Supreme Court: Current Test of Obviousness is “Gobbledygook”

KSR v. Teleflex (Supreme Court 2006, Oral Arguments).

The doctrine of nonobviousness is the cornerstone of American patent law.  I was reminded today by Phil Swain that our nonobviousness statute, section 103(a) of the Patent Act, was drafted by Judge Giles Rich.  Judge Rich is the most celebrated patent judge of this century.  His statutory masterpiece eliminated the amorphous concept of a “flash of genius” and replaced it with our now ubiquitous objective standard of a person having ordinary skill in the art.  In Graham v. John Deere, the Supreme Court reinforced 103(a) with its concept of case-by-case consideration of secondary indicia of nonobviousness as a way to avoid potential hindsight bias. 

Later, as the Federal Circuit developed its own patent jurisprudence, the court hit upon the teaching-suggestion-motivation test as another anti-hindsight rule.  That test requires evidence of some reason to combine various references that each teach part of an invention.  Thus, if there is no evidenced reason to combine the references, then the invention will be deemed nonobvious. The test, known by acronymists as “TSM,” has been labeled as a poster-child for bad patent behavior.  According to opponents of the test, the bright-line test makes patents too easy to obtain — resulting in a glut of patents covering trivial improvements. Those patents, in turn, hold-up industry research and greatly increase transaction costs and legal fees. 

In KSR v. Teleflex, the Supreme Court is questioning whether the TSM test should exist as the sole determinant of obviousness.  Question presented:

Whether the Federal Circuit has erred in holding that a claimed invention cannot be held ‘obvious’, and thus unpatentable under 35 U.S.C. § 103(a), in the absence of some proven “‘teaching, suggestion, or motivation’ that would have led a person of ordinary skill in the art to combine the relevant prior art teachings in the manner claimed.”

Until a few months ago, the common myth of the TSM test was that it required at least some hard evidence that provided at least a minimal reason to combine various prior art references.  It is that myth that provided the impetus for Supreme Court review. In recent months, however, we have learned that the CAFC’s version of the test allows for evidence that is implicit, based on common knowledge, found generally in the prior art as a whole, based simply on the nature of the problem or simple logic, or concluded by experts. See Kahn, Dystar, Ormco, Alza.  This jitterbug by the CAFC actually gives KSR much of what it wanted and smears the edges of the mythical bright-line rule.  Justice Scalia picked up on transition during oral arguments — noting that the recent cases leave the test “meaningless. [The CAFC] essentially said ‘our test simply reduces to what [KSR seeks] in this litigation.’ . . . this is gobbledygook. It really is, it’s irrational.” Justice Alito had a similar concern with the “new” TSM test:

J. Alito: “But what is the difference between asking whether something is implicit in the, in the prior art and simply asking whether it would have been obvious to a person of ordinary skill in the art?:

As discussed earlier on Patently-O, all the major patent bar associations filed briefs that support the current TSM test.  In a brilliant move, KSR neutralized those briefs by implying bias based on “the enormous fees that litigation of invalid patent claims can generate.” KSR Reply Brf. CJ Roberts appeared to buy-in to that analysis, joking that the filings “just indicate[] that this is profitable for the patent bar.” KSR Oral Arg.

One concern of the Court is whether modification of the obviousness doctrine would spoil long-settled rights.  The Justices, however, mentioned on several occasions that over the past year, the CAFC may have already upset any settled rights.

Mr Goldstein [for Teleflex]: “[The CAFC has had decades to look at this to try and elaborate a standard.”
J Breyer: “And it so quickly modified itself.”

Decision in February: Reports from the hearing noted that Justice who used the term “TSM” spoke with disdain and were highly critical of the test.  Although oral arguments are always full of counterfactuals and wild theory testing, the level of criticism supports the conventional wisdom that the TSM test is likely to be eliminated as “the exclusive” test.  Cases will rather be decided on a case-by-case basis using the standards of Graham v. John Deere. Already issued patents will still be given a presumption of validity, although it will be difficult for some courts to do this with a straight face.  The new key to avoiding invalidity will be secondary indicia of nonobviousness. Look for a 9–0 decision in early February.

TSM is not Dead: Much of the oral argument was filled with an attempt to simply understand the TSM test, and to figure out what is meant by a “motivation.”  If they cannot figure-out the test, they would likely completely trash-it as unworkable. Of course, by the time the opinion is penned, they will understand the current test and the test will not be scrapped as a whole. Rather, they will follow the Government’s suggestion that TSM continue to be used as a “valid means of proving obviousness.” In addition, however, flexibility will be added to allow for other ways of determining nonobviousness.

Here are some quotes from oral arguments:

CJ Roberts: “[T]the Federal Circuit’s approach focuses . . . on prior art — as opposed to, I would say, common sense.” 

J Scalia: “And in the last year or so, after we granted cert in this case after these decades of thinking about [the obviousness doctrine, the CAFC] suddenly decides to polish it up.”

J. Breyer: “I’ve read it about 15 or 20 times now, I just don’t understand what is meant by the term ‘motivation.’”

Mr. Hungar [for US Gov’t]: “Construed as the sole means of proving obviousness the teaching suggestion motivation test is contrary to the Patent Act, irreconcilable with this Court's precedents and bad policy. It asks the wrong question and in cases like this one, it produces the wrong answer. It should be rejected and the judgment of the Court of Appeals should be reversed. . . . It’s just foreign to this Court’s precedents as a mandatory prerequisite for obviousness.”

Mr. Dabney [for KSR]: “[T]here is no legal regime that is a greater generator of patent litigation than the teaching suggestion motivation test that is urged by the respondent.” [DDC: Is this true?].

Documents and Links:

Cite as Dennis Crouch, “KSR Gobbledygook,” Patently-O, available at http://www.patentlyo.com.