be the subject of a patent irrespective of the means designed to give it effect.”

It cannot be maintained that the physical means described by Hicks, — the sheet and the slips, — apart from the manner of their use, present any new and useful feature. A blank sheet of paper ruled vertically and numbered at the top cannot be the subject of a patent, and, if used in carrying out a method, it can impart no more novelty thereto, than the pen and ink which are also used. In other words, if the “art” described in the specification be old, the claims cannot be upheld because of novelty in the appliances used in carrying it out, — for the reason that there is no novelty.

The patent seems to us to cover simply a system of bookkeeping made applicable to the conditions existing in hotels and restaurants. The fundamental principle of the system is as old as the art of bookkeeping, i.e., charging the goods of the employer to the agent who takes them. Suppose the case of a firm selling goods by agents direct to the public. Before starting out the agent goes to each department and secures the goods needed by him, let us say, 5 dozen pairs of gloves, 3 dozen shirts, 100 neckties, 2 dozen pairs of shoes, etc. As a matter of course, the bookkeeper charges these items to the agent on the books of the firm and gives him a bill, or list, with the items and prices entered thereon. The agent knows from an examination of the list exactly what price he is to charge to the customer. When he makes remittances to the firm with statements showing the goods sold by him and the names of the buyers, the firm knows by an examination of its books what goods he has sold, how his sales compare with those of other agents and what amount, if any, he still owes. This, in essentials, is the scheme of the patent and it is as old as the laws of trade.

The patentee has modified and adapted it to fit the ephemeral character of the business in hand, but it required no exercise of the inventive faculties to do this. In a transaction which is to be concluded within an hour, a ponderous system of bookkeeping is unnecessary; but the substitution of a blank sheet laid on the desk for a blank sheet bound in a book, and a series of slips of uniform size for the ordinary bill heads, may require ingenuity and be more convenient, but it adds nothing of substance to the art.

The patentee is evidently an observant man, and, with large experience in the business, has written a treatise on restaurant account keeping, containing many valuable suggestions for preventing dishonesty by waiters, which may be epitomized as follows: — employ a competent and observant head waiter, have at least one honest man in charge, give each waiter a number and slips with a corresponding number, stamp the price of the articles ordered by him on the slip, and charge the amounts to him on a sheet of paper under his number, printed or written at the top of the sheet. Although the record does not show that this identical system was used prior to the patent, it does show that the underlying idea of keeping a duplicate record of the items taken by the waiter from the kitchen or bar, so that the cashier may know whether the proper amount of cash has been paid or not, had long been known. The essential features were old, the changes, elaborations and improvements of the patent belong to the evolution of the business of restaurant and hotel keeping, and would, we think, occur to any clever and ingenious person familiar with the needs of that business. The truth of this proposition will be made apparent by a brief survey of the prior art.

We agree with the judge of the Circuit Court in thinking that the patent to Smith for “a service and cash check,” while not a direct anticipation, describes a system which in the main corresponds to that of the patent in suit. Smith says:

“The invention has for its object to assure returns to the proprietor to the full value of the food served by preventing collusion of employes and patrons without offense, and also to economize time of patrons and employes and assure more satisfactory service.”

Smith provides each waiter with a package of checks requiring the waiter to write his name on the body and coupon of each check. As the waiter passes the checker on his way to the guest with the food ordered by him, the checker punches from the check the value of the food on the waiter’s tray. When the order has been fully served, the cashier adds up the sums opposite the punch marks and writes the sum total in ink next the dollar mark on the check and coupon. The cashier has at hand a series of numbered spindles, one for each waiter, and on the proper one he places the coupon torn from the check. When a check is paid to the cashier, the coupon is returned to the waiter as a voucher and at the close of the day’s business the cash in hand must correspond with the amount punched on the checks and also with the amounts written in ink on the coupons which are delivered up by the waiters when they have finished work for the day. The Smith claim is not for a system, method or means, but is for “a service of cash check provided,” etc.

Admitting, arguendo, that a system such as Hicks describes is patentable, if absolutely novel, we are of the opinion that the improvements of Hicks over the system disclosed in the Smith patent are such as would occur to anyone conversant with the business. The testimony also shows that several years prior to the Hicks application, there was in vogue in Harvey’s restaurant in Washington, a system similar in all essential details to that of Hicks’. Although we are not prepared to say that the two systems are identical in detail, we are unable to discover any patentable improvements in the latter system over the former. We have no reason to discredit the statement of defendant’s witnesses that Harvey used a checker’s sheet ruled in parallel columns on which the prices of the articles ordered by the waiters, respectively, were entered, being also entered on the waiter’s slip.

