Guest post by Professor Sharon K. Sandeen
For several years now, I have been thinking about how the changes that the America Invents Act (the AIA) wrought to the definition of prior art will change trade secret practice. Specifically, were they intended to narrow the definition of prior art in ways that would make it easier for inventions to be kept as trade secrets and used commercially without triggering the one-year grace period in which to file a patent application?
My initial interest in this topic was sparked by the noticeable deletion of the word “known” from section 102. Former section 102(a) used to state that “[a] person shall be entitled to a patent unless the invention was known or used by others in this country. . . before the invention thereof by the applicant for patent.” Most of the language of “old” section 102(a) is now in “new” section 102(a)(1), but not the word “known.” Also, what is to be made of the added phrase “otherwise available to the public.”
To date, the debate about whether the AIA intended to narrow the definition of prior art in ways that would heighten the ability of inventors to protect their inventions as trade secrets has focused on the meaning of “public use” and whether the phrase “otherwise available to the public” is a new category of prior art or was intended to modify the other listed categories. This makes sense when you consider that the previous “known” category focused on what others knew at the time of the invention, and the issue of whether the grace period is triggered concerns the acts of inventors. Thus, one way to look at the deletion of “known” is to realize that new section 102 simplified things by removing the only type of prior art that applied to “others” but not to the inventor. Now, all the categories of prior art listed in section 102(a)(1) apply to acts of others and inventors, and section 102(b) focuses on the acts of inventors.
I want to suggest another way of looking at the new section 102 and the deletion of the word “known” that helps make sense of both section 102(a) and 102(b). Under well-established trade secret doctrine, the prior art that prevents information from qualifying as a trade secret is expressed as that which is “generally known” and “readily ascertainable.” What is generally known is broadly defined to include what is known to the general public and what is known within discrete industries or groups of individuals who are experts in the field. Information is readily ascertainable if, even though it is not generally known, it can be found without much time, trouble or expense. Among trade secret scholars, we say that the difference is between what is “known” to the public and what is “knowable.”
Applying the categorizations of “known” and “knowable” to the AIA, it can be seen that new section 102(a) refers to what is knowable. What is stated in a patent or a printed publication or what is in use or on sale, is probably not generally known, but it is readily ascertainable. Read this way, the phrase “otherwise available to the public” makes perfect sense because it captures the essence of the other listed categories and establishes that any information that is ascertainable before the effective filing date would constitute prior art. How readily available the information must be is an question that the AIA does not address directly and that will have to be determined by the courts.
Applying the trade secret concept of “known” to new section 102(b) helps make sense of the language of 102(b)(1)(B) which refers both to “the subject matter that was disclosed” and information that was “publicly disclosed” before such disclosure and, in a round- about way, establishes that section 102(a) does not require information to be generally known by the public. The language “the subject matter that was disclosed” must mean the information that is listed in section 102(a) which only needs to be “knowable.” Information that is “publicly disclosed,” in contrast, means information that was actually disclosed to the public (i.e., “generally known” in trade secret parlance).