February 2009

Accelerated Examination Case Study

The quickest patent issued in 2008: U.S. Patent No. 7,408,364 is assigned to Advanced Sensor Technologies, Inc. (King of Prussia, PA). When ASTi filed its application on a sensor for measuring moisture and salinity in May 2008, it included an accelerated examination petition, a statement of pre-examination search, and a set of examination support documents. Three weeks later, the PTO granted ASTi’s petition for accelerated examination. On June 19, the Examiner began his examination, and issued a notice of allowance for the single claim on June 20. The patent issued on August 5, 2008 – 76 days after the application was originally filed. ASTi has filed multiple continuations – at least one of which has already issued. The patent was prosecuted by longtime patent attorney Mike Catania. The median pendency for the art unit (2831) during the past year was 2.2 years – more than ten-times longer than it took ASTi to get its patent. The median pendency for the primary examiner handling the case during the same period was 2.7 years.

ASTi’s examination support documents include a discussion of nine prior art references. Catania steps through each of the cited references and explains what claim elements are missing from the references. This discussion very much parallels what an attorney would have written in an office action response. The document also discusses nonobviousness and asserts that a prima facie case of obviousness cannot be made because several claim elements are not found in any of the cited prior art references. The document then goes through each claim element and points to particular disclosure in the specification that describes and/or enables the element.

Inequitable Conduct & Cost: The two knocks against the accelerated examination system are the potential for inequitable conduct and the cost of the procedure. I have heard patent attorneys say they would never use the process because of the inherent risk. Part of the vehement reaction is historic. Before the accelerated examination process was created in August 2006, it was much easier for an applicant to put an application on the accelerated examination track through the process then known only as a petition to make special.

Inequitable conduct fears are related to potential charges of failure to conduct a proper search or misrepresentation of the prior art. Both of those are legitimate. Here, however, Catania explained the exact search terms used and the databases searched. This organized and transparent approach coupled with a competent search is unlikely to create inequitable conduct. Regarding discussion of the prior art, Catania’s write-up looks like a response to an office action. Almost every case includes at least one response to an obviousness rejection. Most cases include multiple such responses. It is difficult to tell how this strategy is more problematic than the standard approach. In fact, by providing the opening volley, Catania seems to have set the stage in a way that reduced further need to respond. The cost is certainly more because it requires a well done prior art search, search report and a discussion of the references in relation to the claims. The search & report should run under $1,000 and the discussion should be about the same cost as responding to a well reasoned office action. Although, the attorney will not need to step through the sometimes painful process of amending claims. Almost certainly, prosecution of this case was cheaper than the typical case that is allowed after an RCE and amendment. Of course, the process has a learning curve   [Mike - can you tell us how much did this cost here, and who did the search?].

What’s the Benefit: The greatest benefit of accelerated examination practice is that the patent issues much more quickly. For some clients early issuance is strategically important. From anecdotal evidence – such as this case – it appears that the PTO is more willing to immediately allow cases rather than going through the rejection churn. I believe that the PTO is assigning accelerated examination cases to primary examiners who are already more likely to allow cases quickly, without amendment, and without the notice of allowance being withdrawn because of a second-pair-of-eyes review.

For some firms, there may also be a benefit of getting the work done and paid for up front when the client is excited about the technology and the inventor still works at the company – rather than three years later when the traditional response to an office action would be done.

Documents:

Reinstating Patents After Failure to Pay Maintenance Fee

In a prior post, I discussed payment of maintenance fees. Ordinarily, three post-issuance maintenance fees must be paid in order to keep the patent in force for its entire term. A large entity pays $980 3.5 years after issuance; $2,480 7.5 years after issuance; and $4,110 11.5 after issuance. If the fee is not paid then the patent will expire at the next 4, 8, or 12 year mark. In that 6-month interim (e.g., between the 3.5 year due date and the 4 year expiration date), the fee can still be paid with a $130 surcharge. Once the patent expires, it can still be reinstated if the fee is paid along with an additional surcharge for either unavoidable failure to pay the fee ($700) or unintentional failure to pay the fee ($1,640). In addition, the Patent Office (PTO) must accept your explanation for the delay. Under 35 U.S.C. 41(c), revival for unintentional expiry is only available within two years of the expiration date. Later revival requires proof that the failure to pay the fee was unavoidable - a difficult standard to meet.

The PTO publishes reinstated patents each week in the Official Gazette. Using those publications, I compiled the following table showing the number of patents being reinstated each year. As the chart show, the number of reinstated patents has risen over time. The absolute number of issued patents is also rising, but at a slower rate. Thinking about this as an applicant's 'error rate' - for the past decade, about 2.5 percent of patents that expire due to non-payment of maintenance fees are later reinstated. This is an incredibly high error rate for a purely ministerial function of paying a fee.

I pulled Patent No. 6,798,824 from the list of reinstated patents that was published in the February 24, 2009 Official Gazette. That patent originally was assigned to InterDigital and is directed to a particular type of spread spectrum communications device. The patent issued on September 28, 2004 and expired four yeas later due to failure to pay the maintenance fees. Realizing its problem, the patent holder filed a petition to accept late payment of maintenance fees on December 19, 2008 and the petition was granted on January 30, 2009. (Note - the petition is not available in PAIR).

