All posts by Jason Rantanen

About Jason Rantanen

Jason is a Law Professor at the University of Iowa College of Law.

Studying the Mongrel: Why Teva v. Sandoz Won’t Solve Claim Construction

Guest post by Heather F. Auyang, Senior Counsel at LTL Trial Attorneys in San Francisco, California. The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the views or opinions of LTL Trial Attorneys.

This is the Teva-update to last summer’s Patently-O Guest Post titled “Why Lighting Ballast Won’t Solve Claim Construction” (http://patentlyo.com/patent/2013/07/guest-post-why-lighting-ballast-wont-solve-claim-construction.html), which discussed two then-recently published empirical studies – a study of “close cases” (analyzing all post-Markman claim construction cases where the Federal Circuit panel was split) and a study of “reversals” (analyzing all post-Phillips claim construction cases in which the Federal Circuit reversed the district court).   Updates to both studies have now been published in a sequel article, which provides further explanation and answers to some of the questions that were raised in this very forum last year.  The past year’s data is unsurprising – it is exactly what the models provided by the original studies predicted, and it confirms, yet again, that changing the standard of review will not have a particularly beneficial effect on claim construction predictability or consistency. This conclusion is based on two key facts shown by the data:  (1) that Federal Circuit judges remain divided on how to approach the task of claim construction, and (2) that when district courts are reversed, it’s almost always because they have misapplied settled claim construction principles.  In fact, giving more deference to district courts will likely exacerbate, rather than fix, problems with claim construction.

The close cases study (of 105 cases) continues to show that each Federal Circuit judge who has participated in more than five close cases falls into a distinct camp.  Judges Wallach, Linn, Clevenger, and Moore “go broad” in over 66% of close cases (Judge Rader was also in this group); Judges Bryson, Prost, Mayer, Schall, and Dyk “go broad” in between 47% and 55% of close cases; and Judges Newman and Lourie “go broad” in under 31 percent of close cases.

As pointed out last year, if the goal is to make claim construction more predictable, a good place to start would be to ensure that all the Federal Circuit judges are following the same rules of claim construction.  This data clearly shows that they are not.  While any given judge in any given opinion can cite the same agreed-upon rules, the rules are not preventing significant differences in approach among the judges.  Last year’s post and article posited that some judges are expressly or implicitly following an “actually invented” standard that other judges reject.  Whatever the explanation, until these differences are ironed out, tinkering with other issues – like deference to district courts – is unlikely to be productive.

The reversals data (based on 153 cases) is even more relevant to the question of deference than is the close cases data, since it deals directly with the relationship between the Federal Circuit and the district courts.  Focusing on reversals makes sense because this dataset, presumably, includes the cases whose results would change if the Supreme Court determines that district courts should get more deference in claim construction.  Accordingly, these are the decisions that should be studied before one concludes that the current standard of de novo review should be changed.  As it turns out, the reversals data suggests that the high reversal rate is caused by district court error, not Federal Circuit arbitrariness. If that’s the case, why in the world are people advocating more deference to district courts?

The reversals study coded for whether the Federal Circuit decision was in a broadening or a narrowing direction.  The result for the 11-month period since the last study was a broadening rate of 87.5%, even higher than the previously-reported overall broadening rate of 72.5%.  In other words, in cases where district courts are “getting it wrong,” according to the Federal Circuit, they are systematically interpreting the claims too narrowly.  As pointed out last year, these narrowing interpretations typically enable district courts to grant summary judgment of non-infringement (or encourage the parties to enter such a stipulation), and thereby permit the Federal Circuit to review the claim construction issue without going through the trouble and expense of a trial.  In the year since then, we have not heard any other plausible explanation.  Last year’s post and article also challenged any advocate of deference to provide one or more examples from the “reversals” cases that (1) would have come out differently under a deference regime, and (2) should have come out differently.  We haven’t heard anything on that either.

This year’s article – including fancy color charts analyzing Federal Circuit judge proclivities across broad/narrow, less spec/more spec, pro-patent/anti-patent, and pro-affirm/pro- reverse; and pie-charts and tables for the reversals data –  is What Reversals and Close Cases Reveal About Claim Construction at the Federal Circuit – The Sequel, 13 J. Marshall Rev. Intell. Prop. L. 525 (2014) (available at http://repository.jmls.edu/ripl/vol13/iss3/3/). The comments here on last year’s article were of a very high caliber; hoping for the same again this time!

 

 

Alice, Artifice, and Action – and Ultramercial

Guest post by Emily Michiko Morris, Associate Professor, Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law

Anyone familiar with recent Supreme Court patent jurisprudence was perhaps disappointed but certainly not surprised by the Court’s latest decision, Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank Int’l. The Court once again left many questions unanswered and failed to provide a clear rubric for identifying patentable subject matter. When viewed within the broader context, however, Alice fits nicely within what is actually a long-standing pattern in § 101 cases. IF Ultramercial v. Hulu follows this pattern after its now second GVR, the Federal Circuit may finally affirm that the internet-mediate advertising method at issue there is unpatentable subject matter.

In What Is “Technology”?, I explain that as unmethodical as patentable subject matter often seems, two surprisingly consistent concepts explain how courts identify patentable subject matter. The article dubs these concepts “artifice” and “action.”

Artifice refers to the well-recognized requirement that patentable subject matter be the product of human ingenuity, not nature. Less appreciated is the fact that artifice requires more than just changes in structural or other physical characteristics; to be patentable, a claimed invention must also function in some new, non-naturally occurring way. We can see this latter point illustrated in the purification line of cases as well as Myriad, Funk Brothers, and Chakrabarty.

Much more obscure but more relevant to Alice is the concept of action. Roughly defined, action is the requirement of active rather than passive utility through operating, behaving, performing, or otherwise actively doing something; that is to say, an invention must be “self-executing.” Inventions that display, transmit, or even store information may satisfy the action requirement, but works such as laws of nature, mathematical algorithms, and “abstract ideas” are (perceived as) merely informational or descriptive in value and therefore unpatentably inert. Moreover, as Alice explains, the abstract idea category is not “confined to ‘preexisting, fundamental truth[s].’” By definition any purely informational or descriptive content, whether naturally occurring laws of nature and mathematical algorithms or human-made financial and economic methods, fails the action requirement. As the Court in Diamond v. Diehr put it, such works simply do not “perform[ ] a function which the patent laws were designed to protect.”

To the extent different tests appear to govern natural products versus laws of nature and abstract ideas, then, artifice and action – and more importantly, the circumstances in which each are likely to be invoked – account for these differences. Artifice obviously plays its largest role in cases involving products or laws of nature, whereas action is most important in cases involving abstract ideas and laws of nature. Nonetheless, patentability under § 101 requires both artifice and action.

Both Alice and Bilski illustrate what role action plays under § 101. The methods in both Alice and Bilski involved hedging risk during business transactions by relying on intermediaries, but more importantly, both methods served solely to inform parties about when they can safely transact. The Alice and Bilski opinions describe this as the abstract concept of intermediated settlement, but really it is just information – information about risk. As such, both methods were unpatentably inactive under § 101.

And although Alice differs from Bilski in that Alice’s method was computer-implemented, the Court found both methods to be unpatentable. Like artifice, action is also a scalar characteristic. Just as artifice depends on an invention’s perceived degree of alteration from nature, action depends on an invention’s perceived degree of activity, and despite Alice’s computer-implementation, the method was still not active enough under § 101.

Indeed, both Alice and Mayo emphasize the scalar nature of patentability under § 101. Under Mayo’s two-step test, a court first determines whether a claim is directed to a law of nature, natural phenomenon, or abstract idea. As the Alice Court observed, however, all inventions are directed to one of the patent-ineligible concepts at some level. The second and pivotal step is therefore to determine whether the claim demonstrates an “inventive concept” – that is, does the claim add elements “sufficient” and “enough” to establish patentable subject matter.

And to see that a sufficient “inventive concept” requires sufficient action, one need only look at how the Court treats computer-mediated elements with regard to patentability under § 101. Computers are widely regarded as “technological,” but much computer technology is “information technology,” and computer use primarily to manipulate data or other information thus adds no patentable action. Computer implementation in Alice’s method followed exactly this pattern – as the Court noted, the computer served only to create and maintain “shadow” accounts, obtain data, adjust account balances, and issue automated instructions. Accordingly, whether Alice claimed its invention as a method, system, or medium, the invention failed to provide an adequate “inventive concept” because it did not demonstrate sufficient action.

Under an artifice-plus-action standard, then, Ultramercial’s internet-mediated advertising method fails § 101. Ultramercial claimed a method of distributing copyrighted content for free in return for viewing an advertisement. The method is purely an exchange of informational and expressive content and performs no action whatsoever, and the claim’s cursory reference to the internet does nothing to add a “sufficient inventive concept.”

This is not to say, of course, that computer-implemented methods are never patentable subject matter. The Alice Court pointed out the difference between computers used purely for information processing and computers used to effect improvements in “any other technology or technical field,” or improvements in the function of the computer itself. Diehr’s computer-assisted rubber-curing process, for example, was adequately “technological” and therefore patentable, whereas the computer-implemented methods in Benson and Flook yielded “simply a number” and were therefore unpatentable. Per the view of the patent system, information processing is simply not “technological.” Similarly, computer or storage media that are distinguishable only by their informational or expressive content alone been held unpatentable if the content has no “functional” relationship with the device. The variable role that computers and other tangible devices can thus play in an invention may be why the Supreme Court rejected the machine-or-transformation test as the sole test for methods under § 101.

And while the discussion here focuses mostly on business methods, note that the Mayo two-step test as stated in Alice covers all patent-ineligible abstract ideas, laws of nature, and even phenomena of nature – all are subject to the same requirement that a claimed invention add “enough” to constitute a patentable inventive concept. For claims directed to phenomena of nature, “enough” means artifice and meeting the age-old test of “markedly different characteristics from any found in nature.” For abstract ideas, laws of nature, mathematical algorithms, mental processes, and all other forms of information, “enough” means action and demonstrating function beyond merely informing.

As simple as artifice and action may sound, however, patentable subject matter clearly remains a difficult and ambiguous issue. The difficulty lies in the scalar quality of both artifice and action and deciding where along these spectra any given new invention falls. The requisite degree of artifice and action has also varied over time as the liberality of patentable subject matter has waxed and waned, creating yet further uncertainty. Most significantly, where the line between patentable and unpatentable lies along the spectrum is entirely unclear. There are no bright-line rules and no magical claim elements that can guarantee patentability under § 101.

The Court has often (but not always, as our host Jason Rantanen has pointed out) expressed a preference for a “functional” approach to patent law, however: that is, a preference for standards over hard and fast rules. As stated in Bilski’s rejection of the machine-or-transformation test, to do otherwise would “make patent eligibility ‘depend simply on the draftsman’s art.’” True, the artifice-plus-action standard requires courts to make many judgment calls about where along the spectrum of artifice and action any given invention must fall before it can be considered patentable technology, but standards are often vague. Besides, patent law frequently must address these kinds of line-drawing exercises. The non-obviousness, utility, enablement, and even written description requirements all force courts to make judgment calls.

Compounding the difficulty is the fact that § 101 determinations are in the end based on nothing more than intuition. As I and a number of others have noted, none of the pragmatic justifications commonly cited in support of § 101, such as preemption and disproportionality explain how patentable subject matter determinations are actually made or, more importantly, why. Thus, although artifice and action consistently appear in patentable subject matter, the combination does not necessarily reflect the most efficient or “correct” way to define patentable subject matter. Rather, the combination merely reflects an underlying intuition about what constitutes technology. (In Intuitive Patenting, a companion article to What Is “Technology”?, I argue that there simply are no more objective bases on which to make these determinations.) Unfortunately, patentable subject matter’s intuitive nature leaves courts effectively unable to specify how they reached their determinations. This often leads to language that sounds more like non-obviousness, novelty, or utility than to § 101, but in the end, artifice and action are better explanations for these otherwise perplexing references.

Patent Examiners and Litigation Study

Guest Post by Prof. Shine Tu.  Dr. Tu is an Associate Professor of Law at the West Virginia University College of Law and a shareholder in PatentCore. His research focuses on large-scale empirical studies of the patent examination system.

In August of 2013, the GAO recommended that the PTO examine trends in patent infringement litigation and link this information to internal data on patent examination to improve the quality of issued patents and the patent examination process.  In our current study, we attempt to answer these questions: (1) which patent examiners are issuing litigated patents, (2) are examiners who are “rubber stamping” patents issuing litigated patents at a disproportionately higher rate, and (3) are examiners with less experience issuing more litigated patents?  In sum, do patent examiners who issue litigated patents have common characteristics?  Intuition would argue that those examiners who issue the most patents (approximately one patent every three business days) would exhibit a higher litigation rate.  Surprisingly, this study suggests that this is wrong.

