Guest Post by Professor Jorge L. Contreras
As previously reported, on February 20 the White House highlighted its progress on five patent-related policy initiatives introduced in June 2013, announced three new patent-related initiatives, and renewed its call for legislation to combat “patent trolling”. In all, ten different initiatives were discussed. Below is a quick guide to making sense of the most significant ones, as well as a summary of private sector responses to date.
Patent Assertion Entities (PAEs) – In this year’s State of the Union address, President Obama came out publicly against unfair litigation tactics deployed by “patent trolls” and has called on Congress to enact legislation to “curtail abusive patent litigation.” Two of the Administration’s June 2013 initiatives relate to PAE litigation: a proposed PTO rule that would require reporting of real party in interest (re-branded as “attributable ownership”) information in patents and patent applications, and an online toolkit providing links and other information for the recipients of patent demand letters. Among the most useful features of the toolkit are links to advanced demand letter and patent litigation analytics provided by Lex Machina and Docket Navigator. Although the toolkit is available to anyone, its intended beneficiaries are small businesses that have been targeted by some of the more notorious PAEs for using off-the-shelf office equipment like scanners and wireless routers. The Administration seems to realize that both of these initiatives are relatively modest, and it has again urged Congress to enact measures that will have a meaningful impact on reducing abusive patent litigation.
PTO Fixes – The Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) has, fairly or unfairly, come under increasing fire for procedural lapses and staffing inadequacies that allow the issuance of too many “bad” patents. Last week’s announcements contain some meaningful proposals that could help to address this situation.
- Claim Clarity – the PTO has implemented new training programs for examiners and judges relating to “functional claims“, which have been widely criticized as overly broad and unclear. The PTO also highlighted an upcoming pilot program involving the use of glossaries in patent specifications to clarify claim language. The details of this program remain to be seen, but anything that will bring greater consistency and rationality to claim interpretation can only help.
Examiner Technology Training – One perceived problem with the patent examination system is the inability of examiners to keep up with rapidly changing technologies. Gaps in technical knowledge can result in examiners’ failure to identify relevant prior art, to appreciate the interaction of different system elements, and to make cogent assumptions and conclusions about inventiveness, anticipation and nonobviousness. To address this issue, the Administration has called for private sector volunteers to provide state-of-the-art technical training to patent examiners through a program coordinated by the PTO. This is clearly an area in which the private sector can help to solve a known weakness in the patent system. Several private sector entities have already committed to participate in this project. For example, The Clearing House, a financial services industry association, has pledged to develop educational materials and offer seminars to examiners in the area of financial infrastructure technology, and Verizon, which has already begun to train PTO examiners in the areas of network architecture and communications, will continue these efforts.
While commitments such as this are a welcome start, important details will likely need to be worked out as this program grows. Though examiners work in specific art units, they must still cover a wide range of products and technologies. In complex and fast-moving fields, one could easily see some examiners spending virtually all of their working hours being trained. Moreover, one can envision competition among businesses to “educate” examiners regarding their competitors’ product lines without providing a balanced or realistic survey of the field. Accordingly, the PTO will need to exercise some oversight regarding both the scope and content of this program, and to ensure that whatever training is provided is likely to enhance the patent examination system, rather than burden or bias it.
Crowdsourcing Non-Patent Prior Art – Perhaps the most interesting and ambitious announcement made last week was the Administration’s call for the private sector to disclose and share prior art. The problem of non-patent prior art is a real but difficult one. It goes without saying that patent examiners examining an application should seek prior art relevant to the claimed invention from whatever sources are available. Traditionally, examiners have focused primarily on prior art contained in other patents and patent applications. While patents and patent applications are admittedly easy to search, this technique is sure to miss relevant art that has not been included in patent applications. In fast-moving industries such as software, it is likely that most of the relevant art is contained in “non-patent literature” (NPL). Yet NPL is notoriously difficult to search, particularly outside of the biosciences in which scientific publications are regularly reviewed and cited by examiners. In the software arts, NPL could include old product brochures, documentation manuals, technical drawings, and obsolete code. Even finding, let alone analyzing, prior art from this diffuse and heterogeneous mass of information presents a daunting challenge.
The problem of NPL has been understood for some time, and “crowdsourcing” of prior art searching has long been viewed as a potential solution. In 2007, the PTO announced its pilot “Peer to Patent” program, which was intended to recruit members of the public to submit prior art relevant to applications under review, initially in the areas of software and business methods. The program was funded by a number of large companies and received a reasonable amount of press coverage, both favorable and unfavorable. The initial pilot program ran from 2007-09, with a second pilot from 2010-11. Perhaps it was the enactment of the America Invents Act in 2011, with its battery of new pre-grant challenge mechanisms, or the difficulty in finding qualified volunteer peer reviewers in highly specific technology categories, but the Peer-to-Patent project has quietly faded into oblivion.