Note:

Examiner SlimThugS USPTO Rap

Workplace Caution – Link has Audio Profanity

Examiner SlimThugS has an amazingly bad – but funny – USPTO Rap with video posted to YouTube. The song is titled “Dangerous” and includes lots of profanity (repeated use of mf’n). Some classic lines include:

“This attorney, he stepped up to me. He tried to knock down my 103. But you aint gonna amend past me; Cause I shot him back with a 102(b).”

“Using databases west and east everybody knows I’m the database beast. You think you can get a patent with those claims. Girl you better think twice, those claims are so lame.”

“I just found a 102(b) prior art, and now the beat down is gonna start. … I hit them with the 102(b), yeah”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9PBVG4a3wNI

pic-10.jpg

Waiving Arguments at the Board of Patent Appeals

PatentLawPic692Pivonka v. Axelrod (Fed. Cir. 2009)(non-precedential)

In 2003, Axelrod asked the PTO to declare an interference against Pivonka’s patent which had issued the year prior. (Pat. No. 6,408,797). During the interference, the BPAI found Pivonka’s collapsible pet carrier claims to be unpatentable as obvious. [Link] On appeal, the Federal Circuit affirmed.

In reviewing a BPAI obviousness rejection, the Federal Circuit looks for “substantial evidence” to support any factual determinations, but reviews the ultimate question of obviousness de novo.

Here Pivonka pointed to three potential errors: (1) improperly saying that the invention has a “barn-like structure;” (2) failing to consider the patented claims individually; and (3) failing to appreciate the structural differences and functional benefits provided by the claimed invention as compared to the prior art.

The Federal Circuit dismissed these concerns in turn: (1) the reference to the barn was merely shorthand and not reversible error; (2) the applicant waived any right to have claims 2–9 considered separately by failing to make arguments on those claims earlier; and (3) the Board’s conclusion of obviousness was correct.

“Under KSR International Co. v. Teleflex, Inc. “[t]he combination of familiar elements according to known methods is likely to be obvious when it does no more than yield predictable results.” 550 U.S. 398, 1739 (2007). According to Dr. Shina’s unrebutted affidavit [Axelrod’s Expert], both the structural benefits and the way in which to build the container claimed by Pivonka were readily apparent to a person of ordinary skill in the art. Accordingly, we find no error in the Board’s conclusion that claims 1-9 are obvious.”

The Court also rejected an argument of improper procedure based on Pivonka’s waiver of the issue before the BPAI. One important take-away from this case is that the Federal Circuit generally treats the BPAI as it would a lower court in the sense that an issue must first be raised with the BPAI in order to be ripe for appeal to the Federal Circuit. If the issue is not raised at the lower level, then any appeal will be deemed waived.

Although not directly related, I enjoyed the following recent anonymous comment to another post:

Whoever said "necessity is the mother of invention" was wrong. According to KSR, "necessity is the mother of obviousness."

Underlying the interference is a patent infringement case between Pivonka and TFH Publications (Axelrod’s assignee). That case is also on appeal but will be heard by a different panel. Interestingly, after this favorable decision, TFH requested that the case be reassigned to the Axelrod panel. The Federal Circuit denied that motion. [Link]

Congress Looks to Review Patent Examiner Goals

The current pending omnibus appropriations bill would provide $2.01 billion to the PTO so long as all of that money is obtained by the PTO through fees. [LINK]. As Greg Aharonian noted in his PATNEWS, none of the $800 billion bailout money is being directed toward improving the patent system.

The bill includes a statement that Congress will hold back $5 million until the PTO completes "a comprehensive review of the assumptions behind the patent examiner expectancy goals and adopt[s] a revised set of expectancy goals for patent examination."

Today, many examiners operate well over their expectancy goals — earning overtime bonus for extra work. If the time allowed is increased without increasing demands on the examiners, the result may simply be that Examiner #6 operates at 140% of his expected goal rather than 120%. I.e., more pay for the examiner without changing the examiner behavior at all. Now, I’m not opposed to increasing the examiner payscale, but if we are hoping to improve the system, any review of expectancy goals need to be coupled with a review of examination standards.

Applying Supreme Court Precedent

Carlsbad Technology v. HIF Bio (Supreme Court 2009)

The Supreme Court held oral arguments in this case on February 24. In its opinion, the Federal Circuit held that it lacked appellate jurisdiction to review a district court order to remand a case back to state court. The Federal Circuit's decision goes against precedent set by the Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Circuits. And, the case appears in conflict with the Supreme court's Powerex v. Reliant (2007) decision.

During oral arguments the Justice Roberts was considering when lower courts follow Supreme Court holdings when he made the following statement:

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Well, they don't have a choice, right? They can't say, I don't like the Supreme Court rule so I'm not going to apply it, other than the Federal Circuit.