This study uses two new patent databases, that code for nearly 1.7 million patents and approximately 12,000 patents that were litigated between 2010 and 2011.  This study determined that litigated patents mainly come from primary examiners who grant between 45-60 patents per year with between three to five years of experience.  These examiners are contributing to the litigated patent pool at a higher rate than expected.  Interestingly, the highest volume primary examiners (examiners who on average grant more than 80 patents per year and have more than 8 years of experience) do better than expected.

In the figures below, the dotted line represents the “expected litigation” based on the proportion of patents issued by the examiner.  The solid line represents the “actual litigation” rates seen.  Thus, when the solid line is above the dotted line, the examiners in that group issue more litigated patents than expected.  Conversely, when the dotted line is above the solid line, the examiners in that group issue less litigated patents than expected.

Figure 1Figure 2Certain structural factors, combined with the Preist-Klein type selection may explain the phenomena that primary examiners with 3-5 years of experience have higher than expected rate of litigated patents. During the first four or five years, when the examiner does not yet have full signatory authority, the examiner is under heavier scrutiny (review by a primary examiner as well as Quality Control).  During these years, the examiner removes easy cases from their docket (by allowing the clearly allowable cases, or by rejecting the unpatentable cases), and builds up a docket of “on the fence” applications.  Once a primary examiner obtains permanent full signatory authority (usually years 3 and above) are no longer heavily scrutinized. Additionally, production rates increase when a primary examiners acquires full signatory authority (usually an examiner moves to a GS-14 after gaining permanent full signatory status). Thus, new primary examiners who have permanent full signatory authority are in the new position of increased production rates while experiencing reduced supervision, with a larger docket of “on the fence” applications. Accordingly, these primary examiners (usually with more than 2-3 years of experience as a primary examiner) may issue these “on the fence” applications on their docket that they would have been hesitant to allow beforehand. Furthermore, applications that are “on the fence” might be more litigated than most patents. This is because strong patents could be allowed quickly by the examiner, and competitors would most likely need to license these patents, thereby avoiding litigation. Correspondingly, weak patents might take longer to issue, but would most likely not be litigated because of their weak standing. However, patents where validity is unclear may require litigation. These more uncertain patents may be issued at a higher rate when the primary examiner first receives full signatory authority (without supervision), thereby explaining the higher litigation rates in years 3-6.

There are many limitations to this study.  First, the database that we use is a broad database but suffers from some selection bias due to the examiner-matching step. Specifically, temporal selection bias occurs in the database since the examiner database contains only those patents that were issued between 2001 and 2012. Accordingly, litigations dealing with “older patents” (i.e., those patents issued before 2001) are not included in our database. Additionally, since we only have data starting from 2001, there may be a “left justification” issue.  Because we start at 2001, examiners who have worked prior to 2001 (inclusive) will be coded as working less years than they actually have worked.  For example, if an examiner started working in 1998 and quit in 2003, our database would code the examiner as working for 3 years, while in actuality the examiner was at the office for 6 years. We are currently segmenting the data to account for these examiners.  Accordingly, our results may be slightly positively skewed.

Another limitation is based on the fact that there are many reasons to bring litigation, but many of these reasons may not represent errors by the patent examiner. For example, a patent could be litigated and found invalid because of inequitable conduct. In this situation, the patent examiner may have issued a valid patent based on the fraudulent information given to her by the applicant. Another example deals with a patent that was found valid, but non-infringed. Here, the litigated patent may have been correctly issued, but litigated due to incorrect interpretation of the scope of the claims. Accordingly, simply because a patent is litigated, does not mean that there were errors made at the patent office.

To address these issues, we are currently working on a study that reviews only those patents that have been litigated to final judgment and found invalid. We then connect these invalidated patents to their corresponding examiners to determine if there are any common characteristics among the examiners who issue invalidated patents. However, we note that the pool of litigations that are litigated to final judgment dramatically reduces the sample size.

The paper will be published in 17 Stan. Tech. L. Rev. 507 (2014).  A draft of the paper is available on ssrn at: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2458140

Taming the Mongrel: Aligning Appellate Review of Claim Construction with its Evidentiary Character in Teva v. Sandoz

Guest Post by Peter. S. Menell, J. Jonas Anderson, and Arti K. Rai.  Below, they summarize their recently filed amicus brief in Teva v. Sandoz.

In its seminal Markman decision, the Supreme Court sought to usher in a more effective, transparent patent litigation regime through its ruling that “the construction of a patent, including terms of art within its claim, is exclusively within the province of the court.” Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc. (Markman II), 517 U.S. 370, 372 (1996). Notwithstanding the constitutional right to patent jury trials, the Court ruled that claim construction would no longer be conducted by lay jurors in shrouded deliberations. Rather, based on historical analysis of the role of juries in patent cases, characterization of the nature of claim construction, and a comparative assessment of judicial institutional capabilities, the Court concluded that the Seventh Amendment right of trial by jury did not extend to claim construction and that trial judges were better equipped than juries to resolve the mixed fact/law controversies inherent in construing disputed patent claim terms.

In the aftermath of Markman II, the Federal Circuit adhered to its Markman decision, Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc. (Markman I), 52 F.3d 967 (1995) (en banc) – that claim construction is a “purely legal issue” subject to plenary de novo review, see Cybor Corp. v. FAS Technologies, Inc., 138 F.3d 1448, 1451 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (en banc) – downplaying the Supreme Court’s more nuanced description of claim construction as a “mongrel practice” merely “within the province of the court.” Markman II, 517 U.S. at 372, 378. Over nearly two decades of experience in the post-Markman era, it has become apparent that the Federal Circuit’s adherence to its Markman I plenary de novo appellate review standard has frustrated district courts’ distinctive capabilities to apprehend and resolve the factual disputes inherent in claim construction determinations, undermined the transparency of the claim construction process, discouraged detailed and transparent explanations of claim construction reasoning, and produced unusual and at times alarming levels of appellate reversals. These effects have cast doubt on the predictability of patent litigation, discouraged settlements, delayed resolution of patent disputes, and run up the overall costs of patent litigation.

The Supreme Court’s Markman II decision points toward a balanced, structurally sound, legally appropriate, hybrid standard of appellate review that would promote more accurate and efficient patent dispute resolution. Factual determinations underlying claim construction rulings should be subject to the “clearly erroneous” standard of review, while the Federal Circuit should retain de novo review over the ultimate claim construction decision. In this manner, district court judges, in their capacity as fact-finders, could better surmount the distinctive challenges posed by the technical, mixed fact/law controversies inherent in patent claim construction. A hybrid standard would encourage district judges to identify the “person of ordinary skill in the art” and, where appropriate, build fuller, more transparent records to support their claim construction decisions. These effects would promote clearer substantive analysis, more settlements following claim construction and trial, more effective appellate review, and fewer reversals and remands.

A hybrid appellate standard is unlikely to undermine the national uniformity of the patent system. In any event, concerns about national uniformity and clarity of patent claims are more appropriately addressed through improvements to the patent prosecution process, meaningful implementation of the 35 U.S.C. §112(b) claim indefiniteness standard, post-grant review and reexamination procedures, consolidation of claim construction through multi-district litigation, and adjustments to substantive claim construction jurisprudence.

Our brief filed in Teva v. Sandoz can be accessed at: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2457958

Peter S. Menell is the Koret Professor of Law and Director of the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law (Boalt Hall), J. Jonas Anderson is an Assistant Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law, and Arti K. Rai is the Elvin R. Latty  Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Duke Center for Innovation Policy at Duke Law School.

Teva v. Sandoz: Teva’s Opening Merits Brief

By Jason Rantanen

Teva recently filed its merits brief in Teva v. Sandoz (previous PatentlyO discussion here and here).  It’s main argument on the issue of claim construction is that claim construction involves making findings of fact and Rule 52(a)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure states that “[f]indings of fact, whether based on oral or other evidence, must not be set aside unless clearly erroneous.”   In support of the first part of this argument, the brief points to determinations about the perspective offered by a person of ordinary skill in the art and the use of extrinsic evidence to resolve ambiguities; these, the brief argues, are inherently factual determinations for which deference should be given to the district court.

A key issue will be whether these types of judicial determinations are actually factual findings, or whether they are something else.  Certainly reviewing courts make determinations about some types of historical evidence all the time – one need only look at Justice Breyer’s discussion of legislative history and Congressional intent in Aereo for recent example – without invoking deference.  These determinations aren’t limited to “purposivists”: Justice Scalia’s originalist approach to interpreting legal statutes, for example, involves looking to how the text would have been understood at the time it was issued, something that can involve historical linguistic research.  Figuring out whether the “facts” involved in claim construction are akin to something like legislative history or the historical determinations involved in an originalist approach, or instead are the type of “facts” encompassed by Rule 52 is central to the invocation of that rule.  Much of Teva’s brief seeks to tackle this challenge, arguing that the facts involved in claim construction are exactly the kinds of facts that are encompassed by Rule 52.

Of these arguments, I found the most compelling to be the point that even as  determinations such as the knowledge of a person of ordinary skill in the art are factual and reviewed with deference in one context (such as obviousness and enablement), they are reviewed without deference in claim construction.  It will be interesting to see how Sandoz responds.

One important tension that the brief fails to resolve, however, is the key question of how deference on factfinding plays into decisions about claim construction.  If the ultimate determination of the meaning of claim terms remains one of law, does that basically invite an obviousness-like determination wherein certain subsidiary issues – such as the knowledge possessed by a PHOSITA and content of extrinsic evidence – are reviewed with deference, but the reviewing court makes the final determination, weighing each of the various pieces of information, without deference?  Or is it something else?

The brief does seem to indirectly offer a vision of how deference to factual findings should work, but it strikes me as leaving no place for the other side of the mongrel practice: the legal component.  The vision offered by the brief appears in Part IV., on pages 53-54, where Teva argues that the Federal Circuit erred by not granting deference to the district court on the “understanding of Figure 1, of SEC technology,
and of the prosecution history.”  In other words, Teva’s view of deference manifests as the lens through which the interpreter of the legal doctrine looks at not just the extrinsic evidence (the SEC technology), but also the patent document itself and the prosecution history.  If this is the correct approach to deference – that the reviewing court must give deference to the district court’s interpretation of the patent document and prosecution history – it is hard for me to see anything left that isn’t entitled to deference.  (Maybe the ordinary meaning of the claims themselves?  But that’s “the ordinary meaning to a person of skill in the art,” so that doesn’t work.).  This “lens” approach to deference seems to go too far, in my mind, and is fundamentally at odds with the way other factual findings and deference work in patent law doctrines such as nonobviousness and enablement.

The brief also challenges the various rationales for reviewing factual issues in claim construction de novo: “Markman requires it” argument, the interpretation of legal documents is a question of law argument, and the uniformity argument.  It also  argues that allowing de novo review of facts on appeal produces poorer decisions and is costly to the patent system, citing to the reversal rate data.  (Although this latter point seems to depend heavily on how deference is actually implemented – it would seem that the de novo review of certain subsidiary elements of claim construction, alone, would have only a very marginal effect on decision quality and litigation cost).

You can download a copy of the brief here: Teva’s Opening Brief

Teva v. Sandoz: Standard of Review for Claim Construction(?)

By Jason Rantanen

While many eyes will be on the Supreme Court on Monday when it releases its decision in Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius, the term is over for patent cases.  Over the past few months, the Court issued an astonishing six patent law-related opinions (almost 10% of the Court’s docket), covering ground from claim definiteness (Nautilus) to the exceptional case standard in Section 285 (Octane, Highmark) to multi-actor infringement (Limelight) to the burden of proof in noninfringement declaratory judgment actions (Medtronic) to the ever-present patentable subject matter case (Alice).  Three of these opinions (AliceHighmark, and Limelight) resolved deep intra-circuit splits at the Federal Circuit.  Altogether, this term profoundly altered the landscape of patent law jurisprudence.  Perhaps more important than the substance of the Court’s opinions was the change itself: through opinions such as Nautilius and Alice, the court made it clear to participants that the law of patents can be a dynamic, changing thing, an organicness that forward-thinking patent attorneys and agents – even more than litigators – will be forced to grapple with.

I’ll be talking more about this year’s developments in patent law at the Wisconsin State Bar Association’s annual Door County Intellectual Property Academy in a few weeks, and the Supreme Court will certainly take center stage.  Dennis will be there as well.

For now, though, the next major event in patent law jurisprudence is likely to be the Court’s opinion in Teva v. Sandoz, in which the Petitioner posed the question:

Whether a district court’s factual finding in support of its construction of a patent claim term may be reviewed de novo, as the Federal Circuit requires (and as the panel explicitly did in this case), or only for clear error, as Rule 52(a) requires.

