Guest Post: Microsoft v. i4i – Is the Sky Really Falling?

By Paul F. Morgan

The forthcoming Supreme Court decision in Microsoft v. i4i, case number 10-290, seems likely to eliminate the Federal Circuit's judicially imposed "clear & convincing evidence" requirement for invalidating patents, and thus jury instructions thereon, at least for prior art not of record in the patent application file. 

Typical of some of the frightening projections is the January 1, 2011 "Law360" article in which Matthew M. Wolf, a Howrey LLP partner, is quoted as saying that: "it will radically alter the nature of trials in the patent world and will apply to every patent case" and that "if juries are told that the standards are the same for invalidating patents as for infringing patents, there will be a lot more defence verdicts and we are going to see fewer defendants desirous of settlement."

That is, it is argued that this result would flow from patent invalidity challenges having the same "preponderance of the evidence" standard as for proving patent infringement.  Technically, that might become the case.  But how significant would this change be in reality?  

First, more than 97% of patent suits are settled before trial with no judicial validity test.  Of the small percentage of patent cases that do go to trial, the vast majority are decided or settled there or on appeal on non-infringement, not on invalidity.  Considering the many good reasons why the vast majority of accused or actual defendants are willing to settle rather than risk the very high costs and uncertainties of patent litigation, even against numerous dubious troll suits, how much is this one forthcoming change likely to affect patent litigation and settlements overall?

The test is, would this change really dramatically affect anticipated jury decision-making reality?  [Because patent invalidity is rarely decided other than by juries, such as on summary judgment motions, in view of disputed facts.  USPTO patent reexamination standards would not be affected at all by this decision, and are usually delayed too long by the USPTO to be helpful anyway.] 

Removing this higher evidentiary burden might indeed affect some unknown relatively small number of future post-trial JMOL and Fed. Cir. decisions.  But note the relatively small percentage of those based on invalidity as opposed to non-infringement.

So, what is the basis for projecting that the very small percentage of patents now being held invalid by juries would somehow greatly increase due to this one potential change in jury instructions?   [Even if one really believes that juries really do pay close attention to, and fully understand, the typical lengthy jury instructions in a patent infringement suit and are willing split hairs over those instructions.   See, e.g., the length of the  AIPLA model jury instructions.]  Has anyone done a mock jury study to see if leaving out the present jury instruction for "clear and convincing evidence" dramatically changes outcomes?

Could contesting patent validity before a jury realistically become equated to contesting infringement, as alleged?   Attacking the validity of a patent is attacking something granted by the United States Government, while deciding infringement is just considering one private company's arguments against another.  Furthermore, the jury can be shown for emphasis the Government gold seal and blue ribbon on the patent.  Even if the statutory presumption of patent validity could technically be overcome by a mere preponderance of evidence for prior art not of record, the patent owner should be entitled to a jury instruction on the statutory presumption of patent validity.  [Which could be contrasted to no such instruction for deciding infringement].   For example, as indicated Section 5.1 of the June 23, 2009 "National Patent Jury Instructions" and its "Committee Note," presently courts may optionally combine the two existing defense burdens into a single jury instruction that the accused infringer "bears the burden of proving that it is highly probable that the claims are invalid." [Likewise, some other model patent jury instructions.]  However, the express "Committee Note" rationale for that is a presumption that "instructing the jury on the presumption in addition to informing it of the highly probable burden of proof may cause jury confusion as to its role in deciding invalidity. This single instruction therefore omits any reference to the presumption of validity. Some courts, however, follow the more traditional approach, and instruct the jury on the presumption. Both approaches appear consistent with Federal Circuit law."  Thus, if the "clear and convincing evidence" burden is removed, this "highly probable" instruction would have to be removed, and this present rationale for not instructing a jury on the statutory presumption of patent validity would seem to disappear?  

The other public scare story is that this decision will lead to a flood of additional prior art citations in patent applications.  That also lacks factual credibility.  The already-existing fear of personal "inequitable conduct" accusations is far more motivating than the mere possibility getting a slightly better jury instruction.  Furthermore, few applicants would be willing to pay for a much more costly prior art search to add much more art to an IDS just for that remote reason, and also to risk being accused of not having actually read that art in making assertions in claim prosecution.