(Laughter).

Federal Circuit Affirms District Court’s Extension of 30-Month FDA Stay

Eli Lilly v. Teva Pharmaceuticals (Fed. Cir. 2009)

Teva is hoping to make a generic version of Lilly’s Evista brand raloxifene tablets that are used to help prevent postmenopausal osteoporosis. In May 2006, Teva filed an abbreviated new drug agreement (ANDA) and Lilly subsequently sued for patent infringement and to block the generic release. Under the law, after the patentee files suit, the FDA cannot then approve the generic for thirty months “unless the court has extended or reduced the period because of a failure of either [party] to cooperate reasonably in expediting the action.” This is commonly known as the “thirty month stay.”

In this case, the court originally set a trial date four months after the end of the thirty month period. In the months leading up to trial Teva altered its proposed generic formulation, which changed Lilly’s litigation strategy. As a result, the district court ordered that the FDA thirty month stay be extended for four extra months – until May 2009. Teva filed an emergency appeal to lift the stay.

On appeal, a split Federal Circuit panel affirmed – finding that the district court acted within its discretion in extending the stay based on Teva’s activity. “Trial courts, thus, may shorten or extend the thirty-month statutory period based on the parties’ uncooperative discovery practices before the court.” In its decision, the court distinguished the 2002 Andrx v. Bioval case. In Andrx, the Federal Circuit found that the district court had abused its discretion in shortening a thirty-month stay based on a party’s “positions before the FDA.” Rather, changes to the thirty-month period must be based on failure to cooperate court.

In dissent, Judge Prost argued that the majority misinterpreted the statute to grant too much deference to the district court in extending the stay. Rather, the statute requires that the stay should only be extended when a party fails “to cooperate reasonably in expediting the action.” Here, Judge Prost argues, the lower court did not find that Teva failed to cooperate, but only that Lilly could use more time to respond. The statute is limited in a way that does not allow extension of the stay in that situation.

Notes:

  • Judge Rader wrote the majority opinion and was joined by Chief Judge Michel.
  • On the expedited schedule, Appellant filed its principle brief November 24, 2008; briefing was complete on December 30, 2008; Oral arguments were heard on January 14, 2009; and a decision rendered on February 24, 2009.

Patently-O Bits and Bytes No. 92

  • New Commerce Secretary: Gary Locke. Former Washington State Governor, Partner at Davis Wright Tremaine. Gov. Locke is Chinese American and co-chairs the firm's China practice. He is also an Eagle Scout, a Yalie, and a Terrier.
  • USPTO Deferred Examination Comments Due February 26:

  • Cert Denied: The Supreme Court has denied certiorari in the following patent related cases.

    • Singleton v. Volkswagen (E.D. Texas Venue Case where 5th Circuit ordered transfer).
    • Forest Labs v. Caraco (Declaratory Judgment standing).
    • FTC v. Rambus (Duties of a patent holder in standard setting negotiations).
    • Burandt v. Dudas (When is a failure to pay "unavoidable").
    • Apotex v. Roche (reverse doctrine of equivalents).

  • Judge Linn recently gave a Keynote address to the PTO examiner's corps. [Read it here]. Judge Linn started as a patent examiner in 1965. The following are some quotes from the full speech:

    • "Your job is much harder now than it was for me all those years ago. The technology of today's inventions is immensely more complex than ever before. The length and breadth of applications is greater. The volume of prior art is much larger. The legal issues are more intricate and harder to comprehend. And the law is in a continual state of change. Compounding all of this is the perception among some individuals that the work of the PTO in general, and the examiners in particular, is somehow of secondary importance and questionable quality. It is commonly said that the real action in patents is in private or corporate practice."
    • "Your job is to grant patents—valid patents. And that takes a combination of skills, reasoning and informed judgment. The Examiner's task is to assess the patentable merits of each invention, as presented, and to grant patents where patents are due. No applicant wants an invalid patent. Similarly, no examiner wants to grant an invalid patent. Thus, both the applicant and the examiner play parallel and complementary—not contradictory— roles in seeing to it that valid patents are issued."
    • "[R]eading legal decisions, particularly those of the Board and the Federal Circuit, is not only the best way to learn how to make the tough decisions you are regularly called upon to make, but also the best way to make your job easier and more enjoyable. You might ask, "why should I bother to read decisions of the Board and the Federal Circuit? After all, I have all the guidance I need in the MPEP, and I don't have time to spend reading other cases that have nothing to do with me." The answer is that the cases bring to life the statutes and rules you are required to apply and give you real world examples of how those statutes and rules apply in similar cases. The MPEP has some guidelines, but they are just a sampling and cannot possibly reflect the full range of claims and circumstances you face every day. Keeping up with the law by reading decisions of the Board and the Federal Circuit will allow you to master your craft and will result in your standing out from your peers."
    • "The last point I want to make is to not forget about §112. … [I]t is not correct to trivialize or ignore these kinds of Informalities [such as claims that are vague and indefinite or lacking in support in the written description]. Indeed, these kinds of problems affect not only the applicant but the public as well in a significant way. … In case after case before my court, the central debate revolves around the meaning of claims terms that, for example, were added during prosecution and do not appear anywhere in the written description. For those cases, the meaning of the claim limitation has to be inferred from other words, leaving the issue open to unnecessary dispute and leading frequently to protracted and costly litigation. You have the authority and the responsibility to not let that happen and to insist that applicants use words in the claims that find unambiguous and full support in the written description."

