By Dennis Crouch (October 5, 2012)
In a prior Patently-O essay, I wrote that the removal of the inventorship requirement of Section 102(f) opens the door to patenting obvious variants of inventions created by someone else. In that essay, I mentioned the newly designed derivation proceedings, but opined that they would not be much use in this situation. I wrote that "it appears to me that those actions (even if timely filed by the originator) would be unsuccessful because derivation proceedings are limited to cases where the derived claims are "substantially the same" as the originator's innovation. The substantially the same limitation is much narrower in scope as compared with the potential wide variety of obvious variants." 102(f) Essay.
I received a response to that essay from Professor Sarnoff who reports that he and Chico Gholz have a soon-to-be-published article in IP Today addressing the PTO's new rules for triggering derivation proceedings. The punch line of their article is that the legal scope of derivation proceeding is even narrower than I suggested—thus allowing for a third party to patent quite minor variations of ideas obtained from someone else. (I encourage you to read the article once it is published.)
The America Invents Act of 2011 (AIA) entirely rewrote the section 135 of the patent act. That provision previously detailed the interference process and now focuses exclusively on derivation proceedings as they will apply to patent applications filed on or after March 16, 2013. New section 135(a) limits derivation proceedings to instances where an alleged wrongdoer files an earlier patent application "claiming" the original inventor's (but late filer's) "claimed invention." In their article, Gholz and Sarnoff correctly argue that there is not much room for variation here. Under the statute, the derived invention (as claimed) must be for the same subject matter as the original invention (as claimed), even if their language differs. This further confirms what I see as the problematic naming of "derivation proceedings." In my mind, the meaning of the word derivation suggests some amount of modification. While a derivation depends upon having an original source, the final results are ordinarily a modification of that source. With Gholz-Sarnoff, we learn that this ordinary meaning does not fit to the Derivation Proceedings as defined by the AIA. A better term for the AIA defined action might be "False Inventorship Claim Proceeding."
Gholz and Sarnoff recognize that the PTO took a different view when it codified the rules at 37 C.F.R. §42.405(a)(2). That provision broadly authorizes derivation proceedings when the petitioner's claims are "substantially the same" as the alleged deriver's claims, with "substantially the same" defined in 37 CFR 42.401 as "patentably indistinct." Gholz and Sarnoff argue that the PTO is wrong in this interpretation and that the Federal Circuit will eventually overrule the PTO's misapplication of the law.
Further, as noted by Sarnoff in his Patently-O article and as reiterated in the new Gholz-Sarnoff article in response to the views of Armitage, the original inventor may not have conceived of the obvious variant and thus may not be able to provide the required oath in regard to the obvious-variant claim so as to trigger the derivation proceeding.
In our prior e-mail communications (repeated here with permission), Sarnoff has also explored other ways to block patenting of the obvious variants. He writes:
- A person who conceives of an obvious variant is normally treated as an inventor of an invention (just of an obvious one), so lack of inventorship under Section 101 may not be a successful approach to invalidating the claim made by the deriver, although the deriver will likely be entitled at least to joint-inventor status; and
- Current inventorship law may not necessarily treat the originator of the underlying invention as a joint-inventor of the obvious variant of which the originator did not conceive, even if the originator added a significant contribution to conception by the deriver, and thus it may not always be possible to correct inventorship to permit the originator to obtain joint inventor status and joint ownership of the obvious variant.
- However, the courts have sometimes extended unpatentability to obvious variants even when the statute does not clearly provide for it, as they did in In re Foster, 343 F.2d 980 (C.C.P.A. 1965) (extending Section 102(b) to claims that were obvious in light of statutory bar art). [Note, this explains Professor Sarnoff's prior equivocation that I discussed here. DC.]
The bottom line here that I began with my recent essay and continue with this additional discussion revealed by Gholz and Sarnoff is that the elimination of section 102(f) and the narrow scope of derivation proceedings have created a potential problem by offering a roadmap for bad behavior. The law now apparently sanctions the patenting of minor variations of innovations created by someone else. This raises several levels of concern. Most directly, we are concerned about (1) how the obvious variant patent negatively impacts the idea originator and (2) how the obvious patent burdens the public who must either license or avoid infringement.
The current law basically places the burden on the idea originator to protect his or her rights by (1) keeping the idea secret and then relying on contract and trade secret law to protect that secrecy; (2) quickly filing for patent rights; or (3) quickly going public with the idea in a way that creates prior art. Any of these overlapping choices can be sufficient to block or invalidate an obvious variant patent. I am also not overly concerned that this approach unduly shifts a burden to the idea originator. My problem with that approach – as suggested by Anon – is that the idea originator might not be proactive enough to take the actions necessary to protect the public's interest in not being burdened by patents covering obvious innovations.
New Pressure on Section 101: This whole scenario then puts tremendous pressure on courts (including the Supreme Court) to expand the powerful (but ungainly) tool of 35 U.S.C. § 101 and use that fundamental statute to block these derived variant patents that are not otherwise prohibited by statute. The Supreme Court is unlikely to stand for the patenting of obvious variants of ideas derived from another. And, the most straightforward way for the court to act is with the return of something akin to the invention requirement that was thought to have been eliminated by the 1952 Patent Act. That action would likely add steel to the link between newness and subject matter eligibility in a way that many of us see as problematic. (Perhaps under the framework of "inventive contribution.") The better approach is a statutory change that shifts rights with fewer ripple effects.
Sarnoff's perspective is that Section 101 should have an active and engaged role in the patent eligibility doctrine. In his recent article on the post-1952 invention requirement, Sarnoff writes (with apologies to Dr. Strangelove): "[T]o those who believe in using private property to motivate creative advance, using eligibility determinations to restrict access to the patent system is the bomb that threatens our future viability. For the reasons discussed [in the article], I believe we need to learn to stop worrying and to love that bomb." Joshua Sarnoff, Patent Eligible Inventions after Bilski: History and Theory, 63 Hasting Law Journal 53 (2011).
- In addition to raising this interesting topic, I should (and do) also thank Gholz and Sarnoff for their editorial suggestions on this essay.