Whether as a matter of public policy this anticipated change is good or bad for patent law and technical or economic progress is not the subject here.  Even if the extent of the potential impact were factually supported, it may not be very relevant to this Supreme Court decision.   As understood, this case is being contested primarily on to whether or not there is a proper legal basis and/or precedent for the Federal Circuit to have imposed this additional, non-statutory, evidentiary burden for patent litigation.  It is argued that that is inconsistent with modern Supreme Court evidentiary rules for civil cases in general and inconsistent with the evidentiary rules for pre-Federal-Circuit patent suits in the other federal circuits when they were deciding patent cases.  [So it is surprising that this issue has not been this contested before.  Presumably due to most defendants waiving it by failing to object to this jury instruction?]  

The recent decisions controlling the evidence for and/or reducing patent infringement damages recoveries seem to me far more likely to impact patent licensing and settlement negotiations than Microsoft v. i4i.  See Uniloc USA, Inc. v. Microsoft Corp., (Fed. Cir. Jan. 4, 2011),  Lucent v. Gateway (Fed. Cir. 2009), the two E.D. TX D.C. decisions in which Judge Randall Rader sat by designation, Cornell v. HP (March 2009) and IP Innovation v. Red Hat and Novell (March 2010), and Judge Ward's reduction of a jury award of $52 million in LaserDynamics v. Asus Computer International  down to only $6.2 million.

Judge Moore Weighs In on Vacatur of Invalidity Opinions

By Jason Rantanen

The Ohio Willow Wood Company v. Thermo-Ply, Inc. (Fed. Cir. Order 2011)
Panel: Rader (author), Newman (additional views), Moore (concurrence)

When a patentee is faced with an judgment of invalidity or inequitable conduct, it is a relatively common tactic to settle with the accused infringer who, as a condition of the settlement agreement, then joins the patentee in a joint motion for vacatur of the adverse decision.  Although vacatur requires exceptional circumstances, it is sometimes granted by the district court.  See e.g., Gracenote, Inc. v. MusicMatch, Inc.; Block Financial v. LendingTree; New Medium v. Barco.

The situation becomes more complex, however, when settlement occurs while the case is on appeal. Willow Wood involves an appeal of an Eastern District of Texas judgment invalidating the asserted claims of Patent No. 7,291,182.  While the appeal was pending, the parties settled and filed a motion for remand to the district court for consideration of a motion for vacatur.  In July 2010, the CAFC issued an order pointing out the high standard for vacatur and ordered the parties to explain what extraordinary circumstances would be presented to the district court that would justify vacatur.  Ohio Willow Wood Co. v. Thermo-Ply, Inc., (Fed. Cir. Order July 29, 2010) (nonprecedential). 

After considering the parties' response, along with an intervention request by a third party also being sued for infringement of the patent, the panel granted the request for "the limited purpose of the district court's consideration of the parties' motion for vacatur."  Ohio Willow Wood Co. v. Thermo-Play, Inc. (Fed. Cir. Order 2011) (Willow Wood II). The CAFC retained jurisdiction, however, "so that any of the parties may seek appellate review by notifying the Clerk of the Court within thirty days of entry of the district court’s decision on remand."  Id. at 3.

Concerned about the remand's potential imprimatur on the joint vacatur motion, Judge Moore, writing in concurrence, expressed the opinion that vacatur of existing invalidity opinions should be a rare and disfavored event, particularly in the patent context.  Citing U.S. Bancorp Mortgate Co. v. Bonner Mall Partnership, 513 U.S. 18, 29 (1994), the judge reiterated the high threshold for justifying vacatur following settlement: "[o]nly in 'exceptional circumstances' should a district court grant vacatur at the request of the litigants."  Willow Wood II concurrence at 2.  This is particularly true with respect to patents:

In this case, for example, the patentee has already sued another party on the patent in question. If the decision that invalidated the patent at issue is not vacated, then the patentee will be collaterally estopped from asserting this patent in this and other suits, thereby saving courts and litigants the time and money it takes to proceed with patent litigation. Patent litigations are among the longest, most time-consuming types of civil actions. As of 2009, 384 patent cases had been pending in the district courts for three years or more. 2009 Admin. Off. U.S. Cts. Ann. Rep., at Table S-11. Moreover, the costs of patent litigation are enormous with an average patent case costing upwards of $3 million for each side. See American Intellectual Property Law Association, Report of the Economic Survey 2009 I-129 (2009). If the district court vacates its invalidity judgment then other defendants and other district courts will be forced to proceed with infringement suits, as there would likely be no collateral estoppel. Even if there were no other suits pending, these concerns should still weigh heavily against vacatur, as the only reason the patentee would want an invalidity judgment vacated is to potentially enforce the patent against others.

Concurrence at 3-4.