Merchants Warranty of Non-Infringement

Section 2-312 of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) discusses warranties of title against infringers. Unless disclaimed, a “merchant regularly dealing in goods of the kinds” automatically warrants to the buyer that the goods being sold are “free of the rightful claim of any third person by way of infringement or the like.” The accompanying notes make clear that when goods are sold out of the seller’s normal stock (rather than special ordered) “it is the seller’s duty to see that no claim of infringement of a patent or trademark by a third party will impair the buyer’s title.” On the other hand, if the buyer makes a special order with its own specifications, any patent liability “will run from buyer to seller” and “the buyer is under an obligation in good faith to indemnify the seller for any loss suffered.”

In the 2008 case of Pacific Sunware of California, Inc. v. Olaes Enterprises, Inc, the California Court of Appeals interpreted the parallel provision in the California Uniform Commercial Code. The court there -HISTORY focused on the phrase “rightful claim” and held that a “rightful claim” is not limited to winning claims. Rather, the seller is liable to defend the buyer against any “nonfrivolous claim of infringement that has any significant and adverse effect on the buyer’s ability to make use of the purchased goods.” (Reversing the lower court ruling).

In its analysis, the court relied upon Professor Hricik’s 1997 Texas Tech Law Review article on how to “shift liability” for patent infringement. [link]

At this point, I will note that Patently-O hereby disclaims all warrantees – especially this one.

USPTO Maintenance Fees

A large portion of PTO revenue comes through applicant’s payment of maintenance fees. Under the current fee structure, three post-grant maintenance fees must be paid in order to keep a patent from prematurely expiring. A large entity pays $980 3.5 years after issuance; $2,480 7.5 years after issuance; and $4,110 11.5 after issuance. If the fee is not paid then the patent will expire at the next 4, 8, or 12 year mark. In FY08, the PTO reported over $500 million in revenue from maintenance fees.

I wanted to look at how maintenance fees are being paid, so I downloaded the past decade of OG Notices and parsed-out notices of patent expiration. The chart below shows some results.

PatentLawPic686

The chart shows survival rates for the four (red), eight (blue), and twelve (green) year marks. Each datapoint represents the average survival rate for patents that would have expired on that date. For instance, of the 2229 utility patents that issued on December 31, 1996, the first fee was paid for 84% of the patents, the first two fees were paid for 63% of the patents, and all three fees were paied for 49% of the patents. (Note – I did not yet add-back cases that were revived due to unintentional abandonment.)

The median patent has an ordinary enforceable term of about 17 years. This is based on the twenty year term which begins at filing of the non-provisional application minus three years of prosecution. If prosecution takes longer than three years, then the term will likely be extended under the PTA provisions.

However, this data shows that the median patent term is actually cut short by about five years because applicants decide not to pay the large final fee.

A third feature to recognize from this chart is that the percentage of patents whose fees are being paid is increasing over time. However, the PTO has indicated that it expects a drop in maintenance fee payments due to the economic slump.

Judge Moore looked at expiration data for patents issued in 1991 in her paper on “Worthless Patents.” Her result is that patents were more likely to “survive” (i.e., have their maintenance fees paid) when they have more claims, more art cited, more related applications, and longer prosecution times. US corporate owners were more likely to pay the fees than individual or foreign owners. She also found that Semiconductor and Optics patents were the most likely to survive. Amusement patents were unlikely to survive.

USPTO Maintenance Fees

A large portion of PTO revenue comes through applicant’s payment of maintenance fees. Under the current fee structure, three post-grant maintenance fees must be paid in order to keep a patent from prematurely expiring. A large entity pays $980 3.5 years after issuance; $2,480 7.5 years after issuance; and $4,110 11.5 after issuance. If the fee is not paid then the patent will expire at the next 4, 8, or 12 year mark. In FY08, the PTO reported over $500 million in revenue from maintenance fees.

I wanted to look at how maintenance fees are being paid, so I downloaded the past decade of OG Notices and parsed-out notices of patent expiration. The chart below shows some results.

PatentLawPic686

The chart shows survival rates for the four (red), eight (blue), and twelve (green) year marks. Each datapoint represents the average survival rate for patents that would have expired on that date. For instance, of the 2229 utility patents that issued on December 31, 1996, the first fee was paid for 84% of the patents, the first two fees were paid for 63% of the patents, and all three fees were paied for 49% of the patents. (Note – I did not yet add-back cases that were revived due to unintentional abandonment.)

The median patent has an ordinary enforceable term of about 17 years. This is based on the twenty year term which begins at filing of the non-provisional application minus three years of prosecution. If prosecution takes longer than three years, then the term will likely be extended under the PTA provisions.

