In a four-page Federal Register notice of proposed rulemaking of proposed rulemaking, the US Patent Office has indicated its intent to revise its duty-to-disclose standards based upon the recent Federal Circuit en banc decision in Therasense, Inc. v. Becton, Dickinson & Co., — F.3d — (Fed. Cir. 2011).
In Therasense, the Federal Circuit held that, apart from potentially affirmative egregious misconduct, inequitable conduct in patent prosecution should not be found unless it is proven that the misconduct was a “but for” cause of the patent issuing. Focusing specifically on the failure to disclose prior art, the court wrote: “[w]hen an applicant fails to disclose prior art to the PTO, that prior art is but-for material if the PTO would not have allowed a claim had it been aware of the undisclosed prior art.” The office introduces its proposal as follows:
Specifically, the Office is proposing to revise the materiality standard for the duty to disclose to match the materiality standard, as defined in Therasense, for the inequitable conduct doctrine. While Therasense does not require the Office to harmonize the materiality standards underlying the duty of disclosure and the inequitable conduct doctrine, the Office believes that there are important reasons to do so. The materiality standard set forth in Therasense should reduce the frequency with which applicants and practitioners are being charged with inequitable conduct, consequently reducing the incentive to submit information disclosure statements containing marginally relevant information and enabling applicants to be more forthcoming and helpful to the Office. At the same time, it should also continue to prevent fraud on the Office and other egregious forms of misconduct. Additionally, harmonization of the materiality standards is simpler for the patent system as a whole.
The newly proposed Rule 56(b) (37 C.F.R. 1.56(b)) would read as follows:
Sec. 1.56 Duty to disclose information material to patentability.
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(b) Information is material to patentability if it is material under the standard set forth in Therasense, Inc. v. Becton, Dickinson & Co., — F.3d — (Fed. Cir. 2011). Information is material to patentability under Therasense if:
(1) The Office would not allow a claim if it were aware of the information, applying the preponderance of the evidence standard and giving the claim its broadest reasonable construction; or
(2) The applicant engages in affirmative egregious misconduct before the Office as to the information.
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Under the new rule, the mere failure to disclose information will never be considered material to patentability if the pending claim is allowable. A parallel change would be made to the disclosure rules governing reexaminations.
The current Rule 56(b) defines material information as non-cumulative information that either (1) “by itself or in combination with other information…compels a conclusion that a claim is unpatentable under the preponderance of evidence, burden-of-proof standard” or (2) is inconsistent with “a position the applicant takes” arguing that the claim is patentable. The current rule implemented in 1992 and was itself an attempt by the USPTO to limit the scope of materiality. The pre-1992 rule required submission of information whenever there was a “substantial likelihood that a reasonable examiner would consider [the information] important in deciding whether to allow the application to issue a patent.”
Thus far in 2011, the average issued patent cites 42 prior art references. This number is highly skewed because of a minority of patents that cite to an excessively large number of prior art references. The median patent in 2011 cites 17 references. Only 8% of the 2011 patents cite more than 100 references, but those patents collectively cite more references than the other 92% combined.
The USPTO is also seeking comment on other actions that “may provide an incentive for applicants to assist the Office by explaining/clarifying the relationship of prior art to the claimed invention.”
Written comments regarding the proposed rule change should be submitted to AC58.firstname.lastname@example.org within the next 60 days (by September 19, 2011).