Judge Moore's decision to weigh in on the merits of the vacatur issue was criticized by Judge Newman, however, who wrote separately "to point out that the views of our colleague in separate concurrence are not the court’s remand order." Willow Wood II, additional views at 2.  Although favoring the remand on the basis that the district court is in the better position to rule on the issue of vacatur, Judge Newman declined to endorse Judge Moore's proffer of judicial advice, commenting that "[o]ur remand should be unencumbered by even the appearance of prejudgment or of the weight to be given to various considerations. Indeed, the issues on which our colleague in concurrence offers judicial advice are more complex than is here recognized."  Id.

Uniloc v. Microsoft: The CAFC Rejects the 25 Percent Rule

By Jason Rantanen

Uniloc USA, Inc. v. Microsoft Corp. (Fed. Cir. 2011)
Panel: Rader, Linn (author), Moore

Uniloc v. Microsoft involves a host of issues, although one stands out as particularly noteworthy.  While  "passively tolerat[ing]" the 25 percent 'rule of thumb' (a method for calculating a reasonable royalty for purposes of infringement damages) in past cases, the CAFC held today that the rule "is a fundamentally flawed tool for determining a baseline royalty rate in a hypothetical negotiation," thus precluding its use for damages calculations.

Uniloc is the owner of Patent No. 5,490,216, an early patent covering a mechanism for combating "casual copying" of software, where users install copies of a software program on multiple computers in violation of applicable software licenses.  In general terms, the patented invention involves the creation of a registration number generated by the software on the user's computer.  The number is sent to the vendor's system, which uses an identical algorithm to create a remote license ID.  If the numbers match when the application boots, the program enters a "use mode;" if they do not, it enters a "demo mode."

In the suit against Microsoft, Uniloc alleged that the Product Activation feature for Microsoft's Word XP, Word 2003, and Windows XP software programs infringed the '216 patent.  A jury agreed, finding that Microsoft not only infringed the patent, but did so willfully.  The jury also rejected Microsoft's invalidity defenses and awarded Uniloc $388 million in damages.  Following the trial, the district court granted Microsoft's motion for JMOL of noninfringement and lack of willfulness (and in the alternative, ordered a new trial on these issues), but denied its request for a JMOL on invalidity.  The court also ordered a new trial on the issue of damages.  On appeal, Uniloc challenged the district court's noninfringement, willfulness, and damages rulings, while Microsoft cross-appealed the denial of its JMOL on invalidity.  The Federal Circuit affirmed the district judge's rulings on willfulness, damages and invalidity, but reversed on the question of infringement, both with respect to JMOL and the grant of a new trial.

Damages
The damages section of the opinion is by far the most significant portion.  At trial, the jury awarded Uniloc $388 million in damages, relying on the testimony of Uniloc's expert, who opined that damages should be $564,946,803 based on a hypothetical negotiation between Uniloc and Microsoft and the Georgia-Pacific factors.  Using an internal Microsoft document relating to the value of product keys, the expert applied the 25 percent "rule of thumb" to the minimum value reported ($10 each), obtaining a value of $2.50 per key.  After applying the Georgia-Pacific factors, which he concluded did not modify the base rate, he multiplied it by the number of new licenses to Office and Windows products, producing the $565 million value.  He confirmed his valuation by "checking" it against the total market value of sales of the Microsoft products (approximately $19 billion, noting that it represented only 2.9% of the gross revenue of the products.   

The 25 Percent Rule: On appeal, the CAFC first rejected the use of the 25 percent rule to calculate patent damages.  "The 25 percent rule of thumb is a tool that has been used to approximate the reasonable royalty rate that the manufacturer of a patented product would be willing to offer to pay to the patentee during a hypothetical negotiation." Slip Op. at 36, citing Robert Goldscheider, John Jarosz and Carla Mulhern, USE OF THE 25 PER CENT RULE IN VALUING IP, 37 les Nouvelles 123, 123 (Dec. 2002).  Under the rule, "licensees pay a royalty rate equivalent to 25 per cent of its expected profits for the product that incorporates the IP at issue." Id., quoting Goldscheider et al. Included in the court's discussion of the rule is an extensive survey of the relevant literature (covering no less than nine articles), as well as an acknowledgement that the "court has passively tolerated its use where its acceptability has not been the focus of the case." Slip Op. at 39.  However, the court recognized that it  never squarely addressed the use of the rule.

Treating the issue as one of first principles, and after considering the relevant Supreme Court caselaw, the CAFC concluded that, as an abstract theory untied to particular factual circumstances of a given case, the 25 percent rule simply cannot be used for damages calculations: 

This court now holds as a matter of Federal Circuit law that the 25 percent rule of thumb is a fundamentally flawed tool for determining a baseline royalty rate in a hypothetical negotiation. Evidence relying on the 25 percent rule of thumb is thus inadmissible under Daubert and the Federal Rules of Evidence, because it fails to tie a reasonable royalty base to the facts of the case at issue.