However, this data shows that the median patent term is actually cut short by about five years because applicants decide not to pay the large final fee.

A third feature to recognize from this chart is that the percentage of patents whose fees are being paid is increasing over time. However, the PTO has indicated that it expects a drop in maintenance fee payments due to the economic slump.

Judge Moore looked at expiration data for patents issued in 1991 in her paper on “Worthless Patents.” Her result is that patents were more likely to “survive” (i.e., have their maintenance fees paid) when they have more claims, more art cited, more related applications, and longer prosecution times. US corporate owners were more likely to pay the fees than individual or foreign owners. She also found that Semiconductor and Optics patents were the most likely to survive. Amusement patents were unlikely to survive.

USPTO Maintenance Fees

A large portion of PTO revenue comes through applicant’s payment of maintenance fees. Under the current fee structure, three post-grant maintenance fees must be paid in order to keep a patent from prematurely expiring. A large entity pays $980 3.5 years after issuance; $2,480 7.5 years after issuance; and $4,110 11.5 after issuance. If the fee is not paid then the patent will expire at the next 4, 8, or 12 year mark. In FY08, the PTO reported over $500 million in revenue from maintenance fees.

I wanted to look at how maintenance fees are being paid, so I downloaded the past decade of OG Notices and parsed-out notices of patent expiration. The chart below shows some results.

PatentLawPic686

The chart shows survival rates for the four (red), eight (blue), and twelve (green) year marks. Each datapoint represents the average survival rate for patents that would have expired on that date. For instance, of the 2229 utility patents that issued on December 31, 1996, the first fee was paid for 84% of the patents, the first two fees were paid for 63% of the patents, and all three fees were paied for 49% of the patents. (Note – I did not yet add-back cases that were revived due to unintentional abandonment.)

The median patent has an ordinary enforceable term of about 17 years. This is based on the twenty year term which begins at filing of the non-provisional application minus three years of prosecution. If prosecution takes longer than three years, then the term will likely be extended under the PTA provisions.

However, this data shows that the median patent term is actually cut short by about five years because applicants decide not to pay the large final fee.

A third feature to recognize from this chart is that the percentage of patents whose fees are being paid is increasing over time. However, the PTO has indicated that it expects a drop in maintenance fee payments due to the economic slump.

Judge Moore looked at expiration data for patents issued in 1991 in her paper on “Worthless Patents.” Her result is that patents were more likely to “survive” (i.e., have their maintenance fees paid) when they have more claims, more art cited, more related applications, and longer prosecution times. US corporate owners were more likely to pay the fees than individual or foreign owners. She also found that Semiconductor and Optics patents were the most likely to survive. Amusement patents were unlikely to survive.

Top Patent Blogs (according to links from other blogs)

Gene Quinn of IPWatchdog has complied the following ranking of “top patent blogs” based on their Technorati.com rating. Technorati rates blogs according to how many other blogs link-back. The actual ranking is not of much use (some of my favorites did not even make the list), but it is nice to have an updated list of sources. Thanks Gene.

(more…)

Provisional Patent Applications: Waiting to File Non-Provisionals

For better or worse, provisional patent applications have always been used as a way to delay patent prosecution. The procedure has become popular as a relatively cheap and informal mechanism for preserving priority of invention without losing patent term. Although a provisional application sets a priority date, the application does not even reach the examination queue until the full utility patent application is filed. Thus, on average, each day of delay in filing the utility patent application pushes the issue date back one day as well. However, provisional applications also serve as a mechanism for extending the tail end of the patent term because the twenty-year patent term does not begin to run until filing of the utility patent.

Provisional applications have become quite popular. In FY2007, for instance, over 132,000 provisional applications were filed and about 30% of recent patents assigned to US companies reference a provisional filing. [Link]

To see how provisional filings are being used, I compiled a set of 65,000 patents that issued sometime between Jan 2007 and Feb 2009 (inclusive). All the patents in the group share the common property of claiming priority only to one or more provisional applications. I additionally excluded patents that made other priority claims such as continuations, divisionals, and continuations-in-part. Once I formed the set of patents, I then looked at the filing date of the provisional application compared with the filing of the utility application to how applicants are using the extra year of deferred examination. For patents claiming priority to multiple provisional applications, I used the date of the earliest filed provisional application.

The graph below shows the result. The vast majority of applicants wait until the year is almost up before taking action and filing the non-provisional application. About two-thirds of the non-provisional applications were filed with less than ten days remaining in the one-year provisional pendency. In over ten percent of the cases, applicants properly filed the non-provisional more than 365 days after the original provisional filing because of weekends, holidays, and/or leap year.

200902212058.jpg

Two weeks ago, I had a conversation with a patent litigator about the propensity of patent attorneys to barely meet deadlines. He was worried about the potential for malpractice claims against his firm. And, here, I found a surprising number of cases that appear to miss the deadline.

My lingering question for patent attorneys and applicants — why delay so long? Is it simply a matter of doing work according to deadline? Does it matter that delaying filing the application also delays the eventual issuance of the patent?