But this case is more complex than the (relatively) simple issue of deference in appellate review of claim constructions.  At the trial court level, the district judge did not simply construe the claim in a way unfavorable to Sandoz, the accused infringer.  Rather, the district judge rejected Sandoz’s argument that the claim term “Average Molecular Weight” was indefinite and construed the claim in Teva’s favor.  On appeal the Federal Circuit reviewed the issue of claim definiteness without deference and concluded that the term was indefinite (applying it’s pre-Nautilus standard of “not amenable to construction” or “insolubly ambiguous”).  

Herein lies the sticky part: If one takes the view that questions of claim definiteness and claim construction are effectively one and the same, then this case squarely presents a question about the appropriate standard of review for claim construction. This seems intuitive: both revolve around determining claim meaning.

But treating issues of claim definiteness and construction as if they are just different sides of the same coin runs into a glitch if there is a factual component: one issue (definiteness) arguably comes with a “clear and convincing” evidentiary standard while the other (claim construction) does not.  (While there is a canon that claims should be interpreted to preserve their validity, it’s  a weak one that only operates as a last resort.  See Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303, 1327 (Fed. Cir. 2005) (“While we have acknowledged the maxim that claims should be construed to preserve their validity, we have not applied that principle broadly, and we have certainly not endorsed a regime in which validity analysis is a regular component of claim construction.”).)  If different evidentiary standards are being applied to the factual components of each, then claim definiteness and claim construction must be separate issues.

If this logic is sound and claim definiteness and construction are distinct issues, then Teva v Sandoz is really only about the standard of review on the issue of claim definiteness, not about the standard of review of claim construction.  But the observation about evidentiary standards notwithstanding, it seems counterintuitive to say that the question of whether “a patent’s claims, viewed in light of the specification and prosecution history, inform those skilled in the art about the scope of the invention with reasonable certainty” is somehow different from how those skilled in the art would interpret the claims.  And Teva’s Brief, which I’ll summarize tomorrow, treats indefiniteness and claim construction as if they were the same thing.

How, then, could the Court escape this conundrum of different evidentiary standards for what is essentially the same determination, aside from concluding both are pure issues of law, a position that would be at odds with Markman and probably Nautilus?   First, the Court could conclude that indefiniteness does not implicate the clear-and-convincing evidence standard.  The Court went halfway there in Nautilus, observing that the “presumption of validity does not alter the degree of clarity that §112, ¶2 demands from patent applicants,” but left open the question of whether subsidiary issues of definiteness trigger the clear-and-convincing evidence standard.  A second possibility would be for the Court to implement a “clear-and-convincing” evidentiary standard for issues of fact in claim construction (although how that would work in a form other than the current pro-validity canon, I have no idea).

There are also some less-than-helpful options that would further churn up the muddy bottom of patent law. It’s entirely possible that the Court could issue an opinion solely addressing the issue of whether or not the appellate court must grant deference to district court factual findings on the issue of indefiniteness, and leave unanswered the question of whether deference is appropriate in the context of claim constructions.  Or, it could avoid discussing the appropriate evidentiary standards for claim construction and indefiniteness (as it did in Nautilus), instead leaving folks to ponder whether they are the same or different.

I’ll also make the observation that after the Court granted certiorari in this case, it issued Nautilus v. Biosig, which lowered the standard for finding claims indefinite.  Even if the Court were to reverse in this case – ruling that factual issues in claim construction and claim definiteness are entitled to deference – it would seem that the inevitable result would be a remand to the Federal Circuit, and then probably to the district court, to apply the new standard.

PTO Issues Alice-based Examination Instructions

By Jason Rantanen

Today, the patent office issued new instructions (download: PTO Alice Instructions) for patent examiners to follow when examining claims for compliance with Section 101.  This practice is similar to those  it followed after the Court issued other substantive patent law opinions.  One important component of the new instructions are that they make it clear that going forward, the PTO will be applying the Mayo v. Prometheus framework to all types of inventions:

[T]he following instructions differ from prior USPTO guidance in two ways:

1) Alice Corp. establishes that the same analysis should be used for all types of judicial exceptions, whereas prior USPTO guidance applied a different analysis to claims with abstract ideas (Bilski guidance in MPEP 2106(1I)(B)) than to claims with laws of nature (Mayo guidance in MPEP 2106.01).

2) Alice Corp. also establishes that the same analysis should be used for all categories of claims (e.g., product and process claims), whereas prior guidance applied a different analysis to product claims involving abstract ideas (relying on tangibility in MPEP 2106(Il)(A)) than to process claims (Bilski guidance).

In addition, the PTO provides a bit of guidance for determining whether a claim will fail one of the two steps.  For the first step (determine whether the claim is directed to an abstract idea), the memorandum provides four examples of abstract ideas referenced in Alice:

  • Fundamental economic practices;
  • Certain methods of organizing human activities;
  • “[A]n idea of itself; and
  • Mathematical relationships/formulas

If an abstract idea is present in the claim, the examiner should proceed to the next step, determining whether any element or combination of elements in the claim  sufficient to ensure that the claim amounts to significantly more than the abstract idea itself.  Examples of limitations that may be sufficient to qualify as “significantly more” include:

  • Improvements to another technology or technical fields;
  • Improvements to the functioning of the computer itself;
  • Meaningful limitations beyond generally linking the use of an abstract idea to a particular technological environment.

Examples of limitations that are not enough to qualify as “significantly more” include:

  • Adding the words “apply it” (or an equivalent) with an abstract idea, or mere instructions to implement an abstract idea on a computer;
  • Requiring no more than a generic computer to perform generic computer functions that are well-understood, routine and conventional activities previously known to the industry.

Read the entire memorandum here:  PTO Alice Instructions. Thanks to David Taylor at SMU Law for sending me a copy of the memo.

If you thought Alice v CLS Bank lacked a useful analytic structure

wait until you read Aereo.

By Jason Rantanen

American Broadcasting Cos., Inc. v. Aereo, Inc. (2014) Download ABC v Aereo

This morning the Supreme Court issued the much-awaited opinion in American Broadcasting Cos. v. Aereo, in which a 6-3 majority concluded that Aereo’s subscription television service, which uses thousands of small antennas and other equipment housed in a warehouse, violates the petitioners’ exclusive rights to perform their copyrighted works publicly within the meaning of the Transmit Clause.  Writing for the majority, Justice Breyer eschewed formal distinctions, instead reasoning that if it’s basically the same as a duck, it’s a duck:

In other cases involving different kinds of service or technology providers, a user’s involvement in the operation of the provider’s equipment and selection of the content transmitted may well bear on whether the provider performs within the meaning of the Act.  But the many similarities between Aereo and cable companies, considered in light of Congress’ basic purposes in amending the Copyright Act, convince us that this difference is not critical here.  We conclude that Aereo is not just an equipment supplier and that Aereo “perform[s].”

Much of the critiques and discussion immediately following the release of the opnion focused on the difficulty in applying this “looks-like-cable-TV” rule to the vast ecosystem of current and emerging content access, distribution and dissemination technologies.  These criticisms mirror points made by Justice Scalia in dissent (who used the “looks-like-cable-TV” term):

III. Guilt By Resemblence

The Court’s conclusion that Aereo performs boils down to the following syllogism: (1) Congress amended the Act to overrule our decisions holding that cable systems do not perform when they retransmit over-the-air broadcasts; (2) Aereo looks a lot like a cable system; therefore (3) Aereo performs.  [] That reasoning suffers from a trio of defects

(Internal citation omitted).

While Aereo unquestionably has profound implications for the technology sector generally, for patent law purposes it offers another insight into how the Judges might approach the issue of claim construction that is currently being briefed in Teva v. SandozAereo involved a question of statutory interpretation – itself undeniably a question of law.  Here, the majority adopted a legislative history/legislative intent/legislative purpose that resulted in something akin to the “essence” of the statute being what was really important.  The dissent would have applied a much more formal textualist approach in ascertaining its scope.  It is the first of these two approaches that seems to me to be strikingly similar to how the Court has approached patent claims in recent opinions when directly confronted with substantive issues in cases such as KSR, Bilski, and Alice.  If the Court does embrace a more purposivist approach to claim construction in Teva, it would be dramatically alter the landscape of patent claims even more than its decisions on substantive doctrines such as nonobviousness and patentable subject matter.

Of course, the question presented in Teva is nominally only about the question of whether deference to district courts on issues of claim construction is appropriate, not about claim construction philosophies generally.  That said, it seems to me that it will be difficult for the Court to avoid interjecting its views on claim construction into whatever opinion it issues on deference.

The Three Faces of Prometheus: Alice and Generic Application

Today continues our mini-symposium on Alice v. CLS Bank with a guest post by Jeffrey A. Lefstin, Professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.  

Alice Corp. marks the Supreme Court’s eighth subject-matter eligibility case since the 1952 Act. Without question, the most problematic aspect of the Supreme Court’s § 101 jurisprudence has been discerning the actual test for patent-eligibility. In Mayo v. Prometheus, the Court purported to establish a general framework for subject-matter eligibility: that to be patent-eligible, a claim must include an “inventive concept” beyond an underlying fundamental principle, such as a law of nature, natural phenomenon, or abstract idea. The Court’s omission of significant reference to Mayo in Association for Molecular Pathology raised some doubt as to whether Mayo defined a universal test for eligibility under § 101.  Yet Alice Corp. appears to confirm that Mayo is a universal framework for discriminating between ineligible principles and patent-eligible applications.

Mayo’s ambiguity led to the Federal Circuit’s fracture when it heard CLS Bank en banc.  Mayo suggested three possible tests for patent-eligibility, without committing definitively to any one of them:  inventive application, pre-emption, and “more than just apply it.” Justice Thomas’s opinion in Alice does not expressly commit to a single interpretation of Mayo. Yet Thomas’s presentation of Mayo, his framing of the Court’s prior precedent, and his application of Mayo to Alice’s claims all indicate that Alice endorses the last aspect of Mayo: that a claim must do more than set forth a fundamental principle and add a generic instruction to “apply it.”  If this interpretation is correct, then Alice may in the long run be more significant for fields such as biotechnology, where Mayo’s “inventive application” aspect has cast doubt on the patent-eligibility of many discovery-based inventions.

Mayo’s first test of patent-eligibility is a test for inventive, or non-obvious, application of a fundamental principle.  Drawing from Flook, where Justice Stevens wrote that “conventional and obvious” post-solution activity cannot transform an unpatentable principle into a patentable process, and Funk Brothers, where Justice Douglas held that a composition of matter was not patentable because the patentee’s application was “a simple step” once his discovery was assumed away, Justice Breyer invalidated Prometheus’s claims because the steps of the claimed method beyond the underlying natural law were merely “well-understood, routine, conventional activity already engaged in by the scientific community.” Breyer contrasted those steps with the additional steps claimed in Diamond v. Diehr, which in context were not “obvious, already in use, or purely conventional.”  The Mayo Court drew support for this test from the Court of Exchequer’s 1843 opinion in Neilson v. Harford, where the patent was said to have been sustained because the patentee implemented his newly discovered principle “in an inventive way.”*  This view of Mayo – that obvious applications of fundamental principles are not patent-eligible – was the one taken by the Northern District of California in the Ariosa v. Sequenom litigation, where Judge Ilston invalidated Sequenom’s claims largely because once Sequenom’s discovery of cell-free fetal DNA in the maternal bloodstream was assumed to be known, the application in the form of a test for fetal abnormalities required only routine and well-known methods of DNA amplification.

The second test of eligibility suggested by Mayo is a test of pre-emption. The Court explained that subject-matter exclusions were grounded in pre-emption, echoing Benson’s concern that patents should not monopolize “the basic tools of scientific and technological work.”  Mayo seemed to state that pre-emption was analytically secondary to categorical exclusion:  the concern that Prometheus’s claims would tie up too much future use of the underlying natural laws “simply reinforces our conclusion” that the claimed processes were not patent-eligible.   Yet Breyer’s opinion intertwined pre-emption with inventive application as a criterion for patent-eligibility:  Diehr was described as a case where the patentee had not sought to pre-empt the use of the Arrhenius equation. While the patentee in Flook had failed to “limit the claim to a particular application,” the supposedly unconventional steps in Neilson had “confined the claims to a particular, useful application of the principle.” This interpretation of Mayo was followed by the majority of the Federal Circuit when it heard CLS Bank en banc. Both Judge Rader and Judge Lourie rejected the notion that Mayo’s “inventive concept” demanded “inventiveness” in the sense of a non-obvious application. And while they disagreed on the proper framework, both Judge Lourie and Judge Rader founded their analyses on the question of whether Alice’s claims would pre-empt every practical application of the underlying abstract idea.