Slip Op. at 41.  The court based its reasoning on the Daubert standard for expert testimony, concluding that general theories are only permissible if the expert adequately ties the theory to the specific facts of the case.  Under Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137 (1999) and General Electric Co. v. Joiner, 522 US 136 (1997), "one major determinant of whether an expert should be excluded under Daubert is whether he has justified the application of a general theory to the facts of the case."  Slip Op. at 43.

Applying this principle, the CAFC criticized the application of the 25 percent rule because there was no link between the rule and the specific case:

The meaning of these cases is clear: there must be a basis in fact to associate the royalty rates used in prior licenses to the particular hypothetical negotiation at issue in the case. The 25 percent rule of thumb as an abstract and largely theoretical construct fails to satisfy this fundamental requirement. The rule does not say anything about a particular hypothetical negotiation or reasonable royalty involving any particular technology, industry, or party.

Slip Op. at 45. In addition, the court pointed to the lack of testimony by Uniloc's expert suggesting that the starting point of a 25 percent royalty had any relation to the facts of the case, and thus the use of the rule was "arbitrary, unreliable, and irrelevant," failing to pass muster under Daubert and tainting the jury's damages calculation.  Id. at 47.

Entire Market Value Rule: The CAFC also rejected the expert's application of the entire market value rule, which he used as a check on the total damages.  "The entire market value rule allows a patentee to assess damages based on the entire market value of the accused product only where the patented feature creates the 'basis for customer demand' or 'substantially create[s] the value of the component parts.'"  Slip Op. at 48.  Here, however, there was no evidence that the patented component created the basis for customer demand, as required by the rule: "This case provides a good example of the danger of admitting consideration of the entire market value of the accused where the patented component does not create the basis for customer demand."  Slip Op. at 51.

Infringement
In opposing Uniloc's challenge on the issue of infringement, Microsoft argued that several grounds supported affirmance of the district court's grant of JMOL of noninfringement.  The CAFC rejected each argument in turn, concluding that substantial evidence supported the jury's finding of infringement. 

Standard of Review: One issue that sophisticated parties often dispute is the relevant standard that applies when reviewing jury verdicts. This appeal was no different – Microsoft contended that the jury verdict should be reviewed de novo, while Uniloc argued that it should be reviewed for substantial evidence.  The CAFC responded by distinguishing situations where "the parties conceded that under one claim construction there was infringement and under the other there was none, and were arguing only over which claim construction was appropriate." Slip Op. at 15.  In these cases, de novo review applies.  On the other hand, where "the claim construction itself is not contested, but the application of that claim construction to the accused device is," the court applies the substantial evidence standard. Id.

Comment: This distinction reinforces a basic principle of Federal Circuit appellate practice: Parties challenging a jury verdict on the issue of infringement will likely want to frame the dispute on appeal as a question of claim construction; parties defending the verdict will likely want to frame it as a question of application of an accepted construction to the accused product or method.  Of course, whether a party will be able to frame the question in a particular way depends largely on how the issue was set up in the district court – which itself is ideally part of counsel's long term strategic thinking.

Applying this standard, the Federal Circuit concluded that the jury's verdict of infringement was supported by substantial evidence, rejecting Microsoft's arguments to the contrary.  The court also rejected Microsoft's argument that a critical "means-plus-function" limitation should be read narrowly.  To the contrary, the court held, it should be read broadly, applying language from IMS Tech., Inc. v. Haas Automation, Inc., 206 F.3d 1422, 1436 (Fed. Cir. 2000) stating that "when in a claimed 'means' limitation the disclosed physical structure is of little or no importance to the claimed invention, there may be a broader range of equivalent structures than if the physical characteristics of the structure are critical in performing the claimed function." 

Expert Testimony, redux: Also of note is the court's ruling with respect to expert testimony as it pertains to infringment.  Although the district court rejected the testimony of Uniloc's expert as "incomplete, oversimplified and frankly inappropriate," the CAFC concluded that this rejection was improper because the district court had already fulfilled its gatekeeping function under Daubert when it explicitly noted that the expert was "qualified."  Thus, it was up to the jury "to evaluate the weight to be given to the testimony of dueling qualified experts."  This application of Daubert seems to be somewhat in tension with the court's treatment of expert testimony in the damages context, which focused on the content of the testimony, not the qualifications of the person giving it.