The brass check system which was in use prior to the patent is thus described in the complainant’s brief:

“In this system the waiter received from the checker a brass check having thereon the total amount of the food, etc., served to the guest. If the guest gave a second order the waiter gave back the check to the checker and received a larger one in exchange. In some cases a record was made of the total paid by each guest, but this record was not like or comparable with the Hicks main sheet and could not achieve its results. There was no division of the sheet into spaces for the different waiters and there was no duplication of entries. The inadequacy of this system is obvious.”

This statement is adopted because of its conciseness and, although it omits some features of the system, it will close debate upon the facts if it be accepted as correct. The principal differences between this system and the Hicks system are the substitution of paper for brass, recording each item separately instead of the total and using a recording sheet which is ruled instead of one that was not ruled.

Regarding the entry of the total amount upon the brass, or paper, check and upon the sheet, it will be remembered, as before stated, that the patentee says:

“Each item of the order may be entered separately on the slip and on the sheet if so desired, but, in practice, I have found it more convenient and usually sufficient for the purposes of my invention to enter the whole of any one order as a total.”

This language is too plain to admit of doubt. It is a clear declaration on the part of the patentee that if the total be entered on the slip and sheet it will infringe the claims. This being so, if a system, similar in other respects, be found in the prior art where totals are so entered, it will anticipate the claims. The complainant has endeavored to explain away this statement but we are not in the least impressed by his efforts in that direction.

The alleged prior use by McKenna, we dismiss without comment for the reason that the testimony in its support is too uncertain to satisfy the requirements of the rule that prior use must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

If at the time of Hicks’ application, there had been no system of bookkeeping of any kind in restaurants, we would be confronted with the question whether a new and useful system of cash-registering and account-checking is such an art as is patentable under the statute. This question seems never to have been decided by a controlling authority and its decision is not necessary now unless we find that Hicks has made a contribution to the art which is new and useful. We are decidedly of the opinion that he has not, the overwhelming weight of authority being that claims granted for such improvements as he has made are invalid for lack of patentability.

The case at bar is not distinguishable in principle, from the case of Hocke v. N.Y. Central & H.R.R. Co., 122 Fed. 467, 58 C.C.A. 627, in which this court, after describing the improvements “for securing against loss of freight” covered by the claims, said, “All this evidences good judgment upon the part of one who is experienced in the particular business, but it does not rise to the level of invention.”

In the case of U.S. Credit System Co. v. American Credit Indem. Co., 59 Fed. 139, 8 C.C.A. 49, this court had before it a patent for “means for securing merchants and others from excessive losses by bad debts, which consist of a sheet provided with separate spaces and suitable headings,” etc. The court says:

“There is nothing peculiar or novel in preparing a sheet of paper with headings generally appropriate to classes of facts to be recorded, and whatever peculiarity there may be about the headings in this case is a peculiarity resulting from the transactions themselves. * * * Given a series of transactions, there is no patentable novelty in recording them, where, as in this case, such record consists simply in setting down some of their details in an order or sequence common to each record.”

It is unnecessary to multiply authorities as we are convinced that there is no patentable novelty either in the physical means employed or in the method described and claimed in the Hicks patent.

The decree is affirmed, with costs.

Guest Post: 35 USC 289—Grant of Certiorari in Samsung v Apple = The Opportunity for a Better-Crafted Standard for Awarding Total profits

Guest post by Gary L. Griswold.  Mr. Griswold is a Consultant residing in Hudson, WI and was formerly President of and Chief Intellectual Property Counsel for 3M Innovative Properties Company. The paper reflects the views of the author. He wishes to thank Bob Armitage and Mike Kirk for their excellent contributions to the essay.

In August, 2015, I published an article on Patently-O entitled “35 USC 289-After Apple v Samsung, Time for a Better-Crafted Judicial Standard for Awarding “Total Profits.” [i] The article appeared before the Supreme Court granted certiorari in this appeal.[ii] My use of the word “after” was, thus, a bit premature. The crafting of a new judicial standard may actually be accomplished over the next several months, as the Supreme Court considers the damages issue in Apple v. Samsung case later in its current term.

The statutory basis for awarding damages in this case is no “small-change.” 35 USC 289 provides the design patent holder with the infringer’s “total profits” on the “article of manufacture” to which the patented design “has been applied”[iii]. My August article referenced a Patently-O article by Professor Rantanen that included an analysis of the Federal Circuit’s Apple v Samsung decision and its ramifications, suggesting that the section 289 damages provision could induce “an explosion of design patent assertions and lawsuits.”[iv] Indeed, section 289 holds the potential for design patent procurement and assertion to become the next big “patent assertion entity” business model.