But Mayo suggests a third test beyond inventive application or pre-emption: that a claim must represent more than a mere direction to apply a fundamental principle. According to Justice Breyer, one could not transform a law of nature into a patent-eligible application by simply disclosing the law of  nature, and adding the words “apply it;” Einstein or Archimedes, for example, could not have patented their famous discoveries by merely appending an instruction to apply them. This aspect of Mayo has received the least attention in subsequent cases and commentary. And yet in Justice Thomas’s opinion in Alice, it is this aspect of Mayo that becomes the core of the doctrine.

In Alice’s framework, once it has been determined that a claim is drawn to an abstract idea, ‘step two’ of the Mayo test is to determine whether it contains an “inventive concept” sufficient to transform the claim into a patent-eligible application. But in contrast to Flook and Mayo, “inventive concept” in Alice bears little trace of “inventiveness.” Justice Thomas does describe the computer implementation in Alice as “conventional.” But nowhere does he label it non-inventive, and the word obvious is conspicuously lacking from the opinion. And while Alice hardly addresses the Federal Circuit’s opinions at all, it may be significant that Thomas never contradicts Judge Lourie’s and Judge Rader’s rejection of “inventiveness” as an aspect of “inventive concept” in their CLS Bank opinions.
The contrast between Alice and Mayo is most apparent in their treatment of Diehr.  In Mayo, the claims in Diehr represented an inventive application of the Arrhenius equation, and were not “obvious, already in use, or purely conventional.” But in Alice, the claims in Diehr were sustained not because they were non-obvious, but because “they improved an existing technological process,” and achieved a result the industry had not been able to obtain. Likewise, in Mayo, the failing of the Flook claims was that the steps of the claim were well-known, conventional or obvious; in Alice, while Thomas notes that the Flook implementation was purely conventional, Flook primarily stands for the proposition that limitation to a particular technological environment does not render an abstract idea patent eligible.

As for pre-emption, which intertwined so closely with inventive application in Mayo, is hardly present for ‘Mayo step two’ in Alice. Again the characterization of precedent is telling: in Mayo, the claim in Benson was vulnerable because it was “overly broad.”  In Alice, Benson requires a “new and useful” –  but not inventive – application of an idea for patent eligibility, but the lesson of Benson is that simply implementing a principle on a computer is not a patentable application.

For Justice Thomas, the ‘step two’ inquiry involves neither inventiveness nor pre-emption, but revolves around Mayo’s proscription against “more than just apply it.” Alice follows Flook and Mayo in holding that “conventional” activity cannot transform a principle into a patent-eligible application, but in Alice “conventional” seems to connote generic more than it connotes obvious.  Thus Thomas introduces ‘step two,’ the search for an inventive concept, by invoking the third aspect of Mayo: patent-eligible application requires more than a statement of the abstract ideas plus the words ‘apply it.’  And while Thomas notes that the measuring steps in Mayo were “well known in the art,” he again quotes the ‘more than apply it’ language from Mayo to establish that those steps adding nothing of significance to the underlying natural law.

Most significantly for the Alice analysis, Thomas ends his summary of Mayo by quoting language that played little role in Mayo itself: it was not that conventional steps cannot supply an ‘inventive concept,’ but “conventional steps, specified at a high level of generality” (emphasis added) could not supply an inventive concept. For it is genericness, not lack of invention or pre-emption, that dominates the remainder of Thomas’s opinion.  His summary of the Court’s § 101 jurisprudence touches upon the notion of pre-emption, but emphasizes above all else the requirement of “more than generic” application:

These cases demonstrate that the mere recitation of a generic computer cannot transform a patent-ineligible abstract idea into a patent-eligible invention. Stating an abstract idea “while adding the words ‘apply it’” is not enough for patent eligibility. Nor is limiting the use of an abstract idea “‘to a particular technological environment.’ ” Stating an abstract idea while adding the words “apply it with a computer” simply combines those two steps, with the same deficient result. Thus, if a patent’s recitation of a computer amounts to a mere instruction to “implemen[t]” an abstract idea “on . . . a computer,” that addition cannot impart patent eligibility. This conclusion accords with the pre- emption concern that undergirds our §101 jurisprudence. Given the ubiquity of computers, wholly generic computer implementation is not generally the sort of “additional featur[e]” that provides any “practical assurance that the process is more than a drafting effort designed to monopolize the [abstract idea] itself.”

(citations omitted).

Similarly, Alice’s application of the test to the claims in suit emphasizes “more than apply it” and generic application;  the question for Justice Thomas “is whether the claims here do more than simply instruct the practitioner to implement the abstract idea of intermediated settlement on a generic computer.” Thomas does describe the functions performed by the computer as “routine, conventional, and well-known in the field,” but his characterization serves to support the conclusion that the claimed steps do nothing more than define generic computer implementation. And taken as a whole, the claims at issue fail not because they lack inventiveness, nor because they reach too broadly, but because they amount to “’nothing significantly more’ than an instruction to apply the abstract idea of intermediated settlement using some unspecified, generic computer.

So Alice may fail to provide clear boundaries for the eligibility of computer-implemented inventions. But it could clarify something more important.  As I have described in a recent paper, the actual test for patent-eligibility in cases like Neilson v. Harford, and in American jurisprudence for the next century, was a requirement that the patentee claim a specific mode of application of a fundamental principle, rather than a generic claim to the principle as applied. If Alice does indeed endorse the third aspect of Mayo, then the test for patent-eligibility is not a question of non-obvious application, nor a question of pre-emption, but a question of whether the claim does significantly more than state a fundamental principle coupled with an instruction to “apply it.” Embracing that aspect of Mayo could signal a return to the historical standard of patent-eligibility.

*As I discussed in a previous post, the Court’s reliance on Neilson in Mayo and Flook was entirely misplaced.  The patent in Neilson was sustained not because the patentee’s implementation was inventive, but precisely because it was entirely conventional and well-known in the art.

The Supreme Court’s Alice Decision on Patent Eligibility of Computer-Implemented Inventions: Finding an Oasis In the Desert

Guest Post by Donald S Chisum, Director of the Chisum Patent Academy and author of Chisum on Patents.

In Alice (June 19, 2014), the Supreme Court held that the two step framework for determining the Section 101 patent-eligibility of a patent claim, which the Court previously articulated in the 2012 Mayo decision on the patentability of a diagnostic method, applied to computer-implemented inventions.  Thus, one determines: (1) does the claim recite an ineligible concept (natural phenomena, natural law or abstract idea), and (2) if so, does the claim recite sufficient additional elements to make the claim one to an application of the concept, rather than to the concept itself?

On Mayo step one, Alice held that the claims at issue were to an abstract idea, an “intermediated settlement.”  On step two, it held that “merely requiring generic computer implementation” did not “transform that abstract idea into a patent-eligible invention.”  Thus, claims to a method, a computer system configured to carry out the method, and a computer-readable medium containing program code for performing the method all fell invalid under Section 101.

I considered but then reconsidered entitling this comment “Alice in Wonderland.”  For, indeed, the Supreme Court’s chain of decisions creating a judicial exception to the statute defining patent eligible subject matter (35 U.S.C. § 101) and holding unpatentable claims to algorithms and abstract ideas, stretching from Benson in 1972 to Alice in 2014, is wondrous.  But I will not here review the “big picture,” including the fundamental flaws in the chain; I and others have already done that.

Instead, my focus is on the “small picture,” the every day problem: does the Alice opinion provide some meaningful guidance to fill the near void left by the Court in its prior Mayo and Bilski decisions?  Those decisions provided no definition of an “abstract idea” (or “law of nature”) and little direction on, precisely, how much “more” was required for the transformation.

The Court’s fuzz left stranded in a desert of uncertainty an array of feet-on-the-ground decision makers, from inventors to rights owners to patent professionals drafting and amending claims to examiners to PTO officials to licensing negotiators to litigators to district court judges to federal circuit judges to treatise authors.

Positive news.  At least on first analysis of Alice, I find some additional guidance, perhaps enough to lead us toward an oasis in the desert.

In particular, the Alice opinion supports the following proposition:  a novel and unobvious solution to a technical problem is not an “abstract idea,” and a claim drawn to such a solution, even if broad, is not subject to the Mayo framework (though, of course, it is subject to scrutiny for disclosure support).

The Alice opinion does not state the proposition directly.  The Court expressly indicated that it did not need to “delimit the precise contours of the `abstract ideas’ category” because the concept at issue was so similar to that in Bilski.  But the proposition is fairly inferred from the Court’s rejection of the patent owner’s argument that the intermediated settlement concept in its claims was not an “abstract idea” within the implicit exception to Section 101 and from its novel description of the prior Diehr decision.

Based on prior Supreme Court cases and language in Mayo, the patent owner argued that the definition of “abstract ideas” for Section 101 was: “preexisting, fundamental truths that exist in principle apart from any human action.”  The Court disagreed because that definition did not fit Bilski, which held that risk hedging was an abstract idea. Hedging was a “longstanding commercial practice” and a “method of organizing human activity,” but not a “truth” about the natural world that “always existed.”  Hedging and the similar concept of intermediated settlement were abstract ideas because they were “fundamental economic practices.”

Thus, concepts that constitute abstracts ideas fall into two categories.  First are mathematical equations, mathematical formulae and algorithms (at least ones of a mathematical nature, and, I would emphasize, not all algorithms are mathematical or numerical).  Second are methods of “organizing human activity,” at least if they constitute a fundamental economic practice “long prevalent in commerce.”

What’s left out of the “abstract idea” category?  The Court in Alice declined to say explicitly, but there are hints in its discussion of the 1981 Diehr decision in connection with the second Mayo step.  The Court noted that Diehr had held a computer-implemented process for curing rubber was patent eligible, not because it involved a computer but rather because “it used that equation in a process designed to solve a technological problem in `conventional industry practice.”  It reiterated: “the claims in Diehr were patent eligible because they improved an existing technological process, not because they were implemented on a computer.”  In contrast, the claims in Alice did not “improve the functioning of the computer itself” or “effect an improvement in any other technology or technical field.”

The Court had discussed and distinguished the Diehr case before, in both Bilski and Mayo, but never on the basis that Diehr entailed a technological improvement.  Thus, the Alice discussion of Diehr in terms of a solution to a technical problem is important new ground.

Hence there are strong grounds for the proposition that a patent claim reaches a safe harbor from Section 101 abstract idea scrutiny, including the Mayo second question for an “inventive concept,” if the claimant establishes that the claim is directed to a solution of a technological problem.  This definition of abstract idea as excluding applied technology accommodates the case law treating pure mathematical statements, economics and finance, and schemes of a non-technical character (“methods of organizing human activity”) as “abstract ideas” that must be include additional elements to achieve patent eligibility (Mayo step two).

Is this shift in focus to “technological” an oasis of greater clarity?  No doubt there will be arguments about what is technological and what is not.  But there are at least three advantages to the verbal change.  First, technology is the historic core of the patent system, especially given  the Constitutional phrase “useful Arts,” which is 18th century terminology for “technology” in 21st century terminology.  Thus, an inquiry about the technological is much less of an alien intruder than prior Supreme Court language about the abstract idea exception to Section 101.  Second, evaluating the Section 101 abstract idea prohibition in terms of technological versus non-technological conforms to the language Congress used in Section 18 of the America Invents Act in setting up special PTO review of business method patents.  Finally, a technology test aligns the United States standard with the language used in Europe and elsewhere to address exceptions to patent eligible subject matter.

SCOTUSblog symposium on Alice v. CLS Bank

By Jason Rantanen

SCOTUSblog is publishing a series of essays on Alice v. CLS Bank.  Current participants include:

David KapposSupreme Court leaves patent protection for software innovation intact

From the perspective of the parties involved, this week’s Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank decision held that a process that lessens settlement risk for trades of financial instruments is too abstract for patenting. However, to the leagues of interested onlookers holding their collective breath across our country and indeed around the world, the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling subtly conveyed a much more significant judgment:  software, as a class, is every bit as worthy of patent protection as any other medium in which innovation can be practiced.

Robert MergesGo ask Alice — what can you patent after Alice v. CLS Bank?

Those of us who sweat in the clammy gymnasia of patent law have been waiting – with a mix of excitement, dread, and cynical disregard – for the Alice v. CLS Bank decision.  The idea was, when the Court took the case, that we would finally have an answer to the question whether software can be patented under U.S. law. To say we did not get an answer is to miss the depth of the non-answer we did get. Reading the opinion reminds me of a famous passage in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  Acolytes wait at the feet of a giant supercomputer, which 7.5 million years before had been asked “What is the meaning of life?”  Finally, after eons of waiting, the computer spoke.  Its answer was: “42.”  The acolytes went forth, armed with this non-answer.  And life went on.  So it is with us, in the patent field. We have met our “42,” and its name is Alice.  Now life must go on.