Provisional Patent Applications: Waiting to File Non-Provisionals

For better or worse, provisional patent applications have always been used as a way to delay patent prosecution. The procedure has become popular as a relatively cheap and informal mechanism for preserving priority of invention without losing patent term. Although a provisional application sets a priority date, the application does not even reach the examination queue until the full utility patent application is filed. Thus, on average, each day of delay in filing the utility patent application pushes the issue date back one day as well. However, provisional applications also serve as a mechanism for extending the tail end of the patent term because the twenty-year patent term does not begin to run until filing of the utility patent.

Provisional applications have become quite popular. In FY2007, for instance, over 132,000 provisional applications were filed and about 30% of recent patents assigned to US companies reference a provisional filing. [Link]

To see how provisional filings are being used, I compiled a set of 65,000 patents that issued sometime between Jan 2007 and Feb 2009 (inclusive). All the patents in the group share the common property of claiming priority only to one or more provisional applications. I additionally excluded patents that made other priority claims such as continuations, divisionals, and continuations-in-part. Once I formed the set of patents, I then looked at the filing date of the provisional application compared with the filing of the utility application to how applicants are using the extra year of deferred examination. For patents claiming priority to multiple provisional applications, I used the date of the earliest filed provisional application.

The graph below shows the result. The vast majority of applicants wait until the year is almost up before taking action and filing the non-provisional application. About two-thirds of the non-provisional applications were filed with less than ten days remaining in the one-year provisional pendency. In over ten percent of the cases, applicants properly filed the non-provisional more than 365 days after the original provisional filing because of weekends, holidays, and/or leap year.

200902212058.jpg

Two weeks ago, I had a conversation with a patent litigator about the propensity of patent attorneys to barely meet deadlines. He was worried about the potential for malpractice claims against his firm. And, here, I found a surprising number of cases that appear to miss the deadline.

My lingering question for patent attorneys and applicants — why delay so long? Is it simply a matter of doing work according to deadline? Does it matter that delaying filing the application also delays the eventual issuance of the patent?

Provisional Patent Applications: Waiting to File Non-Provisionals

For better or worse, provisional patent applications have always been used as a way to delay patent prosecution. The procedure has become popular as a relatively cheap and informal mechanism for preserving priority of invention without losing patent term. Although a provisional application sets a priority date, the application does not even reach the examination queue until the full utility patent application is filed. Thus, on average, each day of delay in filing the utility patent application pushes the issue date back one day as well. However, provisional applications also serve as a mechanism for extending the tail end of the patent term because the twenty-year patent term does not begin to run until filing of the utility patent.

Provisional applications have become quite popular. In FY2007, for instance, over 132,000 provisional applications were filed and about 30% of recent patents assigned to US companies reference a provisional filing. [Link]

To see how provisional filings are being used, I compiled a set of 65,000 patents that issued sometime between Jan 2007 and Feb 2009 (inclusive). All the patents in the group share the common property of claiming priority only to one or more provisional applications. I additionally excluded patents that made other priority claims such as continuations, divisionals, and continuations-in-part. Once I formed the set of patents, I then looked at the filing date of the provisional application compared with the filing of the utility application to how applicants are using the extra year of deferred examination. For patents claiming priority to multiple provisional applications, I used the date of the earliest filed provisional application.

The graph below shows the result. The vast majority of applicants wait until the year is almost up before taking action and filing the non-provisional application. About two-thirds of the non-provisional applications were filed with less than ten days remaining in the one-year provisional pendency. In over ten percent of the cases, applicants properly filed the non-provisional more than 365 days after the original provisional filing because of weekends, holidays, and/or leap year.

200902212058.jpg

Two weeks ago, I had a conversation with a patent litigator about the propensity of patent attorneys to barely meet deadlines. He was worried about the potential for malpractice claims against his firm. And, here, I found a surprising number of cases that appear to miss the deadline.

My lingering question for patent attorneys and applicants — why delay so long? Is it simply a matter of doing work according to deadline? Does it matter that delaying filing the application also delays the eventual issuance of the patent?

References Cited

I compiled a list of the over five hundred thousand reference citations in the almost eighteen thousand utility patents issued in the past two months. (Jan 1, 2009 – Feb 18, 2009, excluding reissues and reexaminations). In this sample, the average patent issued with 31 cited references. This is a skewed average – the median patent only cites 15 references. The vast majority of references (77%) are introduced by the applicant during prosecution while less than a quarter (23%) are cited by the examiner.

Patent documents (including US & foreign issued patents and published applications) represent 82% of the cited documents while non-patent literature represents 18% of the total. As was noted in the comments regarding PTO search tools, PTO searches are overwhelmingly focused on patent documents. Thus, 95% of references cited by PTO examiners are patent documents. (See pie chart aside).