Some commentators have suggested that design patents, being sought and accumulated differently from utility patents, are not likely to stimulate much PAE interest. Whatever merit in that view, it needs to be tempered with the realization that greed is the mother of all of this type of business-model invention. One need only reflect on the fact that more than 1,000 qui tam actions for false marking were filed by opportunistic plaintiffs following the 2009 Federal Circuit decision in Forest Group, Inc. v. Bon Tool Co. before such actions were thankfully banished by the “Leahy-Smith America Invents Act.”[v] The prospects for design infringement revenue generation based on the “total profits”-recovery provision in 35 USC 289 could make successful design patent assertion a staggeringly profitable business. The potential for such an outcome as well as an example of such assertion was referenced in the briefs relating to the Apple v. Samsung certiorari petition[vi].

The possibility of a surge in design-patent PAE activity is almost certainly one of many reasons why the Supreme Court granted certiorari—and why it should not squander the opportunity presented in the Apple v. Samsung appeal to provide a reasoned and principled demarcation between those fact patterns where a “total profits” remedy is clearly warranted and those where it is not.

In deciding this appeal, the Supreme Court may focus on what constitutes an “article of manufacture” under section 289. The statute provides a design patent infringer “shall be liable to the [design patent] owner to the extent of [the infringer’s] total profit” if the infringer “applies the patented design … to any article of manufacture.” [vii](emphasis added) But, the patented design is not necessarily synonymous with the article of manufacture itself.

Indeed, for section 289 purposes, an “article of manufacture” has been held to be the entire substrate to which the patented design is applied. For example, it has been held that a boat becomes the “article of manufacture” when the patented design is for the windshield applied to the boat[viii]. Other examples of “articles of manufactures” whose total profits might be subject to a section 289 recovery include (1) a large agricultural combine, when the patented design is for a tire tread applied to a tire used on the combine; (2) an automobile, when the patented design is for the automobile’s rear taillights; and (3) an HDTV, when the patented design is for a semiconductor used in the television.

In my earlier articles, I described such “total profits” recovery scenarios as a problem in need of a judicial solution. I suggested eliminating access to section 289 “total profits” recoveries in situations where a consensus exists that a remedy of this type would be entirely unwarranted. My approach would interpret section 289 as authorizing a total-profits recovery only “if the patented design is substantially the basis for customer demand for the entire article”.[ix] If it is the basis for consumer demand, the section 289 total-profits recovery would apply to the article; if not, a recovery of total profits would not be available for the article.

This approach bears some similarity to the determination of utility patent damages under the entire market value rule[x]. A utility patent on a boat windshield does not allow the value of the boat to be used as the basis for determining a reasonable royalty absent a demonstration that the windshield was the basis for the customer demand for the boat.

In addition, the “customer demand” limitation is consistent with the apparent rationale for enacting section 289 in the first place. Current section 289 and its predecessors replaced a Supreme Court decision[xi] that provided limited damages to design patent owners even where the infringers had applied the patented design to an article of manufacture in order to create the customer demand for the article of manufacture. In such a situation, forcing the copyist to turn over its total profits obtained on the infringing article represents good policy.

However, even under a “customer demand” limitation, section 289 is no timid remedy. It would not involve any form of “apportionment” of the profits to be awarded to the design patent holder on the ground that some proportion of the profits might be attributable to non- design patented factors. Apportionment is not consistent with the Congressional intent when section 289 and its predecessors were enacted.

Moreover, even if the section 289 remedy is unavailable, the patent owner is not left without the right to recover damages. All the remedies otherwise available for patent infringement remain, whether or not a section 289 “total profits” recovery can be secured as long as there is no double recovery of damages[xii].

The Apple v. Samsung case is of particular importance because imposing the “customer demand” standard on section 289 recoveries does not require another act of Congress. The courts are free to interpret statutes to effectuate the purpose Congress had in enacting them. Under section 289, Congress did nothing to preclude the courts from determining what qualifies—and does not qualify—as an “article of manufacture.”

The Federal Circuit sees this judicial flexibility otherwise. It (incorrectly) saw its hands as having been tied by Congress in Apple v. Samsung, stating: “We are bound by what the statute says, irrespective of policy arguments that may be against it”[xiii]. Fortunately, the Supreme Court has the opportunity to see the situation differently.

