Harvard’s US OncoMouse Patents are All Expired (For the Time Being)

By Dennis Crouch

Harvard College v. Kappos, 12-cv-1034 (E.D.Va. 2012)

Harvard’s patented OncoMouse has been a bestseller for cancer research here in the US. Two Harvard researchers took an available laboratory mouse and inserted a heritable cancer-causing gene into the creature’s DNA. In the US, Harvard owns three patents covering aspects of the mouse and its creation that are exclusively licensed to Du Pont. U.S. Patent Nos. 4,736,866, 5,087,571, and 5,925,803. The patents were filed pre-1995 and thus have a term that lasts for 17 years from the patent issuance. The first two 17-year terms have expired, but the third could last until 2016 – except for the terminal disclaimer discussed below.

In 2010, an anonymous third party requestor (TPR) filed a reexamination request for the ’803 patent. Last June, the USPTO confirmed the patentability of the challenged claims. However, the USPTO agreed with the TPR that a broadly worded terminal disclaimer filed in the parent ’571 application meant that the’803 patent also expired in 2005. Thus, it doesn’t matter whether the claims are valid over the prior art because they are expired. Because the patent had expired, the USPTO refused to allow Harvard to add additional claims to the patent during reexamination.

In the terminal disclaimer filed in the parent case, the patentee agreed to disclaim the term of the parent patent as well as any patent claiming benefit of the patent under 35 U.S.C. §120. Since the ’803 patent claims priority to the parent under §120, that disclaimer seems to be effective to limit the ’803′s term as well. However, the disclaimer was never particularly filed in the ’803 case (only its parent). Further, nothing in the record indicates that the examiner acknowledged receipt of the disclaimer in the parent case and there is no evidence that the terminal disclaimer fee was actually paid. The examiner did, however, remove the double patenting rejection had been blocking the issuance of the parent case and the filed terminal disclaimer authorized payment of the fee.

In the reexamination, the USPTO gave full support the examiner’s decision that the terminal disclaimer limited the ’803 patent term – finding that Harvard could have corrected the problems with the filing back when the patents were pending but that it is too late now.

It is only now that the non-standard disclaimer language of the terminal disclaimer filed in 1989 has an effect … [that] the patent owner [is] attempting to argue that ther terminal disclaimer had no legal effect. . . . [B]ecaues patent owner did not timely seek withdrawal of the terminal disclaimer from the parent patent as per the procedures in MPEP [at the time], patent owner cannot seek now to nullify the effect of the terminal disclaimer after the issued patent has reached its expiry date.

In response, Harvard has now filed a civil action in the Eastern District of Virginia asking the court to overturn the USPTO decision. For now, however, it appears that the mice are finally free although their title (OncoMouse) is still a registered trademark owned by DuPont.

Cornell wins $184 Million in Damages for Past Infringement by HP

Federal Circuit Judge Randall Rader has been sitting by designation as a district court judge in the Northern District of New York.  His case is an epic patent battle between Cornell University and Hewlett-Packard (HP), and the jury trial recently concluded with an $184 million calculated as 0.8% of HP’s $23 Billion in sales.

The patent — No. 4,807,115 — issued in 1989 and expired during the seven years of litigation. It is directed toward an internal computer messaging mechanism that boosts the function of multi-processor computers.

Interestingly, Cornell and HP had discussed a licensing agreement as early as 1988 (even before the patent issued). In 1997, Intel licensed the ‘115 patent for use in its Pentium Pro chips.

Unpublished Thesis: In a pre-trial decision, Judge Rader denied Cornell’s motion in limine and allowed HP to show the jury an unpublished masters degree thesis as 102(b) prior art.  The court found the thesis publicly accessible because the thesis had been cited in a later article that was in the same area of technology as the issued patent (analogous art.).

“After weighing all the circumstances of accessibility, this court views as vitally important the citation of this scholarly work in the Tjaden-Flynn article.”

Inventor Rewards: Unlike most companies, universities generally offer a percentage royalty cut for its employee-inventors. Professor Torng, the inventor of the ‘115 patent, will reportedly receive 25% of the award (if it is ever paid). Torng has announced that he’ll only keep a few million and donate the rest (perhaps over $30 million) to charity.

The post-trial decisions and eventual appeal should be interesting.

First Sale Doctrine: Copyright & Patent

PatentLawPic307In some ways, the Supreme Court case of Quanta v. LGE is a symbol of the ongoing struggle between property law and contract law.  With concepts like the first sale doctrine (and the rule against perpetuities), property law has typically operated to limit dead hand and downstream control over property rights.  These limiting doctrines are largely ignored in a freedom of contract regime.

Vernor v. Autodesk (W.D. WA 2008)

A federal copyright case last week landed on the side of property & the first sale doctrine.  The court denied summary judgment to Autodesk — finding instead that Vernor may well have a legitimate right to re-sell his copies of AutoCAD. Autodesk argues that he only holds a contractual license to use the software (via shrink-wrap license) and does not actually hold full property interests in the programs.

“[T]he transfer of AutoCAD packages from Autodesk to CTA was a sale with contractual restrictions on use and transfer of the software. Mr. Vernor may thus invoke the first sale doctrine, and his resale of the AutoCAD packages is not a copyright violation.”

In copyright law, the first sale doctrine is codified in statute — allowing the owner of a particular copy to resell that copy even if the owner had contractually agreed not to do so. 

“[T]he owner of a particular copy or phonorecord lawfully made under this title … is entitled, without the authority of the copyright owner, to sell or otherwise dispose of the possession of that copy or phonorecord.” 17 USC 109.

In patent law, the first sale doctrine – also known as patent exhaustion – has no statutory support. Rather, like the doctrine of equivalents, patent exhaustion is grounded in common law principles.  The Quanta case is fairly technical and could result in a narrow low-impact opinion. However, it is also quite possible that the Supreme Court will re-solidify the property concepts.  Expect a decision within the next few weeks.

Notes:

  • Patry and InternetCases have more details on the Autodesk case.
  • More on Quanta v. LGE.
  • Comment on Chain of Title: M. Slonecker: “For the sake of factual accuracy, AutoDesk “sold” the software to CTA. At a later date CTA auctioned off its assets, and Mr. Vernor was the winning bidder for the software program discs. With copies in hand, Mr. Vernor placed the discs he purchased at the auction on sale at eBay. Apparently AutoDesk is not pleased with this state of affairs and has been engaged in a running battle with Mr. Vernor about his eBay activities.”