Justin NelsonFor patent litigants, Court affirms status quo

The reaction from patent litigants to the Supreme Court’s decision yesterday in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank was one big shrug.  The decision was exactly as expected.  While the Court made clear that abstract ideas remain unpatentable, it “tread[ed] carefully” in construing patentability.  Indeed, the most notable part of the decision was that it shied away from any grand pronouncements.  Rather, it relied heavily on prior cases such as Bilski v. Kappos, Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc., and Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics. As the Court correctly concluded, “[i]t follows from our prior cases, and Bilski in particular, that the claims at issue here are directed to an abstract idea.”  Yet it went no further than necessary: “[W]e need not labor to delimit the precise contours of the ‘abstract ideas’ category in this case.  It is enough to recognize that there is no meaningful distinction between the concept of risk hedging in Bilski and the concept of intermediated settlement at issue here.”

Sandra Park - The Supreme Court as promoter of progress

Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank International revisits a fundamental question about our patent system:  which patents promote the progress of science?

There’s also a detailed analysis and commentary by John Duffy that begins:

Although Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank was identified by this website and many other commentators as a major case on patent law, the Supreme Court’s unanimous resolution of the case does little to change, or even to clarify, pre-existing law.  The case becomes the fourth Supreme Court decision since 2010 to hold patent claims invalid based on judicial exceptions to patentability. While Alice Corp. is only an incremental addition, the continuation of that larger trend is hugely important because, as the Court itself acknowledges, the judge-made doctrine in this area has the potential to swallow all of patent law.

Guest Post by Prof. McKenna: The Implications of Blackhorse v. Pro-Football, Inc.

Professor Mark P. McKenna of The University of Notre Dame Law School is one of the leading scholars of trademark law.  Below, he provides his thoughts on the legal consequences of the TTAB’s decision in Blackhorse v. Pro-Football, Inc.

The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) just wrote another chapter in the long-running battle over the registration of the Washington Redskins trademarks. In Blackhorse v. Pro-Football, Inc., the Board cancelled 6 federal registrations of various Redskins marks (including stylized versions and logos – though not the one currently used by the team) on the ground they were disparaging to a significant proportion of Native Americans at the time of registration. As most readers of this blog likely know, this is the second time the TTAB has ordered cancellation of the marks – in 1999, after seven years of litigation, the Board cancelled the marks, finding them scandalous and disparaging. That ruling did not stand up on appeal, and the petitioners in this case are different. (Significantly, unlike the petitioner in Harjo, the petitioners’ claims here were not barred by laches.)

There are many things one could say about this ruling – about its societal significance, about the legal standard the TTAB applied (especially the focus on a “substantial composite” of the affected group), or about the likelihood that the decision with withstand appellate review. I am going to focus here on the legal consequences of the decision, assuming it stands. (The PTO will not actually remove the marks from the register until the team has exhausted its appeals.) Contrary to some of the press reports on the decision, cancellation does not entail loss of exclusivity of the marks. In particular it does not mean that the marks are not enforceable under federal law. It simply means that the marks will no longer be federally registered and therefore will not receive any of the benefits of registration.

The team will lose the benefits of the statutory presumption of validity and incontestability. And it will lose the benefit of nationwide constructive use. For many other parties, limiting protection to the geographic areas of actual use would be a significant consequence, but here that is unlikely to be important since the team very likely has nationwide rights by virtue of its actual use. Of perhaps greatest economic consequence, the government will no longer seize imported goods bearing any of the cancelled marks, since only goods bearing registered trademarks are subject to forfeiture. 19 U.S.C. § 1526. And none of the civil or criminal counterfeiting provisions will apply, as counterfeits are by definition making unauthorized use of registered marks. 15 U.S.C. § 1116; 18 U.S.C. § 2320.

These consequences are not meaningless, of course, but they are not nearly as significant as some have made them out to be. ESPN’s report, for example, claimed that the decision stripped the team of all federal rights, and that, if the decision stands, “any fan can produce and sell Washington Redskins gear without having to pay the league or the team for royalties and wouldn’t be in violation of any law for doing so.” It’s obviously not news that press reports mischaracterize legal decisions, but these kinds of statements pretty egregiously overstate things, in my view. That would be true even if there were no federal enforcement of the cancelled marks, since the logos themselves were not cancelled and any merchandise bearing both the word marks and the logos is almost certainly subject to enforcement. But it’s not even true that there will be no federal enforcement of the cancelled marks.

Of course, all of this depends on the assumption that courts do not interpret §2(a) to impose a limitation on one’s ability to enforce rights in an unregistered mark under §43(a). I would have thought that assumption was pretty uncontroversial, but some discussions of the new decision suggest that not all my colleagues in the academy share my view. One recent district court decision (Renna v. County of Union, N.J., 2014 WL 2435775, No. 2:11–3328 (D.N.J. May 29, 2014)) is on their side – that case held that marks barred from registration (in that case, under § 2(b)) could not be enforced under §43(a) either. (See here for Rebecca Tushnet’s analysis of the case). If that conclusion were generalizable, then today’s decision on the Redskins marks would have much more significant effect, since it would leave the football team with only state law rights, and those rights might be uncertain given courts’ general tendency to interpret state law as identical to federal law. But I think people are reading far too much into a single district court case, and that in any case Renna is wrong to conflate registrability under § 2 with protectability under §43(a).

Section 2 of the Lanham Act begins “No trademark by which the goods of the applicant may be distinguished from the goods of others shall be refused registration on the principal register on account of its nature unless …”. Thus, to be registrable, the claimed designation must (1) be a trademark; and (2) not run afoul of any of the limitations in subsections (a)-(f). That is to say that only a subset of trademarks qualify for registration, and the subsections of § 2 identify the boundaries of that subset. When the Lanham Act was originally drafted, it was fair to say that the limitations on registrability demarcated the universe of trademarks that warranted federal protection. When the Lanham Act was passed, it was clear that only federally registered marks were enforceable under federal law; unregistered marks could be enforced, if at all, only through a common law unfair competition claim. Thus, the unfair competition cases primarily involved unregistrable marks. As I explained here, those common law unfair competition claims were, post-Erie, state law claims. But federal courts were (probably unjustifiably) concerned that this would give rise to a lack of uniformity in the law, and beginning around the mid-1960’s they began to interpret §43(a) to embrace a cause of action for infringement of unregistered marks. In other words, they expanded the federal statute to embrace the claims that previously would have been relegated to the common law.

With this very brief history in mind, one can see just how radical is the claim that the registration bars apply in § 43(a) cases – the claim fully conflates registered and unregistered marks, applying all of the same limitations to unregistered marks despite the fact that § 43(a) was expanded specifically for the purpose of providing a federal cause of action for unregistrable marks. That would be a truly remarkable departure, and one that draws no support from the text of § 43(a), which makes actionable use of “any word, term, name, symbol, or device, or any combination thereof, or any false designation of origin, false or misleading description of fact, or false or misleading representation of fact, which … is likely to cause confusion, or to cause mistake, or to deceive as to the affiliation, connection, or association of such person with another person, or as to the origin, sponsorship, or approval of his or her goods, services, or commercial activities by another person.” Note that nothing in the section requires that the confusion result from use of a designation that meets the registrability requirements. There’s a reason for that.

It is therefore wrong, in my view, to say that the § 2 bars apply in § 43(a) cases, at least categorically. Nevertheless, one can understand why a court might be attracted to the argument that bars to registrability should be understood as bars to protection, full stop. After all, courts, with the active encouragement of trademark plaintiffs, have spent the last several decades eviscerating the substantive differences between trademark infringement and unfair competition. Indeed, the project has been so successful that courts and commentators alike now routinely say that registration status is largely irrelevant for purposes of enforcement. Such a sweeping claim is, of course, somewhat overstated, since registration obviously can affect priority and the geographic scope of rights in addition to the statutory presumptions and incontestability. Nevertheless, for most purposes courts have treated registered and unregistered marks the same, and the Supreme Court said in Two Pesos that “it is common ground that § 43(a) protects qualifying unregistered trademarks and that the general principles qualifying a mark for registration under § 2 of the Lanham Act are for the most part applicable in determining whether an unregistered mark is entitled to protection under § 43(a).”

I think courts that say this mean to say that the distinctiveness and functionality rules are the same for registered and unregistered marks (save for the question of which party bears the burden), and that infringement is determined the same way in either context. In this respect it is telling that these kinds of statements nearly always precede general statements of legal principles and that they rarely, if ever, accompany any real statutory analysis. The reason is that the registrability requirements and fundamental questions of trademark validity are, and have long been, understood to be distinct issues.  It is not simply that trademark rights arise through use such that one can develop trademark rights without having ever applied for a trademark registration. It is that the Lanham Act imposes requirements for registrability that simply do not apply to unregistered marks. (Some of the registrability requirements – non-genericness, for example – go to validity, and those obviously do apply in §43(a) cases, but not because they are registration requirements.)

It is, of course, possible that courts would import into § 43(a) cases some particular bars to registration for policy reasons, just as common law courts might have had policy reasons to refuse to provide unfair competition remedies in particular cases. And perhaps there are good policy reasons for courts to deny protection to disparaging marks in any context. But it is worth noting that nothing has precluded parties from making these policy arguments before, and hardly anyone has done so. We have not, for example, seen defendants disputing the validity of unregistered marks on the ground that they are primarily geographically deceptively misdescriptive. That could be because it has just taken a long time for litigants to discover these arguments, given how much § 43(a) has changed over time. But I think it’s much more likely that most people have assumed that arguments about registrability have no purchase in the context of enforcement of an unregistered mark.

Finally, even if one thought the § 2 bars ought to apply generally in § 43(a) cases, we should be reluctant to import the § 2(a) bars specifically, since barring enforcement of scandalous, immoral, or disparaging marks raises even more serious constitutional questions than does refusing registration. Section 2(a) has occasionally been challenged on the ground that it denies government benefits on the basis of the content of speech. Courts have rejected that argument primarily on the ground that § 2 only precludes registration and does not proscribe conduct or prevent use of a mark. That reasoning has always been suspect to me, but it is significantly more questionable if it is to be understood to mean that the restrictions are constitutional simply because they do not forbid use rather than because they leave the user with the ability to rely on use-based rights. If we can expect courts to start applying the § 2(a) bars in the context of unregistered marks, we can expect to see this issue litigated much more pointedly.

Mark P. McKenna is the Associate Dean for Faculty Development, Professor of Law, and Notre Dame Presidential Fellow at the Notre Dame Law School.

Alice v. CLS Bank: Claims Invalid Under Section 101

By Jason Rantanen

Alice Corporation Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank International (2014)

Download opinion here: Alice v CLS

This morning the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Alice, unanimously affirming the Federal Circuit and finding all claims drawn to patent ineligible subject matter under Section 101.  Justice Thomas wrote for the opinion for the Court.  It begins:

The question presented is whether these claims are patent eligible under 35 U. S. C. §101, or are instead drawn to a patent-ineligible abstract idea. We hold that the claims at issue are drawn to the abstract idea of intermediated settlement, and that merely requiring generic computer implementation fails to transform that abstract idea into a patent-eligible invention.

The opinion includes both the actual language of representative claims (in a footnote) and the court’s interpretation of them (in the body of the opinion).  The latter is primarily what the court focuses on:

In sum, the patents in suit claim (1) the foregoing method for exchanging obligations (the method claims), (2) a computer system configured to carry out the method for exchanging obligations (the system claims), and (3) a computer-readable medium containing program code for performing the method of exchanging obligations (the media claims). All of the claims are implemented using a computer; the system and media claims expressly recite a computer, and the parties have stipulated that the method claims require a computer as well.

The Court next summarizes the long-standing nature of the law of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas exception to patent eligibility, and reiterates that these exceptions are driven by a concern about pre-emption, balanced against caution in allowing the exceptions to swallow all of patent law:

Accordingly, in applying the §101 exception, we must distinguish between patents that claim the “‘buildin[g] block[s]’” of human ingenuity and those that integrate the building blocks into something more, Mayo, 566 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 20), thereby “transform[ing]” them into a patent-eligible invention, id., at ___ (slip op., at 3).

Next comes the first key part: the Court reiterates the framework described in Mayo v. Prometheus, including the inventive concept language:

In Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc., 566 U. S. ___ (2012), we set forth a framework for distinguishing patents that claim laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas from those that claim patent-eligible applications of those concepts. First, we determine whether the claims at issue are directed to one of those patent-ineligible concepts. Id., at ___ (slip op., at 8). If so, we then ask, “[w]hat else is there in the claims before us?” Id., at ___ (slip op., at 9). To answer that question, we consider the elements of each claim both individually and “as an ordered combination” to determine whether the additional elements “transform the nature of the claim” into a patent-eligible application. Id., at ___ (slip op., at 10, 9). We have described step two of this analysis as a search for an “ ‘inventive concept’”—i.e., an element or combination of elements that is “sufficient to ensure that the patent in practice amounts to significantly more than a patent upon the [ineligible concept] itself.” Id., at ___ (slip op., at 3).3

Applying this framework, the Court first found the claims directed to an abstract idea.:

On their face, the claims before us are drawn to the concept of intermediated settlement, i.e., the use of a third party to mitigate settlement risk. Like the risk hedging in Bilski, the concept of intermediated settlement is “ ‘a fundamental economic practice long prevalent in our system of commerce.’”