The Supreme Court may—and should—see it differently. It can define an “article of manufacture” as being limited to objects for which the patented design is substantially the basis for customer demand. Courts have acted similarly in the past to assure that application of a statute will not result in foreseeable outcomes which are clearly inappropriate and manifestly unintended. The emergence of the “entire market value” rule is a good example of where the alleged “infringing product” cannot be reflexively used as the basis for a damages calculation where the “patented invention” is a mere component or feature of the product and not the product itself.

The Court will have, however, some competing approaches to consider in the course of deciding this appeal. Another possible approach to interpreting section 289 is the so-called “separate product” exception. This exception to a section 289 recovery limits the availability of total profits to the smallest separately sold product to which the patented design is applied. While this exception has the potential to limit the possibility of some of the ludicrous outcomes noted above, it is no panacea. For example, it fails to exclude a section 289 recovery where a design patented graphical user interface (GUI) is used in an electronic device which does not involve a separately sold product. This is a serious deficiency because of the difficulty in finding any policy rationale for awarding total profits on an electronic device simply because a design on a GUI used in it is patented.

Apple has, nonetheless, suggested in its responsive brief to “Defendant-Appellants’ Petition for Rehearing en banc” what amounts to a more generalized rendition of a “separate product” exception: “As the panel correctly recognized, this distinctive design was not severable from the inner workings of Samsung’s smartphones, see Op.27-28, in a way that a cupholder is analytically distinct from the overall look-and-feel of a car.”[xiv] (emphasis added) While “severability” appears to be a more general “exception” criterion than simply being a “separate” product, the “severability” approach does not appear to address the deficiency explained above for the “separate product” exception.

If there is a concern with the “customer demand” limitation, it would be whether the limitation is so broad that it swallows most or all of the “total profits” rule. Indeed, there are many factors which cause a purchaser to acquire a particular article of manufacture—most notably its functional aspects. However, to apply the “customer demand” approach, one begins with the customer looking for something in a product space and then making the specific decision to purchase. Everyday products with new, ornamental designs such as specially shaped paper clips are a good example.[xv] While they have a known function, they are most likely purchased for their appearance. An option would be to only consider the ornamental features of a product to determine whether they were substantially the basis for customer demand, but that may well be too narrow and could lead to a total profit remedy for minor differences from an ornamental perspective.

The Supreme Court would not have granted certiorari without a sense that its guidance was needed to properly titrate a powerful damages provision. It can best do so by allowing section 289 to remain a viable incentive to create and commercialize new designs, but then limiting the articles of manufacture qualifying for a “total profits” recovery to those where the patented design is substantially the basis for customer demand for the article of manufacture. Such a holding would secure section 289 as both a distinguishing and distinguished feature of U.S. design patent law.

[i] Griswold, Gary. “35 USC 289 – After Apple v. Samsung, Time for a Better-Crafted Judicial Standard for Awarding “Total Profits”? Patently-O. August 14, 2015. http://patentlyo.com/patent/2015/08/griswold-patent-damages.html

[ii] See U.S. Supreme Court Orders List from March 21, 2016 at 2. http://www.supremecourt.gov/orders/courtorders/032116zor_h3ci.pdf

[iii] 35 U.S.C. § 289:

“Whoever during the term of a patent for a design, without license of the owner, (1) applies the patented design, or any colorable imitation thereof, to any article of manufacture for the purpose of sale, or (2) sells or exposes for sale any article of manufacture to which such design or colorable imitation has been applied shall be liable to the owner to the extent of his total profit, but not less than $250, recoverable in any United States district court having jurisdiction of the parties.

Nothing in this section shall prevent, lessen, or impeach any other remedy which an owner of an infringed patent has under the provisions of this title, but he shall not twice recover the profit made from the infringement.”

[iv] Rantanen, Jason, “Apple v. Samsung: Design Patents Win.” Patently-O. May 18, 2015. http://patentlyo.com/patent/2015/05/samsung-design-patents.html

[v] Laurie Rose Lubiano, “The America Invents Act applies the brakes to the false marking bandwagon.” LEXOLOGY, January 3 2012. http://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=401c9bea-d643-4521-bc7d-c63d5b4a25f5

[vi] Samsung Petition for a Writ of Cert. Case No. 15-777. at 36-38. http://www.scotusblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/15-777_PetitionForAWritOfCertiorari.pdf

[vii] 35 U.S.C. § 289

[viii] Order on Motion for Partial SJ, In re Pacific Coast Marine Windshields Ltd. v. Malibu Boats LLC, Case No. 6:12-cv-33 (M.D. Fl. August 22, 2014)

