By Dennis Crouch
Microsoft Corp. v. i4i Ltd. (Supreme Court 2010)
The Supreme Court has granted Microsoft's petition for a writ of certiorari and will consider whether patent law requires clear and convincing evidence of invalidity in order to invalidate an issued patent. Microsoft asks that the standard be lowered – at least for the situation where the evidence of invalidity was not considered by the patent office before the patent issued. The Supreme Court has not directly ruled on the issue. However, in KSR v. Teleflex, the Supreme Court did note that the "the rationale underlying the presumption — that the PTO, in its expertise, has approved the claim — seems much diminished" in cases where the patentee "fail[ed] to disclose" the key prior art to the PTO.
I expect that the court will agree that the statutory presumption of validity does not require a clear and convincing standard and that the standard should be lowered when a court is presented with evidence that is substantially different from that considered by the USPTO. Without explanation, Chief Justice Roberts has recused himself from this case – leaving eight justices to decide. At this point, I expect that all members of the court will agree that the standard should be lowered with some disagreement on the exact rule.
Clear and Convincing Evidence: Felony criminal cases require that prosecutors prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. Most civil cases only require a preponderance of the evidence – often referred to as "more likely than not." Thus, in patent infringement cases, the patentee need only prove that it is more likely than not that the defendant infringed. However, the Federal Circuit has long required that invalidity defenses be proven with clear and convincing evidence. The clear and convincing standard is somewhere between a preponderance of the evidence and beyond a reasonable doubt and is sometimes referred to as "substantially more likely than not." Microsoft has not directly challenged the CAFC's rule of corroborative evidence that a single person's testimony is never sufficient to invalidate a patent.
i4i's case: In 2009, an Eastern District of Texas jury awarded $200 million + interest to i4i after finding that Microsoft willfully infringed the Canadian company's patent. Judge Davis subsequently added-on $40 million for willful infringement. The judge also issued an injunction ordering Microsoft to stop selling Word Products with the capability of using "custom XML." That injunction was stayed by the Federal Circuit pending appeal. On appeal, the Federal Circuit affirmed the lower court's findings of validity, willful infringement, enhanced damages, and permanent injunctive relief. In the meantime, the USPTO has concluded its reexamination of the i4i patent — confirming that the claims at issue are patentable. Microsoft filed a second reexamination request in August 2010 (shortly after it filed its petition to the Supreme Court). However, on November 24, 2010, the USPTO denied the request to begin a new reexamination – finding that the newly asserted prior art failed to raise a substantial new question of patentability (SNQ) as required by statute. Microsoft will likely appeal that denial. In addition, Microsoft apparently patched its software to prevent someone from using custom XML in Word in an effort to avoid the injunction and any further damages.
Microsoft has now moved-on to the Supreme Court — asking the high court to reject the "clear and convincing" evidence standard for proving a patent invalid. As Microsoft wrote in its petition for writ of certiorari, the question is "Whether the court of appeals erred in holding that Microsoft's invalidity defense must be proved by clear and convincing evidence" when the prior-art was not considered by the USPTO. This is essentially the same question that Microsoft raised in its 2008 petition in z4. That petition was withdrawn after the parties settled.
The Patent: i4i's asserted patent (U.S. Patent No. 5,787,449) covers a system for editing the metacodes of an HTML or XML document. The system uses a metacode map that is stored separately from the XML document and provides a menu of potential metacodes. The patent application was filed in 1994 and should remain in-force until 2015.
Microsoft's Invalidity Argument: Microsoft was not able to uncover any prior publication or patent that would invalidate the invention. However, the software giant argued at trial that i4i had sold an embodiment of the invention in the US more than one year prior to the 1994 patent application date. In particular, Microsoft argues that the invention was "embedded in a system called S4 - that the inventors of the ′449 Patent developed and sold to SEMI, a client of i4i's predecessor, over a year before applying for the ′449 Patent." That sale was not disclosed to the USPTO during the original prosecution and could not be presented during reexamination because reexaminations are limited to a review of prior art patents and publications. At the trial, the inventors (Vulpe and Owens) testified that the S4 system did not include a metacode map or separate the map from the marked-up document – two key features of their invention. Because the source-code for the 1993 custom software was no longer available, Microsoft primarily relied on testimony from a former i4i employee and upon written statements that Vulpe had made to investors and to the Canadian Government suggesting that the S4 software did separate metacode information.
The jury form asked "Did Microsoft prove by clear and convincing evidence that any of the listed claims of the '449 patent are invalid?" The jury answered "no." On appeal, the Federal Circuit held that the jury had sufficient evidence to rule that the patent was not anticipated by S4.
Importance of the Rule: A recent study conducted by Etan Chatlynne and published on Patently-O looked at all 119 Federal Circuit decisions on patent validity for the past several years. The study found that lowering the burden of proof would not have made any difference for 74% of those cases but might have made a difference in 26% of the cases. None of the decisions expressly stated that the result would be different if the standard had been reduced.
The clear and convincing standard probably has an important psychological impact in jury (and judicial) deliberations where the defendant's high burden for proving invalidity is contrasted with the plaintiff's lower burden for proving infringement.