By Dennis Crouch
There have been numerous reports calling the US Patent System broken or at least in need of severe repair. From my view, the greatest problems with US patent law arise because of its common lack of clearly drawn property lines. In academic lingo, we call this a failure of the public notice function.
Examples of the fuzzy lines of patent law are well known to Patently-O readers and include the secret rights of unpublished patent applications; shifting rights that may be altered via extended prosecution, future continuing applications, and second look examination; and uncertain rights potentially crumbling under the vagaries of claim construction and obviousness jurisprudence.
These problems are exacerbated in certain technology areas – such as electronics – by massively overlapping claims and speculators asserting patents in a seemingly more aggressive fashion. At the same time, there is a strong consensus that these issues do not arise in the same fashion in the pharmaceutical and bio-technological areas. Pharmaceutical patent law is often heralded as an incredible success — especially in the post Hatch-Waxman days of strong generic competition.
Now comes the Patent Reform Act of 2007. Unfortunately, the proposed patent reforms now being debated by the Senate do virtually noting to address these serious problems and instead potentially cause harm to the current regime.
CAFC Chief Judge Michel has publicly discussed patent reform and its potential impact on the judicial process. Apart from the Chief’s particular quarrels with damage apportionment and expanded interlocutory appeals, he makes a particular point about the destabilizing effect of major Congressional patent reforms. In the decades following reforms, each amended word will be litigated and eventually construed. Unfortunately, during the wait for new statutory interpretations, patent holders and accused infringers will be left guessing. Judge Michel’s ultimate point is that changes in the property regime should only be made when we have a genuine reason to believe that the changes will improve the system as a whole. For the majority of the proposed patent reforms, that case simply has not yet been made.