[ix] See Griswold, http://patentlyo.com/patent/2015/08/griswold-patent-damages.html; See also Griswold, Gary. “35 USC § 289 – An Important Feature of U.S. Design Patent Law: An Approach to its Application.” IPO Law Journal. April 6, 2015. http://www.ipo.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/griswold_an-approach.pdf

[x] See Cornell University v. Hewlett-Packard Co., 609 F.Supp. 2d 279, 288-89 (N.D.N.Y. 2009):

(1) The infringing components must be the basis for customer demand for the entire machine including the parts beyond the claimed invention, (2) the individual infringing and non-infringing components must be sold together so that they constitute a functional unit or are parts of a complete machine or single assembly of parts, and (3) the individual infringing and non-infringing components must be analogous to a single functioning unit. It is not enough that the infringing and non-infringing components are sold together for business advantage. Notably, these requirements are additive, not alternative, ways to demonstrate eligibility for application of the entire market value rule.

See also Virnetz, Inc. v. Cisco Systems, Inc., 113 F.3d 1308, 1326 (Fed. Cir. 2014) (Judge Prost: “we recently affirmed that ‘[a] patentee may assess damages on the entire market value of the accused product only where the patented feature creates the basis for customer demand or substantially creates the value of the component parts.”)

[xi] See Dobson v. Dornan, 118 U.S. 10, (1886); Dobson v. Hartford Carpet Co., 114 U.S. 439 (1885); Dobson v. Bigelow Carpet Co., 114 U.S. 439 (1885); Bigelow Carpet Co. v. Dobson/Hartford Carpet Co. v. Same, 10 F. 385,386; 1882 U.S. App. LEXIS 2295 (E.D. Pa. 1882).

[xii] 35 U.S.C. § 289, paragraph 2: “Nothing in this section shall prevent, lessen, or impeach any other remedy which an owner of an infringed patent has under the provisions of this title, but he shall not twice recover the profit made from the infringement.”

[xiii] Apple v. Samsung, Fed. Cir. Opinion at 27, fn. 1.

[xiv] See Brief in Opp’n to Rhg, Apple v. Samsung, Case No. 2014-1335; 2015-1029 at 27-28 (Fed. Cir. July 20, 2015)

[xv] See, e.g., Design Patent No. USD647,138: https://docs.google.com/viewer?url=patentimages.storage.googleapis.com/pdfs/USD647138.pdf


[Update] Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016: Markup and Commentary

by Dennis Crouch

President Obama has signed the Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016 (DTSA) into law.  The new law creates a private cause of action for trade secret misappropriation that can be brought in Federal Courts and with international implications. I have created a mark-up (with commentary) of the new law that shows how the DTSA’s amendments to the Economic Espionage Act (EEA).

We have covered the DTSA legislation and legislative process in several Patently-O Posts, including the following:


Federal Circuit: Software and Data Structures Are Not Inherently Abstract

by Dennis Crouch

Enfish, LLC v. Microsoft Corp (Fed. Cir. 2016)

In a rare win for a software patentee, the Federal Circuit has rejected a lower court ruling that Enfish’s “self-referential” database software and data-structure invention is ineligible under 35 U.S.C. § 101 as effectively an abstract idea.[1]  The apparent saving-grace of the claims here is that the improvement is directed to the database operation and is not tied to the business improvement or economic activity.

In this case . . . the plain focus of the claims is on an improvement to computer functionality itself, not on economic or other tasks for which a computer is used in its ordinary capacity.

Accordingly, we find that the claims at issue in this appeal are not directed to an abstract idea within the meaning of Alice. Rather, they are directed to a specific improvement to the way computers operate, embodied in the self-referential table.

. . . [W]e are not faced with a situation where general-purpose computer components are added post-hoc to a fundamental economic practice or mathematical equation. Rather, the claims are directed to a specific implementation of a solution to a problem in the software arts.

However, the court clear here that Software Claims are patent eligible (as long as they are not abstract):

[We do not] think that claims directed to software … are inherently abstract and therefore only properly analyzed at the second step of the Alice analysis. Software can make non-abstract improvements to computer technology just as hardware improvements can, and sometimes the improvements can be accomplished through either route. We thus see no reason to conclude that all claims directed to improvements in computer-related technology, including those directed to software, are abstract and necessarily analyzed at the second step of Alice, nor do we believe that Alice so directs. Therefore, we find it relevant to ask whether the claims are directed to an improvement to computer functionality versus being directed to an abstract idea, even at the first step of the Alice analysis.

I think it makes sense to begin with a look at the claims at issue for a moment.