The Administration’s current “crowdsourcing” approach is different, in that it calls directly on companies, the repositories of most NPL, to help. It is encouraging that a number of private firms have already answered the Administration’s call and pledged to make large quantities of previously non-public technical material available to the PTO. To date, pledges to this effect have been made by:
- The Clearing House (to provide the PTO with access to documents describing the national financial infrastructure),
- Microsoft (to provide PTO with access to more than 10 million archived Microsoft technical documents),
- SAS (to provide 38 years of user documentation and technical papers to IP.com, working in conjunction with the PTO), and
- Yahoo (to continue to share prior art relevant to its business).
The amount of data contained within the private coffers of the world’s technology companies is mind-boggling; and collecting, formatting and presenting this data in a cost-effective manner that is useful to patent examiners could prove to be a monumental task. Nevertheless, the effort must be undertaken if patents will continue to be issued in fast-moving technology fields. Google, the world’s largest search engine, has started down this path with its Prior Art Finder, an outgrowth of the popular Google Patent Search launched in 2006. The Administration’s leadership in this area is to be commended, and one can only hope that many more companies will follow those who have already pledged to assist with this vital project.
- Patent Pledges? – It is notable that both the Examiner Technology Training and the Crowdsourcing Prior Art programs announced last week rely heavily on voluntary engagement by the private sector. The Administration has called upon industry to take a leading role in addressing some of the problems that have emerged in the patent system. This approach is sensible, as the technological expertise necessary to evaluate patents in complex and rapidly evolving technical areas resides within the companies that create those technologies, not in the PTO. However, such calls to action are also risky. What if they are ignored, or too few companies heed the call? Governmental calls to action have been around since the Crusades and have recently sought to address social issues from healthy eating and blood diamonds to financial reform and climate change. Over the past few years, spurred by the increase in PAE litigation, among other things, companies have begun to make voluntary pledges relating to patents. These have included pledges not to assert patents, or not to seek injunctions, against standardized technologies and common technology platforms, to charge royalties that are fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND), to refrain from transferring patents to PAEs, and a variety of other activities. As I have written elsewhere, these pledges are intended to assure the market that the pledgor’s patents will not be used to disrupt valuable social activity. The recent pledges made in response to the Administration’s call are of a slightly different variety. Rather than impose “negative” encumbrances on the pledgor’s patents or its ability to enforce them, they create “positive” obligations on the pledgors to contribute knowledge, technology and (presumably) trade secrets to the PTO and/or the public. These new positive patent pledges are an intriguing and potentially game-changing development, and it will be interesting to see how many additional companies elect to commit themselves in this manner. I oversee a project at American University that catalogs patent-related pledges made outside formal standards-setting organizations, and look forward to adding many new commitments from the private sector in response to the Administration’s latest call.
Patent Pro Bono/Pro Se Assistance – Another of the new initiatives announced last week relates to the allocation of “dedicated educational and practical” PTO resources to help pro se (unrepresented by counsel) patent applicants navigate their way through the patent application process. Presumably this means that better documentation, explanatory screens and improved help resources will be made available on the PTO web site, all of which would be useful additions. The Administration also called for private sector volunteers to offer increased pro bono (free) legal assistance to small inventors. While these initiatives are welcome, the vast majority of U.S. patents are filed by businesses that can comfortably afford patent counsel, and the Edisonian conception of the sole inventor has been show largely to be a myth. Thus, while politically appealing, it is not clear that these initiatives will have a meaningful impact on the market or the patent system overall.
One wonders, in fact, why the PTO’s pro bono program is limited to patent prosecution, a relatively inexpensive legal task in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps this program would be more useful, and more aligned with the Administration’s other initiatives, if the pro bono program made lawyers available to advise retailers, small businesses and non-profit organizations about how to respond to PAE patent demand letters. While the analytics and information provided through the new PTO patent litigation toolkit are a gold mine for academics and patent litigators, it is not clear that members of the lay public will be able to make effective use of them without professional legal assistance. The PTO’s pro bono program could nicely fill this gap and make the most of the electronic tools that have already been developed and deployed by the Administration.
Conclusion – There are problems with the U.S. patent system. Rather than avoiding them, the Administration has taken positive and productive steps toward addressing them. While the long-term benefits of some of these initiatives are uncertain, programs such as the PTO’s solicitation of non-patent prior art and enhanced technical training for patent examiners could yield meaningful benefits for the system. The companies that have already pledged their support of these initiatives deserve to be commended. Let’s hope that both the Administration and the private sector follow-through on these promising first steps.