It then concluded that the claims also failed the second step: “the method claims, which merely require generic computer implementation, fail to transform that abstract idea into a patent eligible invention.”

Here’s the second piece of key language, which relates to the computer-implemented nature of the claims:

These cases [MayoFlook, Benson, and Diehr] demonstrate that the mere recitation of a generic computer cannot transform a patent-ineligible abstract idea into a patent-eligible invention. Stating an abstract idea “while adding the words ‘apply it’” is not enough for patent eligibility. Mayo, supra, at ___ (slip op., at 3). Nor is limiting the use of an abstract idea “‘to a particular technological environment.’” Bilski, supra, at 610–611. Stating an abstract idea while adding the words“apply it with a computer” simply combines those two steps, with the same deficient result. Thus, if a patent’s recitation of a computer amounts to a mere instruction to“implemen[t]” an abstract idea “on . . . a computer,” Mayo, supra, at ___ (slip op., at 16), that addition cannot impart patent eligibility.

It is irrelevant that a computer is a physical object:

There is no dispute that a computer is a tangible system (in §101 terms, a “machine”), or that many computer-implemented claims are formally addressed to patent-eligible subject matter. But if that were the end of the §101 inquiry, an applicant could claim any principle of the physical or social sciences by reciting a computer system configured to implement the relevant concept. Such a result would make the determination of patent eligibility “depend simply on the draftsman’s art,” Flook, supra, at 593, thereby eviscerating the rule that “‘[l]aws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas are not patentable,’” Myriad, 569 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 11).

Applying this standard, the Court concluded that the claims at issue here did nothing “more than simply instruct the practitioner to implement the abstract idea of intermediated settlement on a generic computer.”  Slip Op. at 14.

Note that the Court’s ruling applies to the method claims, the computer system claims, and the computer-readable medium claims.  Here’s the third bit of key language; I predict it’s going to tie folks in knots:

As to its system claims, petitioner emphasizes that those claims recite “specific hardware” configured to perform“specific computerized functions.” Brief for Petitioner 53.But what petitioner characterizes as specific hardware—a“data processing system” with a “communications controller” and “data storage unit,” for example, see App. 954,958, 1257—is purely functional and generic. Nearly every computer will include a “communications controller” and “data storage unit” capable of performing the basic calculation, storage, and transmission functions required by the method claims. See 717 F. 3d, at 1290 (Lourie, J., concurring). As a result, none of the hardware recited by the system claims “offers a meaningful limitation beyond generally linking ‘the use of the [method] to a particular technological environment,’ that is, implementation via computers.”

Put another way, the system claims are no different from the method claims in substance. The method claims recite the abstract idea implemented on a generic computer;the system claims recite a handful of generic computer components configured to implement the same idea. This Court has long “warn[ed] . . . against” interpreting §101“in ways that make patent eligibility ‘depend simply on the draftsman’s art.’”

Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ginsburg and Breyer, agreed that the method claims here were drawn to an abstract idea, but concurred to express agreement with Justice Stevens’ view in Bilski that a “claim that merely describes a method of doing business does not qualify as a‘process’ under §101.”

 

 

Judge Chen and Nonobviousness

By Jason Rantanen

The past two weeks have seen a substantial number of nonobviousness opinions emerge from the Federal Circuit.  These decisions are particularly interesting because they contain pairs of opinions with opposite outcomes.  Judge Lourie, the second longest-tenured active judge on the court, wrote two of them while Judge Chen, the second-newest member of the court, wrote a third and a dissent in the fourth.  Each found (or would have found) the patents in question to be obvious in one opinion and nonobvious in the other.  For those interested in the jurisprudential views of Judge Chen, especially, the pairing may provide some useful insights.

Allergan, Inc. v. Apotex Inc. (Fed. Cir. 2014) Download Allergan v. Apotex
Panel: Prost (author), Reyna, and Chen (dissenting in part)

Allergan and Duke University hold a pair of patents relating to an ophthalmic solution used as a treatment for eyebrow hair loss.  Allergan sells LATISSE a 0.03% bimatoprost ophthalmic solution as a topical treatment for eyebrow hair loss.  After Apotex and other manufacturers submitted Abbreviated New Drug Applications to the FDA seeking to market generic versions of LATISSE, Allergan and Duke sued for infringement.  Following a bench trial, the district court rejected the generic manufacturers’ invalidity arguments, found infringement, and entered an injunction.  The manufacturers appealed.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit addressed claim construction, anticipation and obviousness, affirming the district court’s contested claim construction of “treating hair loss” and its determination that the patents were not anticipated, but reversing the finding of nonobviousness.  I could write a lengthy post on the majority opinion alone, but this passage particularly caught my eye since it relates specifically to the issue of what subjects the Federal Circuit considers to be issues of law versus fact in the nonobviousness inquiry:

In sum, even if the district court did not commit clear error in its findings of fact, failure to consider the appropriate scope of the ’029 patent’s claimed invention in evaluating the reasonable expectation of success and secondary considerations constitutes a legal error that we review without deference.

Slip Op. at 23 (emphasis added).  The substantial breadth of the asserted claims of the ’029 patent was particularly troubling to the majority, both in assessing the Graham factors and the nexus for secondary considerations.

Writing in dissent, Judge Chen would have found the ’029 patent to be nonobvious.  In reaching this conclusion, he placed much more weight on the determination of the examiner during prosecution:

To begin with, issued patents enjoy a presumption of validity, which can only be rebutted by clear and convincing evidence. Microsoft Corp. v. i4i Ltd. P’ship, 131 S. Ct. 2238, 2245–46 (2011). A party challenging a patent’s validity must do so with “evidence which produces in the mind of the trier of fact an abiding conviction that the truth of [the] factual contentions are highly probable.” Buildex Inc. v. Kason Indus., Inc., 849 F.2d 1461, 1463 (Fed. Cir. 1988) (citing Colorado v. New Mexico, 467 U.S. 310, 316 (1984)). This is not a burden that is easily satisfied.

Dissent at 2.  Particularly persuasive to Judge Chen was the fact that examiner considered the key reference during examination and allowed the claims over it following an amendment by the patentee:

In light of the particularly heavy burden to show obviousness over a reference disclosed during prosecution and discussed by the examiner, Appellants have
not shown that Johnstone now somehow teaches or suggests the very structural feature that the patentee claimed to distinguish the Johnstone compounds.

Id. at 4.  On his part, Judge Chen found the disclosure Johnstone reference to be meaninglessly broad and generic:

This is not a situation in which there are a finite number of identified, predictable solutions. See KSR Int’l Co. v. Teleflex Inc., 550 U.S. 398, 421 (2007). Rather, the
single sentence in Johnstone actually proposes hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of variations on the alpha chain. [] The compound in Johnstone
could have a saturated bond at any position on the alpha chain, an unsaturated bond at any position, a triple bond at any position, or even a combination of any of these bonds. As a result, a person of ordinary skill in the art was not faced with a “small or easily traversed” number of options based on Johnstone. [] In this instance, covering everything effectively tells us nothing.

Id. at 5-6 (internal citations omitted).

Bristol-Myers Squibb Company v. Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc. (Fed. Cir. 2014) Download BMS v Teva
Panel: Prost, Plager, Chen (author)

Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) owns Patent No. 5,206,244, which relates to certain antiviral compounds.  At issue was claim 8, which covers entecavir, a treatment for hepatitis B that BMS markets under the name BARACLUDE.  Teva submitted an ANDA seeking to market a generic version of entecavir; BMS sued for infringement.  After trial, the district court held claim 8 to be obvious based on the selection of 2′CDG as a lead compound from the prior and a finding that a skilled artisan would have been motivated to make the necessary modification with a reasonable expectation of success at creating a compound with beneficial antiviral properties.  BMS appealed.

Unlike the Allergan case, the analytic framework presented by the parties for the question of obviousness was the lead-compound approach.  BMS contended that the district court had erred in selecting 2′-CDG as a lead compound, a particular legal framework that is frequently used in chemical compound cases.  The Federal Circuit disagreed, agreeing with the district judge’s conclusion that “those of ordinary skill in the art would have selected 2′-CDG, a carbocyclic analog, as a lead compound for
further development efforts before BMS applied for the 244 patent in October 1990.”  Slip Op. at 10-11.   The appellate court also rejected BMS’s argument on motivation to modify the lead compound to make the patented compound, pointing to detailed evidence and testimony on why the modification would have been obvious.

Nor was the presence of unexpected results sufficient to establish nonobviousness on their own.

Contrary to BMS’s argument, unexpected results do not per se defeat, or prevent, the finding that a modification to a lead compound will yield expected, beneficial
properties. Rather, as secondary considerations of nonobviousness, they come into play in determining “the ultimate question of patentability.”

Secondary considerations of nonobviousness “must always when present be considered,” and can serve as an important check against hindsight bias. See Cyclobenzaprine, 676 F.3d at 1075-76, 1079 (quoting Stratoflex, Inc. v. Aeroquip Corp, 713 F.2d 1530, 1538-39 (Fed. Cir. 1983)). While secondary considerations must be taken into account, they do not necessarily control the obviousness
determination.

Slip Op. at 15-16.  Here, the district court did not commit error in its factual findings that the unexpected properties did not compel a finding of nonobviousness, and the two legal errors that it committed (“(1) comparing entecavir to another hepatitis B drug on the market instead of the closest prior art, 2′-CDG; and (2) inappropriately look[ing] to what the inventor knew at the time of the invention—instead of one of ordinary skill in the art—to determine what was expected.”  Slip Op. at 18) were harmless.

First Impressions: My reading of Judge Chen’s majority opinion is that it reflects a careful, thorough review of the district court’s opinion (which itself is helpfully quite detailed and Magistrate Judge Burke should be commended for his own thoughtful analysis).  Conclusions are supported by detailed discussions and even if one disagrees with the overall conclusion of obviousness here, that disagreement seems less likely due to the carefulness of his approach and more likely due to some of the core difficulties inherent in pharmaceutical innovation such as the challenge of ascertaining marketable in vivo efficacy and the high value our society places on large-scale data-driven safety and efficacy determinations, determinations that can be quite costly yet have little if any direct role in substantive patent law questions.

Another possible reading of these two opinions is that they reflect a fair amount of deference to the decision making of others more familiar withe the specific facts.  In Allergan, in addition expressly referencing the examiner’s decision to allow the patent, Judge Chen’s view would also have affirmed the district court’s ruling of nonobviousness.   And in BMS, Judge Chen drew heavily on the district court’s findings.  (That said, one reason why these opinions aren’t in as much tension as they might be is because the district court’s analysis of obviousness in Allergan was at least an order of magnitude thinner than that of the judge in BMS).  At this point, this is merely an observation, and we’ll have to wait for future opinions from Judge Chen.

“Mine-run” and other puzzles

By Jason Rantanen

I’m currently spending much of my time attempting to untangle the mess that is the law around Section 284 enhanced damages (i.e.: willful infringement) and Section 285 attorney fee awards (i.e.: exceptional case determinations).  Octane Fitness doesn’t reset the field so much as add a new layer to an already complex area of law, a layer that also potentially impacts willful infringement due to the Federal Circuit’s linking of the two standards.

There’s a term in Octane Fitness, though, that leaped out at me as I was reading the Court’s opinion.  In discussing what constitutes an exceptional case (and why the Federal Circuit’s objective + subjective standard is incorrect), Justice Sotomayor writes:

But a case presenting either subjective bad faith or exceptionally meritless claims may sufficiently set itself apart from mine-run cases to warrant a fee award.

572 U.S. ___ (2014), Slip Op. at 9.  Perhaps you’re all snickering, but I had no idea what “mine-run” meant so I went and looked it up.  (My first thought was that it had something to do with Minecraft, but I knew that couldn’t possibly be right.)  In the interests of sharing my new-found enlightenment, here’s the definition from Meriam-Webster Online:

1:  the unsorted product of a mine
2:  a product of common or average grade <the mine-run of commercial breads pall with continued eating — Lee Anderson>
The term “mine-run” turns out to be quite popular in recent Supreme Court opinions, appearing in 34 since 2000 (and only 5 in the two centuries before that based on my Westlaw search), although there’s no consensus on whether the term is “mine-run” or “mine run.”
This got me to thinking about other somewhat-Delphic references that the Justices have used in their patent law opinions.  (Or at least, esoteric to me).  The one that immediately comes to mind is the Court’s periodic reference to candles and games, which popped up most recently in FTC v. Actavis.  I’m not planning on doing an exhaustive search, but I suspect there are others.