In thinking through abstract idea step-one, the court considered Microsoft’s proposal that the claims are directed to “the concepts of organizing data into a logical table with identified columns and rows where one or more rows are used to store an index or information defining columns.”  Microsoft’s statement here is absolutely true, but the court rejects it as too “high level of abstraction” that is “untethered from the language of the claims.”  If the court followed that approach, it would render the step-one all but meaningless.

Now, all of this talk about the improved computer operation might make you think that the claims are rather complex. They are not.  Claim 17 of the ‘604 Patent, for instance simply requires a means for creating and indexing a self-referential logical table.

17. A data storage and retrieval system for a computer memory, comprising:

means for configuring said memory according to a logical table, said logical table including: a plurality of logical rows, each said logical row including an object identification number (OID) to identify each said logical row, each said logical row corresponding to a record of information; a plurality of logical columns intersecting said plurality of logical rows to define a plurality of logical cells, each said logical column including an OID to identify each said logical column; and

means for indexing data stored in said table.

In considering the claim, the court found that “the self-referential table recited in the claims … is a specific type of data structure designed to improve the way a computer stores and retrieves data in memory.”  As such, it is not an abstract idea.

= = =

[1]  At issue are U.S. Patent 6,151,604 (claims 17, 31, and 32) and U.S. Patent 6,163,775 (claims 31 and 32).  Both patents claim priority to a 1995 back when Enfish was a vibrant dotcom.

Open Access and its Role in the Development of Science and Technology

I am enjoying the new paper out of Trento (Italy) Law & Technology Group on the benefits of Open Access (OA) to publications and data and its role in scientific development:

OA’s main function is … the ability to subvert the power to control science’s governance and its future directions, a power that is more often found within the academic institutions rather than outside. By decentralising and opening-up not just the way in which scholarship is published but also the way in which it is assessed, OA removes the barriers that helped turn science into an intellectual oligopoly even before an economic one.

[Margoni, Caso, Ducato, Guarda & Moscon 2016]

While scientific publication is slowly moving to an open access model, patents have been there since well before the internet revolution.  It would be interesting to apply their model to the patent system retrospectively and consider

Precedent and Process in the Patent Trial and Appeal Board

Guest post by Saurabh Vishnubhakat, Associate Professor of Law at the Texas A&M University School of Law.  Prof. Vishnubhakat was an advisor at the USPTO until June, 2015, although his arguments here should not be imputed to the USPTO or to any other organization.

On May 9, the USPTO Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) designated five opinions as “precedential”—the most significant of the four labels that the agency attaches to its administrative decisions.  This action is itself a milestone, as the USPTO has designated only three other opinions as precedential over the last 22 months.  So this is a useful moment to examine the process by which PTAB opinions become precedential and to consider what this new body of administrative precedent means for the patent validity review procedures created by the AIA.

What the Current Precedential Opinions Say

The eight PTAB precedential opinions themselves are as follow:

Designated as Precedential in May 2016

Designated as Precedential in January 2016

Designated as Precedential in July 2014

What the PTAB Designations Mean

PTAB opinions come in four varieties—until recently, it was three—and each serves a different function.  The most difficult to designate and so the rarest are precedential opinions, which are binding in all future cases before the PTAB unless and until they are superseded by later binding authority.  Two particularly strong motivations for designating an opinion as precedential is to resolve a conflict among multiple PTAB decisions and to address novel questions.

By contrast, the largest and least significant set of opinions are routine; all opinions are routine by default, and some further action is necessary to elevate an opinion’s status.  Routine opinions are still binding as to the particular case, but should generally not be cited as persuasive authority except as to their particular facts.

In the middle are two more types of non-binding opinions: informative and representative.  Informative opinions articulate the PTAB’s norms on recurring issues and offer guidance both on issues of first impression and on PTAB rules and practices.  Representative opinions offer a sample of typical decisional outcomes on a given matter.  Until recently, the only middle category was informative opinions, which presented guidance on the rules and practices of the PTAB, representative samples of opinion types, or representative samples of outcomes. On September 22, 2014, the PTAB created a new category for representative opinions—ranked below informative opinions.

In short, representative opinions are a descriptive curation of routine opinions.  Informative opinions go beyond merely surveying an issue and synthesize some further normative guidance.  Precedential opinions go further still and make the synthesis binding.

How the PTAB Designates Opinions

The process for designating opinions resides in the PTAB’s Standard Operating Procedure No. 2 (Rev. 9, Sept. 22, 2014).  Any member of the PTAB may nominate an opinion to be designated as representative, informative, or precedential.  This includes the Director and Deputy Director of the USPTO and the Commissioners for Patents and Trademarks as ex officio members.  Interested parties and members of the public may nominate an opinion within 60 days of its issuance to be designated as precedential.  Nominations are received and referred by the Chief Judge of the PTAB.