Although – on average – applicants submit most of the prior art, Applicants submitted absolutely no references (zero) 15% of the patents in my study, and the median number of references cited by the applicant is only 7. Applicants cite over 200 references in only 2% of cases. The PTO’s stalled IDS rules give the applicant 20 ‘free’ references that can be cited without payment of a fee or further description. About 23% of the issued patents in my sample include more than 20 references cited by the applicant. The chart below is a histogram of applicant submitted references. About 12% of patents are “off the chart.” In those cases the applicant cited more than 40 references.

Take-away: First, the data shows that applicant submitted references are substantially different from those cited by examiners. Non-patent literature is an important category of prior art that is largely missed by examiners, and the current information disclosure system does a pretty good job of getting more of that type of art in front of the examiner than he or she would otherwise see. A second point is that most of the time, examiners are not being swamped by reference submissions. It is surprising that 15% of patented cases include absolutely no applicant cited references. On the other hand, folks who submit over 200 references are deliberately choosing to do so. Generally, the very large reference volume comes in cases where the applicant knows that the innovation is important and is looking for more assured protection. In those cases, I don’t see the harm in making the applicant somehow pay for the additional resources required to review those references. [Of course, in that case, the PTO should allow more examination time as well]

The next graph shows the average number of applicant-cited references for various top-patenting companies. The size of the blue bar reflects the number of applicant cited reference on average, for that assignee’s Jan-Feb 2009 patents. (Scale at bottom). The graph is sorted so that companies with the greatest average number of cites are shown at the top. Although this is not strictly true, the difference between companies is largely a difference in areas of technology. Thus, companies patenting electronics generally cite less prior art than others. You may also notice in this list that US based companies tend to cite more prior art. The final chart in the series shows that – on average, US assignees submit over three times as many prior art references as do their foreign counterparts or patents without an assignee.

Extending Patent Terms

ScreenShot016I looked again at patent term adjustments (PTA) for US patents. 3294 utility patents were granted on February 17, 2009. Of those, 2467 (75%) included some patent term adjustment based on PTO delays in prosecution under 35 U.S.C. § 154(b). For each of these patents, some additional quantum of exclusivity is added to the end of the patent term so long as maintenance fees are paid.

The median adjustment was just over one year (376 days) with the average adjustment of 430 days. The longest adjustment in the group was over five years (1958 days). That patent (No. 7,490,438) is directed to an automobile door and is based on an application filed in 2000. In that case, the applicant appealed twice. The examiner was reversed both times. The applicant lost 11 potential PTA days for filing an IDS after the first office action.

Notes

Patent Attorney Argument as Inequitable Conduct

Rothman v. Target Corp. (Fed. Cir. 2009)

A New Jersey jury found Rothman’s patent invalid, not infringed, and unenforceable due to inequitable conduct. (Pat No. 6,855,029). On appeal, the Federal Circuit reversed the inequitable conduct holding, but otherwise affirmed.

Obviousness: The asserted patent covers a breastfeeding shirt that includes a concealed, but fully supportive nursing bra. The original prototype was built by Ms. Rothman by sewing a Jockey brand tank-top together with an Olga brand nursing bra and some additional fabric. Thus, here we have a situation where the inventor took off the shelf items and took a few hours (a day into the night) to form them into a new combination. The appellate panel recognized that the particular manner in which an invention is actually made does not negate patentability. However, the appellate panel did see the simple inventive process as evidence of “the predictability and expectations in this field of art.” Based on these facts, the court could find no reason to disturb the obviousness holding since a PHOSITA “would have been motivated to combine an existing tank top with an existing nursing bra to arrive at the claimed invention.”

Inequitable Conduct: The Federal Circuit reversed the jury’s finding of inequitable conduct. One point of interest involved the patent attorney argument that “nursing garments are highly specialized … as distinguished from maternity garments, [and] are not analogous prior art to women’s garments in general…. Therefore, it is improper to combine a prior art reference from nursing garments with a prior art reference from garments generally, with no connection to nursing garments.” It turned out that the patent attorney had no prior experience in nursing garment technology and did not consult any industry experts before making his claims regarding the ‘highly specialized’ nature of the art and the impropriety of combining prior art.

The Federal Circuit no problem with these attorney statements:


While the law prohibits genuine misrepresentations of material fact, a prosecuting attorney is free to present argument in favor of patentability without fear of committing inequitable conduct. . . . This court has little basis to find deceptive intent in the routine back and forth between examiner and applicant. Moreover, this court recognizes that the Patent Act gives the examiner the discretion to reject or accept an applicant’s arguments based on the examiner’s own conclusions regarding the prosecution record.

[The attorney's] remarks show an effort to persuade that does not even approach an effort to deceive the PTO or abuse the prosecution process. …

Appellees find fault with the final sentence from the excerpt above. However, [the attorney's] conclusion that it is “improper to combine a prior art reference from nursing garments with a prior art reference from garments generally, with no connection to nursing garments” is nothing more than attorney argument based on the foregoing facts … [derived] from his analysis that nursing garments are different from regular women’s wear. … In any event, this type of conclusory analysis betrays no intent to deceive the PTO and obtain a patent with objectively false information. Rather, it is an attempt to characterize the prior art in a manner favorable to the attorney’s client—far from deception. No reasonable jury could rely on Mr. Jacobson’s statements as clear and convincing proof of inequitable conduct.