Guest Post: The Rise of The End User in Patent Litigation (and Attorney Fee Shifting)

Professor Bernstein’s current scholarship focuses on the role of end users in the patent system.  Because end users are fast becoming major stakeholders in the operation of the patent system, I asked her to write a few words about how she conceives of these players. – Jason

Guest Post by Gaia Bernstein, Professor of Law, Seton Hall University School of Law

We usually think of two players in the patent system: the patentee and its competitor.  Increasingly, however, end users – who are neither patentees nor competitors – are playing a significant role in the patent system.  The attention of the press has recently turned to patent assertion entities who are suing vast numbers of customers using patented technologies in their everyday businesses.  For example, one patent assertion entity has sued individual podcasters, including the Comedian Adam Carolla. End users were also principal players in some of the recent patent cases before the Supreme Court. In Bowman v. Monsanto, Monsanto sued a farmer for re-using its patented seed technology. End users also appear as patent challengers: in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, patients and physicians sued to invalidate breast cancer gene patents. And patients and drug stores repeatedly challenge pay-for-delay agreements between patentees and competitors, claiming they undermine patients’ interests in access to generic drugs.  This is only the beginning: end users are likely to become even more prevalent in patent litigation, as 3D printers become more popular, making it more likely that an individual or a small business will make an infringing item that will expose them to patent liability.

All of this begs the questions what is an “end user” and how well is patent law suited to deal with this new player?  In The Rise of The End User in Patent Litigation, forthcoming in the Boston College Law Review, I define end users as people and companies that use a patented technology for personal consumption or in their business.  I emphasize that they are strictly users.  Even if they incorporate the patented technology into a product or service they offer their customers, they do not make or sell the technology standing by itself.  I explain that end users differ from competitors in three respects.  First, end users usually lack technological sophistication – they are generally not technological companies and do not produce and supply the allegedly infringing technology. Second, end users usually become involved in the patent conflict relatively late in the life of the patent, after the patented technology enters the market and achieves widespread adoption.  Third, end users are typically one-time players. In most cases the technology is ancillary to their business and they do not have a long-term stake.

Patent litigation is exorbitantly expensive. It is all the more expensive for end users who lack the technological expertise to challenge validity and infringement claims and cannot rely on in-house technological expertise. Because end users are often one-time players, they prefer to avoid the expense of patent litigation and settle even strong cases, making them a particularly lucrative target for patent owners. Unfortunately, even the most recent substantive patent law legislation, the America Invents Act (“AIA”) fails to address the growing role of end users. I show that while the AIA attempts to address the needs of small entities, mainly by adding and changing procedures to challenge patents in the patent office, thus providing a cheaper and faster forum for contesting validity, those same novel procedures are largely unsuitable for end users because they permit expansive challenges mostly early in the life of the patent before end users are likely to be involved in the patent dispute. The procedures that allow challenges later in the life of the patent limit the grounds available for challenging the patent. Thus, unlike even small competitors of the patent holder, end users are unlikely to benefit from the enhanced patent office proceedings put in place in the AIA.  The effect of this is to leave them without the very same tools that were implemented to protect small entities.

Ultimately, the rise of the end user is a complex phenomenon that needs to be addressed by a series of reforms, which I am addressing in other works in progress.  Here, however, I focus on the role that fee shifting of attorney fees and litigation expenses to the prevailing party can play in end user cases because a modest change could contribute toward leveling the footing of end users in all type of end user-patentee disputes.

Fee shifting in patent litigation has been a hot topic this year. Recently, the Supreme Court decided two fee shifting cases: Highmark v. Allcare and Octane Fitness v. ICON Health & Fitness. In Octane Fitness, the Court lowered the standard for awarding fee shifting in patent litigation. Congress is also considering multiple bills advocating different versions of fee shifting. The problem is that although some of the congressional bills address PAE’s suits against customers, neither these bills nor the Supreme Court decisions address the broader role that end users are now playing in our patent system. In the article, I argue that the case for fee shifting is strong where end users are implicated particularly because of the great inequality in technological sophistication between end users and patentees and because end users frequently represent many other parties who are not before the court. For these reasons, end user status should be considered as a factor that weighs in favor of fee shifting, particularly when the end user fits the paradigmatic form of a classic end user.

There is more in the article than I can write about here. If you are interested, please take a look at the full version. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2440914.

How will Nautilus affect indefiniteness at the PTO?

Guest post by Lisa Larrimore Ouellette (Visiting Fellow, Yale Law School Information Society Project) and Jonathan Masur (Deputy Dean and Professor of Law, University of Chicago Law School).

In our new draft article, Deference Mistakes, we examine indefiniteness doctrine as one example of how decisionmakers sometimes mistakenly rely on precedents in inapposite contexts. So we were very interested in the Supreme Court’s reformulation of the indefiniteness standard in Nautilus v. Biosig on Monday, and particularly in how this decision will affect the indefiniteness standard applied in the examination context.

Pre-Nautilus, claims under examination at the PTO were supposed to be evaluated under a stricter indefiniteness standard than granted claims. In Exxon Research (2001), the Federal Circuit stated that to “accord respect to the statutory presumption of patent validity,” it would find granted patent claims indefinite “only if reasonable efforts at claim construction proved futile” and the claim was “insolubly ambiguous.”

The obvious corollary to the Federal Circuit’s holding in Exxon is that when the presumption of validity does not apply, the indefiniteness standard should be more stringent. The BPAI explicitly clarified this point in the precedential Ex parte Miyazaki (2008) when it held that examiners should use “a lower threshold of ambiguity” such that claims are indefinite if “amenable to two or more plausible constructions,” and the MPEP emphasizes this point.

As we describe in Deference Mistakes, however, the less stringent “insolubly ambiguous” standard was mistakenly imported into the examination context and repeatedly cited in BPAI and PTAB decisions even after Miyazaki. And once ambiguous claims are granted, they are entitled to the presumption of validity and are less likely to be struck down, notwithstanding that they were granted under a mistaken standard.  The affirmance of these patents on appeal following infringement proceedings likely led to the PTO granting even more indefinite patents, which were then upheld on appeal, a vicious cycle. And if these patents came to be seen as the new normal, that could have made the PTO even more permissive. The result could have been creeping decay of the PTO’s effective indefiniteness standard, with indefinite patents begetting ever more indefinite patents.

At first glance, Nautilus appears to fix this problem of two different legal standards that might be mistakenly applied in the wrong context. In footnote 10, the Supreme Court states that the “presumption of validity does not alter the degree of clarity that §112, ¶2 demands from patent applicants,” suggesting that the legal test for indefiniteness should be the same in the infringement and examination contexts. The Court expressly leaves open whether this evaluation of the claims involves subsidiary factual findings and whether deference is due to any such findings—issues the Court will return to next Term in Teva v. Sandoz. But however these fact-based issues are resolved, it seems that Miyazaki‘s articulation of the legal standard for indefiniteness is no longer good law (unless, of course, the Federal Circuit adopts this as the unitary test).

Doctrinally, this requirement of a unitary legal standard for indefiniteness seems clearly right: as the Supreme Court explained in Microsoft v. i4i, the presumption of validity required by §282 is an evidentiary standard that requires invalidity to be proven by clear-and-convincing evidence, and it is thus inapplicable to questions of law. Eliminating the dual standard also has the apparent benefit of preventing the kinds of overt mistakes we point out in Deference Mistakes.

As we explain in Deference Mistakes, however, eliminating the formal legal distinctions between “deference regimes” may not solve the problem where such deference arises from functional considerations. We worry that preventing the PTO from applying “a lower threshold of ambiguity” might inadvertently undermine the PTO’s current efforts to improve patent claim clarity. Although the EFF cheered Nautilus for being likely to “invalidate many more patents,” the Court suggested at p. 12 that the test “the Federal Circuit applies in practice” may be fine, so on remand the Federal Circuit may well use the same analysis under a new name. Even if indefiniteness is a purely legal question such that the presumption of validity has no formal effect, in practice courts may apply a relatively loose standard due to an understandable reluctance to impose the drastic penalty of invalidity just because a claim could have been written more clearly. In the examination context, where applicants have the ability to amend vague claims, the PTO’s efforts to demand greater clarity make sense. But if the looser indefiniteness standard from the infringement context is incorporated into the examination context—no longer as a doctrinal mistake, but as a legal requirement—it may subvert these efforts and exacerbate the problem of ambiguous patents.

Judicial Error and Justice Alito’s Hypothetical in Limelight

By Jason Rantanen

As I read yesterday’s two Supreme Court opinions, I was struck by the sense that even as it grants certiorari on an extraordinary number of patent cases, the Court’s actual substantive engagement with patent law seems to be flagging.   None of its patent law opinions this term were more than 14 pages long; the shortest was 5, although Alice could be a beast.  These are well off from its opinions in KSR v. Teleflex, which came it at a more significant 24 pages.  And a quick scatterplot of majority opinion page length in patent cases since MedImmune shows a steep downward slope.

Even if opinion length really is meaningless in terms of opinion value (may be behind a paywall), however, the substantive content of these opinions is disappointing.  In Nautilus, for example, the Court held that the requirement for definiteness is something greater than what the Federal Circuit’s “insolubly ambiguous” standard, but offered no meaningful explanation of its “reasonable certainty” standard.

But the worst (best?) example of the Court’s present cursory approach to patent law issues is Justice Alito’s assertion in Limelight that the “Federal Circuit’s analysis fundamentally misunderstands what it means to infringe a method patent.”  But as Dennis observed yesterday, the full quotation shows that there is also either a substantial misunderstanding or sheer carelessness by the Court:

The Federal Circuit’s analysis fundamentally misunderstands what it means to infringe a method patent.  A method patent claims a number of steps; under this Court’s case law, the patent is not infringed unless all the steps are carried out. This principle follows ineluctably from what a patent is: the conferral of rights in a particular claimed set of elements. “Each element contained in a patent claim is deemed material to defining the scope of the patented invention,” Warner-Jenkinson Co. v. Hilton Davis Chemical Co., 520 U. S. 17, 29 (1997), and a patentee’s rights extend only to the claimed combination of elements, and no further.

The Federal Circuit’s contrary view would deprive §271(b) of ascertainable standards. If a defendant can be held liable under §271(b) for inducing conduct that does not constitute infringement, then how can a court assess when a patent holder’s rights have been invaded? What if a defendant pays another to perform just one step of a 12 step process, and no one performs the other steps, but that one step can be viewed as the most important step in the process? In that case the defendant has not encouraged infringement, but no principled reason prevents him from being held liable for inducement under the Federal Circuit’s reasoning, which permits inducement liability when fewer than all of a method’s steps have been performed within the meaning of the patent.

With such a profound buildup, one would expect the majority judges in Limelight to have erred greatly by allowing inducement as long as “the most important step in the process” was performed by someone.  Yet they said no such thing.  From the en banc majority opinion in Akamai v. Limelight:

 To be clear, we hold that all the steps of a claimed method must be performed in order to find induced infringement, but that it is not necessary to prove that all the steps were committed by a single entity.

692 F.3d 1301, 1306 (Fed. Cir. 2012) (en banc).  Variations on this theme are repeated throughout the majority’s opinion, and the issue of whether or not all the steps must be actually performed was never in dispute.

Justice Alito’s sharp criticism is particularly inapposite here, given the difficulty of this particular issue and the meagre analysis that is provided in the opinion.  To be clear, I agree that inducement under 271(b) should require that there be a direct infringer under 271(a).  My point is simply that execution of this opinion could have been much better, and in treating the issue so clumsily the Court reinforced the appearance of just going through the motions.

So “What if a defendant pays another to perform just one step of a 12 step process, and no one performs the other steps, but that one step can be viewed as the most important step in the process?”  Easy answer under all Federal Circuit precedent: no infringement under 271(a), (b), or (c).

What happens next?  Perhaps this will be an instance where the Court engages in post-issuance revision of its opinion, as discussed in Richard Lazarus’s recent study of The (Non)Finality of Supreme Court Opinions and highlighted in Adam Liptak’s NYT article (may be behind a paywall).  If it does so, I would hope that the Court follows Professor Lazarus’s recommendation that it amend its practices to provide meaningful public notice.  But regardless of whether such post-issuance editing takes place here, the Supreme Court’s fumble suggests that for all its apparent interest in patent cases, maybe it isn’t really paying all that much attention to what the Federal Circuit is actually saying.

Is the Federal Circuit Really Worse Than the Cubs?