Upon a nomination to make an opinion precedential, members of the PTAB discuss the proposal for a prescribed period (usually 10 business days) and then vote.  Approval by a majority sends the opinion to the Director, whose approval is also necessary.  Upon approval by the Director, the opinion is designated as precedential and published (with appropriate notice and opportunity for written objection where confidentiality applies under 37 C.F.R. § 1.14).

For opinions already designated as precedential, any member of the PTAB may suggest that later authority has overcome the opinion’s precedential value.  If first the Chief Judge and then the Director both agree, then the opinion loses its precedential force, and a notice of the change is posted in its place among the list of precedential PTAB opinions.

The Chief Judge of the PTAB may designate any opinion as informative or representative so long as it is not already precedential.

Why the PTAB’s Precedents (and Process) Matter

Both the content of the PTAB’s body of precedential opinions and the PTAB’s process have important implications for ex post administrative review of patent validity.

As to content, it is telling that all eight precedential opinions pertain to the procedural structure of IPR and CBM proceedings, particularly insofar as that procedural structure interacts with the structure of patent litigation in the federal courts.  The separation of patent powers between the executive and the judiciary is now before the Supreme Court in multiple cases, and this body of precedential opinions should be understood as a signal of the USPTO’s strong interest in shoring up its regime of administrative adjudication.

The opinions in SecureBuy, LG Electronics, and Oracle address when earlier civil actions do and do not bar a petition for PTAB review.  Westlake Services addresses estoppel in future CBM review, and there is good reason to expect that the same reasoning will apply to the parallel statutory language that governs IPR estoppel.  Lumentum Holdings rejects a jurisdictional view of certain procedural requirements, preserving the PTAB’s broad authority to choose its cases.  MasterImage 3D frames a patent owner’s ability to amend claims during review.  And Bloomberg and Garmin Int’l address limits on trial-type discovery in both the IPR and the CBM/PGR contexts.  Making these procedural and structural decisions into binding authority is, by definition, intended to bring uniformity to the PTAB’s large and increasing body of case law.

The need for such uniformity is particularly strong right now.  The Supreme Court in Cuozzo v. Lee is evaluating whether the PTAB’s authority in instituting petitions is truly nonreviewable.  The Court in Cuozzo is also considering whether the PTAB’s claim construction standard can properly remain unaligned with federal court standards, a question that turns significantly on the ability of patent owners to amend their claims during review.  The trial-like nature of PTAB proceedings is more generally under attack as to whether IPR and CBM review violate the separation of powers doctrine and the Seventh Amendment jury trial right, as the recent cert petition in MCM Portfolio LLC, Petitioner v. Hewlett-Packard Company (No. 15-1330) suggests.  In this environment of Supreme Court scrutiny, a persuasive argument that PTAB practice is proceeding with institutional coherence may do much to influence the USPTO’s autonomy in administering the validity and scope of patent rights.

Immediate action for Human Resource Departments on the Defend Trade Secrets Act

by Dennis Crouch

The Key: Starting May 12, 2016 all employers will be required by Federal Law to provide a notice-of-immunity to employees and contractors “in any contract or agreement with an employee [or independent contractor] that governs the use of a trade secret or other confidential information.” (If the DTSA is enacted as expected.)

Whistle Blower Immunity: The Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) amends 18 U.S.C. 1832 to provide limited whistle blower immunity. The headline for the provision is “immunity from liability for confidential disclosure of a trade secret to the government or in a court filing.”  Thus, an action that would otherwise count as trade secret misappropriation will be immunized if the disclosure:

(A) is made (i) in confidence to a Federal, State, or local government official, either directly or indirectly, or to an attorney; and (ii) solely for the purpose of reporting or investigating a suspected violation of law; or (B) is made in a complaint or other document filed in a lawsuit or other proceeding, if such filing is made under seal.

The statute is clear that the immunity extends to protect against both state and federal law; both civil and criminal allegations.  A statute also (unnecessarily in my view) includes a provision that allows someone “who files a lawsuit for retaliation by an employer for reporting a suspected violation of law” to disclose trade secrets to his attorney and “use the trade secret information in the court proceeding” so long as documents containing the trade secrets are filed under seal and are not disclosed except by court order.[1]

Under these rules, it seems that the party planning to disclose another’s trade secret in open court should first seek an order of permission from the judge. And, at that point, the court will be required to allow the third party to explain the importance of the trade secret.[2]

Required Notice to Employees and Independent Contractors: Under the provision, employers are required to provide notice of the immunity “in any contract or agreement with an employee [or independent contractor] that governs the use of a trade secret or other confidential information.”  The statute suggests that this may be done via reference to a policy document rather than restating the entire immunity provisions in each agreement.  The statute does not appear to have any small-business exception to the notice requirement.