Attorneys should take this decision with a grain of salt based on the fact that Judge Rader authored the opinion and Judge Friedman was on the panel. Judge Rader is well known for his opinion that inequitable conduct is too liberally adjudged.

Federal Circuit Takings Case: Set Up for Supreme Court Review

Casitas Municipal Water v. US (Fed. Cir. 2009) (en banc denial) (MAYER, SCHALL , and MOORE*)

Casitas is not a patent case, it is a takings case involving regulatory restrictions on water use imposed by US Government. The Federal Circuit has jurisdiction over this takings claim against the US Government because it is on appeal from the Court of Federal Claims (CFC). Although the Federal Circuit has denied the Federal Government’s motion for en banc rehearing, a set of diverging opinions sets this case in position for likely Supreme Court review.

History: The Ventura River Project provides water supply to Ventura County, California. In 1956, the US Government granted the local government the “perpetual right to use all water that becomes available through the construction and operation of the Project.” Then, in 1997, steelhead trout living in the Project became an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and the US Government required that Casitas construct a fish ladder and divert water over the fish ladder. Casitas complied, but filed suit in the CFC alleging that the Federal Government had taken its property without just compensation (and also under breach of contract). The CFC classified the Government action as “regulatory” rather than a “physical.” In takings law, compensation for regulatory takings is much more difficult to obtain, and Casitas admitted that it could not prove the required elements. This conclusion followed the Federal Government argument that “it did not seize, appropriate, divert, or impound any water, but merely required water to be left in the stream.”

Appeal: On appeal, the Federal Circuit reversed. Writing for the majority, Judge Moore concluded “that the government physically appropriated water that Casitas held a usufructuary right in.”

Here, the government admits for the purposes of summary judgment that it required Casitas to build the fish ladder facility, which is a man-made concrete structure that was not a portion of the existing … The government also admits that the operation of the fish ladder required water, which prior to the fish ladder’s construction flowed into the Casitas Reservoir … Specifically, the government admits that the operation of the fish ladder includes closing the overshot gate …and that the closure of this gate causes water that would have gone into the Casitas Reservoir via the Robles-Casitas Canal to be diverted into the fish ladder. … These admissions make clear that the government did not merely require some water to remain in stream, but instead actively caused the physical diversion of water away from the Robles-Casitas Canal … and towards the fish ladder, thus reducing Casitas’ water supply.

In dissent, Judge Mayer rejected the physical takings argument. At base, he argued, Casitas does not actually own the water. Rather, under California law, all water sources within California “belong to the public.” Even if Casitas did own the water flow, Mayer would have seen the endangered species requirements as regulatory because the requirements simply force a specific use of the water rather than take it away.

En Banc Rehearing: In what looks like a 7-5 (or 6-6) vote, the Federal Circuit denied a rehearing en banc. Judge Moore wrote a new opinion defending her original approach in the original opinion. In particular, Judge Moore focused on the “facts as presented” in the case. “[T]he government conceded (1) that Casitas had a property right in the water diverted from the Ventura River, and (2) that the government required Casitas to build and operate the fish ladder in such a way as to permanently appropriate water in which Casitas had the conceded property right.” Based on those two facts, the holding of a physical takings was easy.

Judge Gajarsa would have heard the case en banc. Gajarsa (joined by Chief Judge Michel and Judge Dyk) saw the taking as clearly regulatory in form because nothing had actually been taken by the US Government.

This denial implicates fundamental questions regarding takings law. The panel majority’s opinion suggests that a government action can be construed to be a physical taking even if no physical proprietary interest has actually been taken by the United States. This is contrary to present Supreme Court law and contrary to our case law. Accepting this analysis of the panel majority eliminates the fine distinction and balance that has been established by the Supreme Court between physical and regulatory takings. Moreover, it eliminates the ability of the legislature to provide for limited and parsimonious legislation protecting endangered species.

Notes:

  • Republican vs. Democrat: Moore’s position is clearly one of stronger property rights while Gajarsa/Mayer’s position is in favor of regulatory power of the government. It appears that this decision falls along political lines. Those thinking of the regulation as a physical taking (Moore, Schall, Rader, JJ) are all Republican appointees. Three of the five thinking of the regulation as regulatory in nature are Democratic appointees (Linn, Dyk, Gajarsa, JJ are all Clinton appointees; Michel, CJ, and Mayer, J, are Reagan appointees). At least three of the four other judges voted to deny a rehearing. Of those four, three are Republican appointees (Newman, Lourie, Prost, JJ, are all Republican appointees; Bryson, J, is a Clinton appointee). As you can see here, eight of the twelve active Federal Circuit judges are Republican appointees.
  • En Banc Denial
  • Original CAFC Opinion: Casitas Mun. Water Dist. v. United States, 543 F.3d 1276 (Fed. Cir. 2008).
  • Original CFC Opinion