By Jason Rantanen

Yesterday, following the Supreme Court’s unanimous reversal of the Federal Circuit in Nautilus and Limelight, Vera Ranieri of the Electronic Frontier Foundation observed that:

These rulings mean that the Federal Circuit has been unanimously overruled in every single patent case heard by the Supreme Court this term. Since there have been five decisions, the Federal Circuit is now an extraordinary 0-45 in supporting votes by Supreme Court justices this year. Even the Chicago Cubs have a better record than that.

Vera Ranieri, Supreme Court Overrules Federal Circuit Again. And Again. (June 2, 2014).

Ranieri has a point: the Supreme Court has not been kind to the Federal Circuit this term.  Worse than the record on these five decisions (Highmark, Octane Fitness, Medtronic, Nautilus, and Limelight), some of the Court’s comments are harshly critical of the appellate court.  As Dennis noted yesterday, in Limelight the Court wrote that “The Federal Circuit’s analysis fundamentally misunderstands what it means to infringe a method patent.”  By such measures it appears that the Federal Circuit does not currently have much credibility with the Court.

These are bleak numbers indeed, but some context is important.  First, consider that even as the Supreme Court has reversed on these five cases, it also has denied certiorari in other petitions arising from the Federal Circuit (If anyone has solid figures on these, I’d love to see them).  These petitions were vigorously pursued, often with the support of amicus.  So it’s not as if the Federal Circuit is always “losing.”

In addition, it’s important to keep in mind the broader picture: so far this term, the Supreme Court has reversed in 77% of all merits decisions except those arising from the Federal Circuit.  Last year, the Court’s final reversal rate was 72%. (source: SCOSTUSBLOG).  So that the Federal Circuit went 0 for 5 (two of which, Octane Fitness and Highmark, were a linked pair) doesn’t mean that the sky is falling.  And since 2010, the Federal Circuit has actually done fairly well: out of the 13 patent cases arising from the Federal Circuit since Bilski v. Kappos, the Supreme Court has affirmed the outcome in whole or part 7 times.

Even if these figures told the entire story on reversals, however, it’s not as if the Federal Circuit presently speaks with one voice, if it ever did.  It is full of disuniformity, with multiple viewpoints that are at odds with one another.  Given this disuniformity, it should not be surprising that two of the five cases in which the Court reversed the Federal Circuit involved a highly fractured court (Highmark and Limelight).  In these cases, the Court did not reverse a unanimous Federal Circuit, but rather settled a deep intra-circuit divide.  (Nautilus involved a concurrence by Judge Schall, but he agreed with the legal standard for indefiniteness applied by the majority).

Both Highmark and Limelight illustrate this point well: in Highmark, 5 of the 12 judges on the Federal Circuit favored a deferential standard for exceptional case determinations, an approach ultimately adopted by the Court.  Likewise, in Limelight the Supreme Court essentially agreed with the five dissenting Federal Circuit judges that indirect infringement under 271(b) requires an act of direct infringement under 271(a) (although as Tim Holbrook pointed out to me, Justice Alito left open the door for active inducement of any type of direct infringement, such as 271(f) or (g)).  And, when the Court issues its opinion in Alice, it will inevitably rule in the same direction as one or another group of judges in that highly fractured decision.  So too in Teva v. Sandoz, which will address the issue of de novo review of claim construction that split the en banc Federal Circuit 6-4.  What we are observing with the Court is, in substantial part, less outright reversals and more the resolution of intra-circuit splits, divisions that are arguably – at least in the case of subject matter eligibility – of its own making.

Thanks to former Iowa Law student and semester EFF intern Dan Garon for pointing me to Ms. Ranieri’s article.  Full disclosure: I’m not a Cubs fan.  Also, I made one substantive edit, revising the number of cases since Bilski to 13 (I had originally counted Caraco v. Novo, but on reflection it’s not really a patent case).

K/S HIMPP v. Hear-Wear Technologies: Common Sense and Claim Elements

By Jason Rantanen

K/S HIMPP v. Hear-Wear Technologies, LLC (Fed. Cir. 2014) Download Opinion
Panel: Lourie (author), Dyk (dissenting), Wallach

This nonobviousness case is significant because it illustrates an important way that some Federal Circuit judges are pushing back against KSR v. Teleflex (2007): by focusing the analysis on the presence or absence of individual limitations in the prior art and limiting what can be considered in establishing the presence of that limitation.  Here, the majority holds that while common sense or basic knowledge may provide a reason to combine elements present in the prior art, it cannot establish the presence of an element itself.

Background: Hear-Wear is the owner of Patent No. 7,016,512, which relates to hearing aid technology.  At issue in the appeal were dependent claims 3 and 9 (Hear-Wear did not appeal the BPAI’s ruling that the remaining claims of the ’512 patent, including the claims from which 3 and 9 depended, were invalid in light of the prior art).  Claim 3 of the ’512 patent states:

3. The at least partially in-the-canal module for a hearing aid of claim 2 wherein said insulated wiring portion is terminated by a plurality of prongs that provide a detachable mechanical and electrical connection to an audio processing module.

Claim 9 similarly depends from claims 7 and 8, adding the identical “wherein said insulated wiring portion is terminated by a plurality of prongs that provide a detachable mechanical and electrical connection” language.

Patent Office Proceedings: During prosecution of the ’512 patent, the Examiner rejected all claims as obvious, and further stated with respect to claims 3 and 9 that “providing a plurality of prongs for the electrical connections or for the plugs is known in the art.” Slip Op. at 3, quoting office action.  In response, the applicant amended independent claims 1 and 7 to expand on the “cushion tip” element and the Examiner allowed all the claims.

HIMPP subsequently instituted an inter-partes reexamination, challenging the validity of claims 1-12 of the ’512 patent (note that the reexamination request was filed pre-AIA).  In that proceeding, the Examiner concluded that all of the claims of the ’512 except claims 3 and 9 were invalid in light of the prior art.  The BPAI disagreed with the Examiner’s basis for rejecting claims 1, 2, 4-8, and 10-12, but nevertheless concluded that these claims were invalid in light of prior art.  The BPAI declined, however, to reverse the Examiner’s decision not to reject claims 3 and 9 because there was no factual support in the record for the plurality of prongs element.  HIMPP appealed the BPAI’s refusal to reject claims 3 and 9; Hear-Wear did not appeal the rejection of the remaining claims.

Result: The only issue on appeal was whether the additional limitation in dependent claims 3 and 9, viz: that the “insulated wiring portion is terminated by a plurality of prongs that provide a detachable mechanical and electrical connection,” was sufficient to render the claims nonobvious.  Writing for himself and Judge Wallach, Judge Lourie affirmed the BPAI.  Writing in dissent, Judge Dyk would have reversed the BPAI and rejected claims 3 and 9 for obviousness.

What’s going on here? At the outset, it’s important to recognize what this appeal is not about.  It is not about whether or not electrical plugs were actually known in the art as of 2001, except to the extent that the court might take de novo judicial notice of that fact.  Nor is it about whether, assuming that electrical plugs were present in the prior art, common sense could provide a reason to combine plugs with the other elements of claims 1 and 2 of the ’512 patent.

Instead, K/S HIMPP v. Hear-Wear highlights two important tensions in nonobviousness jurisprudence that are now bubbling to the surface: first, whether the standard for nonobviousness under KSR is so flexible as to allow common sense or basic knowledge to provide an element of the claimed invention, and second, the degree to which Examiners and the BPAI/PTAB may rely upon their own technical expertise.  Here, the majority embraces a strict evidentiary approach: a claim element must be present in the record and if it is not, the PTO may only consider it in narrow, peripheral circumstances.  The dissent criticizes the majority for adopting an overly rigid approach that denies examiners recourse to common sense.

Strong Evidentiary Requirements for “Core Factual Findings”: In Judge Lourie’s view, KSR does not dispense with the need to have evidence in the record disclosing each claim limitation, particularly where those limitations are “important structural limitations”:

“Here the Board refused to adopt HIMPP’s proposed rejection of claims 3 and 9 because it found that there was not a suitable basis on the record “for concluding that the particular structural features of claims 3 and 9 [were] known ‘prior art’ elements.” Board Opinion at 24. The Board’s decision was correct because an assessment of basic knowledge and common sense as a replacement for documentary evidence for core factual findings lacks substantial evidence support.”

Rather, there must be “evidence on the record, particularly where it is an important structural limitation that is not evidently and indisputably within the common knowledge of those skilled in the art.”  Slip Op. at 7 (more on the emphasized text in a moment).  KSR does not require otherwise:  “[T]he Board’s holding is not inconsistent with KSR’s caution against the overemphasis on publications and patents for combining or modifying prior art that are already on the record….In contradistinction to KSR, this case involves the lack of evidence of a specific claim limitation, whereas KSR related to the combinability of references where the claim limitations were in evidence.”  Id. (internal citations omitted).

Nor may employees of the PTO rely on their own technical knowledge.  Examiners should only do so in narrow circumstances, i.e., where the facts asserted to be well known are not capable of instant and unquestionable demonstration as being well-known), and even then must “provide an affidavit or declaration setting forth specific factual statements and explanations to support that finding,” if challenged by the applicant.  Slip Op. at 8, citing 37 C.F.R. § 1.104(d)(2) and the M.P.E.P.  And while the court recognizes that the BPAI has subject matter expertise, it “cannot accept general conclusions about what is “basic knowledge” or “common sense” as a replacement for documentary evidence for core factual findings in a determination of patentability.”  Id.

Common sense and Agency Expertise: Judge Dyk disagreed.  “In my view, the majority’s holding is inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s decision in KSR International Co. v. Teleflex Inc., 550 U.S. 398 (2007), and will have substantial
adverse effects on the examination process.”  Dissent at 2.

Here, the majority’s imposition of a rigid evidentiary standard for the presence of claim elements in the prior art goes too far.  To the extent In re Zurko, 258 F.3d 1379 (Fed. Cir. 2001) (the primary case relied upon by the majority) held otherwise, it is inconsistent with KSR:

In Zurko, we held that, as to core (as opposed to peripheral) issues, “the Board cannot simply reach conclusions based on its own understanding or experience—or on its assessment of what would be basic knowledge or common sense.” Id. That statement is contrary to the Court’s holding in KSR that “[o]ften[] it will be necessary for a court to look to . . . the background knowledge possessed by a person having ordinary skill in the art” when examining obviousness, 550 U.S. at 418 (emphasis added), and that “[r]igid preventative rules that deny factfinders recourse to common
sense . . . are neither necessary under our case law nor consistent with it.” Id. at 421. The majority’s approach here is inconsistent with KSR itself and also with our post-KSR approach. Following KSR, we recognized that the Court “expanded the sources of information for a properly flexible obviousness inquiry to include . . . the background knowledge, creativity, and common sense of the person of ordinary skill.” Perfect Web Techs., Inc. v. InfoUSA, Inc., 587 F.3d 1324, 1329 (Fed. Cir. 2009). Consequently, obviousness inquiries “include recourse to logic, judgment, and common sense available to the person of ordinary skill that do not necessarily require explication in any reference.” Id.

Furthermore, the PTO should be able to rely on its own expert knowledge when addressing issues of patentability:

Deference to the agency’s expert knowledge is particularly important with respect to obviousness. Throughout [the Supreme] Court’s engagement with the question of obviousness, [its] cases have set forth an expansive and flexible approach . . . .” KSR, 550 U.S. at 415. The Court emphasized that “[r]igid preventative rules that deny factfinders recourse to common sense . . . are neither necessary under our case law nor consistent with it.” Id. at 421. The Court specifically rejected the approach that
the majority adopts here, stating that “[t]he obviousness analysis cannot be confined by . . . overemphasis on the importance of published articles and the explicit content of issued patents.” Id. at 419. Publications and patents are not sufficient by themselves because “[i]n many fields it may be that there is little discussion of obvious techniques or combinations.” Id.

Dissent at 5.  This approach – of allowing examiners and the BPAI to rely on their own technical expertise, is consistent with the approach of the predecessor to the Federal Circuit, the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals.  It also maintains  safeguards to prevent its abuse: specifically, the requirement that Examiners “state on the record that they are relying on a fact well known in the art and provide their rationale for doing so” and the opportunity that applicants have to challenge the Examiner’s “determination that particular features were common knowledge in the art.”  Dissent at 7, 8.

No Judicial Notice: Is the presence of a plug in the prior art as of 2001 a “core factual finding” related to an “important structural limitation” that is “not evidently and indisputably within the common knowledge of those skilled in the art”?  Judge Lourie thought so, and further declined to take judicial notice of the presence of electrical plugs in the art as of 2001 for the same reason that it was reasonable for the Board and Examiner to decline to take official notice (i.e.: that these facts were “not capable of instant and unquestionable demonstration as being well-known.”).   Slip Op. at 8.  On this point, Judge Dyk jabs back: “Every purchaser of electrical devices in the United States for the past 50 years or more is familiar with multipronged electrical connections.”  Dissent at 4.