Failure to Comply with the Notice Requirement has a fairly small penalty: If the employer later sues the employee (or independent contractor) for trade secret misappropriation under the DTSA, the employer will not be able to collect exemplary double-damages or attorney fees.  No other specific penalties are provided, but neither does the statute indicate that these are the sole potential penalties.  I could imagine the FTC pursuing employers who fail to provide the notice (but likely only as part of a larger enforcement campaign). In addition, you might imagine a class action suit against major employers who fail to provide the notice. Finally, since this is a requirement of all contracts involving trade secret or confidential information, failure to provide the notice in a particular instance could be seen as evidence that either (1) there was no agreement or (2) the agreement did not involve trade secrets.[3]

Who Needs the Notice?: The notice requirement applies to employees as well as “any individual performing work as a contractor or consultant for an employer.”  Although the statute does not define ‘individual,’ I believe that the best interpretation is that individuals include only humans and not business entities. This conclusion is based upon the statute’s implicit distinction between “entities” and “individuals.”  A common situation might be a start-up company contracting with a cleaning company to do the janitorial work.  Do the people doing the actual vacuuming and cleaning need to have received the notice?  The statutory answer to that will depend upon how a court construes the language “performing work as a contractor or consultant for an employer.”  At this point, a cautious trade secret holder who wants the benefits of notice would ensure that those individuals are also provided notice.

Timing:  The DTSA will be effective once enacted and apply to “any act” that “occurs on or after the date of enactment.”  I expect that President Obama will sign the DTSA on May 11, 2016 and that will be its enactment date.  The notice requirement will “apply to contracts and agreements that are entered into or updated after the date of enactment of this subsection.”  Thus, as of May 12, 2016 employers must begin providing notice under the law.

Earlier this week, the White House issued a new white paper on the problems created by the existence of so-many covenants not-to-compete binding low-skilled workers.  Of course, this new notice requirement will mean that more employer HR departments will now be considering if it is time to add those contracts (along with the notice requirement).

= = = = =

[1] A potential hole in the provisions involves arbitration proceedings (that are common in employee disputes) since, immunity applies to court disclosures and disclosures to government officials, but not expressly to private arbitrators.

[2] This process is outlined in the newly added 18 U.S.C. § 1835(b).

[3] I think it is an important topic for another time stems from how the statute subtly distinguishes between a “contract” and an “agreement” and also between “trade secrets” and “other confidential information.”

White House on Non-Competes and Trade Secrets

While still apparently fully on-board with ramping-up US trade secrecy law through the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA), the White House has also released a new report that criticizes non-compete agreements and state laws that over-zealously enforce those agreements.  Although the report recognizes that non-compete agreements are wrapped-up with trade secrecy enforcement, but suggests that a large number of non-competes are not used for that purpose. The U.S. Treasury Department released a parallel report in March 2016

The White House report explains:

[T]he U.S. economy faces a number of longer-run challenges, some of which go back several decades. In at least part of the economy, evidence suggests that competition for consumers and workers is declining, and the number of new firms each year is experiencing a downward trend. In addition to this trend, there has been a decrease in ‘business dynamism’—the so-called churn of firms and who is working for whom in the labor market— since the 1970s. One factor driving these issues may be institutional changes in labor markets, such as greater restrictions on a worker’s ability to move between jobs. To address these and other issues that limit competition in the marketplace, the President has directed executive departments and agencies to propose new ways of promoting competition and providing consumers and workers with information they need to make informed choices, in an effort to improve competitive markets and empower consumers’ and workers’ voices across the country. Building on these efforts, this document provides a starting place for further investigation of the problematic usage of one institutional factor that has the potential to hold back wages—noncompete agreements. These agreements currently impact nearly a fifth of U.S. workers, including a large number of low-wage workers. . . .

The main economically and societally beneficial uses of non-competes are to protect trade secrets, which can promote innovation, and to incentivize employers to invest in worker training because of reduced probability of exit from the firm. However, evidence indicates that non-competes are also being used in instances where the benefit is likely to be low (e.g., where workers report they do not have trade secrets), but the cost is still high to the worker.

The White House is not expected to take any immediate action but rather is offering discussion points and will likely have further comments at the signing of the Defend Trade Secrets Act later this week.