By Shubha Ghosh, Vilas Research Fellow and Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin Law School
Whether the "Leahy-Smith America Invents Act' will help to create jobs is a complicated empirical question. The logic supporting those who think it will goes something like this. The recently enacted patent reforms streamlines the prosecution process resulting in better quality patents that will allow patent owners to commercialize them more effectively to create companies that will employ people. There are several leaps in this logic. But whether the argument is true or not, the underlying emphasis on improving patent quality is the right one, whether or not another recession is avoided.
But will patent quality improve? There are some features which support that improvement. The creation of post-grant review proceedings has the potential of providing a more effective mechanism for the introduction and review of prior art to invalidate a poor quality patent than the process of litigation. Such administrative review might limit the ability of non-practicing entities to use patents of dubious value to hinder effective use of technology and innovations. Over all the new process might provide better assurance about issued patents and confidence in their durability. The expansion of the prior user right defense might also soften the effects litigation, threatened or actual, on business development. Although there is some empirical evidence from the Canadian experience that the shift to a first to file system may reduce the volume of patenting, there is some possibility that the quality of patents will improve.
The Act however could have gone further. The limitation on tax avoidance patents, implemented through a broader definition of the prior art, is a good move in reducing the number of applications for inventions that arguably provide little boon to the type of manufacturing and service industries that produce jobs. But Congress could have gone further in clarifying the Bilski v Kappos decision, which seemed to place some limits on the types of processes that could be patented. Congress could have gone one of two ways in helping to clarify Bilski. One is by clarifying the meaning of process so as to avoid the amorphous standard the Court created. The 2010 opinion speaks to "machine or transformation" as one test to determine when a process is patentable and as an important clue to what the right approach might be. Congress could have added more certainty by removing abstract processes (e.g., a method of arbitration, hedging strategies) from patentable subject matter. The goal would be to reduce the number of applications a patent examiner has to shift through and provide tools for per se rejections that do not require extensive examinations of the prior art.
Congress also missed the opportunity to clarify the standard of review for decisions of the US Patent and Trademark Office. The big question is how the Federal Circuit (and eventually the Supreme Court) will interpret the Act. Arguably, the United States Patent Office has been given new tasks and, even with the open questions about fee diversion, greater authority. But as long as decisions from the Office are subject to a de novo review by the courts, it is not clear that this greater power of the agency will actually streamline the process. Congress could have made clear some of the issues raised explicitly and implicitly in the 2011 Microsoft v i4i decision, upholding the clear and convincing evidence standard for claims of patent invalidity. The controversy at the heart of that case has to do with the deference owed to agency decisions. When patent prosecution is ex parte and the main challenge to patent validity is through the courts, the presumption of validity is troubling for the goal of assuring patent quality. Now that we have a process for post grant opposition, some of the concerns with ex parte proceedings are alleviated. But I would make the case that greater deference to decisions of the agency may be a way to lessen the impact of the courts and to assure even more certainty in the process. One possible response is to change the standard of review for claim construction by the Federal Circuit from the current de novo standard. Another would be to set a high bar for challenging agency decisions, thereby limiting the power of the judiciary to overturn agency decisions. Thirty years ago Congress established the Federal Circuit. The passage of the America Invents Act could have been a vehicle to place some limits on its power and shift authority regarding patents to the USPTO, where it belongs.
The goal of promoting progress should not be taken lightly and should not be reduced to the mantra of "jobs, jobs, jobs." Using the patent system to create jobs is in some ways a misguided one. Improving patent quality can strengthen the process of innovation which can aid the economy at a fairly high level. But a better patent system is no substitute for jobs training and an industry targeted jobs bill that creates incentives for hiring and for investment. The America Invents Act brings in many changes, but it is no giant leap for improving confidence that the patent system helps to generate quality inventions.