Joint Infringement: The CAFC also rejected Microsoft's joint infringement argument.  Rather than implicating joint conduct, the court ruled, Uniloc's claim was structured so as to capture infringement by a single party by focusing on one entity.  "That other parties are necessary to complete the environment in which the claimed element functions does not necessarily divide the infringement between the necessary parties. For example, a claim that reads “An algorithm incorporating means for receiving e-mails” may require two parties to function, but could nevertheless be infringed by the single party who uses an algorithm that receives e-mails."  Slip Op. at 29.

Willful Infringement: On the issue of willfulness, the CAFC continued to apply its objective super-threshold for proving willfulness.  "If the accused infringer's position is susceptible to a reasonable conclusion of no infringement, the first prong of Seagate cannot be met." Slip Op. at 32.  Particularly obtuse is the court's triple-negative articulation of the factual holding: "Uniloc has not presented any evidence at trial or on appeal showing why Microsoft, at the time it began infringement, could not have reasonably determined that [Microsoft's algorithms] did not meet the “licensee unique ID generating means,” “licensee unique ID,” or “registration system”/“mode switching means” limitations."

Presumption of Validity: in addressing Microsoft's cross-appeal of the denial of its motion for JMOL and a new trial on invalidity, the court declined to back away from the "clear and convincing" standard for invalidity.  Rejecting Microsoft's argument that its burden was to show invalidity simply by a preponderance of the evidence – as opposed to clear and convincing evidence – because the prior art reference was not before the PTO, the court continued to apply the higher standard.  "Until changed by the Supreme Court or this court sitting en ban, this is still the law."  Slip Op. at 55.  Applying this standard, the court rejected Microsoft's argument that it was simply practicing the prior art, and thus a finding of infringement necessitated a finding of invalidity. 

Supreme Court to Decide Microsoft Patent Case that Could Make it Easier to Invalidate Patents

By Dennis Crouch

Microsoft Corp. v. i4i Ltd. (Supreme Court 2010)

The Supreme Court has granted Microsoft's petition for a writ of certiorari and will consider whether patent law requires clear and convincing evidence of invalidity in order to invalidate an issued patent. Microsoft asks that the standard be lowered – at least for the situation where the evidence of invalidity was not considered by the patent office before the patent issued. The Supreme Court has not directly ruled on the issue. However, in KSR v. Teleflex, the Supreme Court did note that the "the rationale underlying the presumption — that the PTO, in its expertise, has approved the claim — seems much diminished" in cases where the patentee "fail[ed] to disclose" the key prior art to the PTO.

I expect that the court will agree that the statutory presumption of validity does not require a clear and convincing standard and that the standard should be lowered when a court is presented with evidence that is substantially different from that considered by the USPTO. Without explanation, Chief Justice Roberts has recused himself from this case – leaving eight justices to decide. At this point, I expect that all members of the court will agree that the standard should be lowered with some disagreement on the exact rule.

Clear and Convincing Evidence: Felony criminal cases require that prosecutors prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. Most civil cases only require a preponderance of the evidence – often referred to as "more likely than not." Thus, in patent infringement cases, the patentee need only prove that it is more likely than not that the defendant infringed. However, the Federal Circuit has long required that invalidity defenses be proven with clear and convincing evidence. The clear and convincing standard is somewhere between a preponderance of the evidence and beyond a reasonable doubt and is sometimes referred to as "substantially more likely than not." Microsoft has not directly challenged the CAFC's rule of corroborative evidence that a single person's testimony is never sufficient to invalidate a patent.

i4i's case: In 2009, an Eastern District of Texas jury awarded $200 million + interest to i4i after finding that Microsoft willfully infringed the Canadian company's patent. Judge Davis subsequently added-on $40 million for willful infringement. The judge also issued an injunction ordering Microsoft to stop selling Word Products with the capability of using "custom XML." That injunction was stayed by the Federal Circuit pending appeal. On appeal, the Federal Circuit affirmed the lower court's findings of validity, willful infringement, enhanced damages, and permanent injunctive relief. In the meantime, the USPTO has concluded its reexamination of the i4i patent — confirming that the claims at issue are patentable. Microsoft filed a second reexamination request in August 2010 (shortly after it filed its petition to the Supreme Court). However, on November 24, 2010, the USPTO denied the request to begin a new reexamination – finding that the newly asserted prior art failed to raise a substantial new question of patentability (SNQ) as required by statute. Microsoft will likely appeal that denial. In addition, Microsoft apparently patched its software to prevent someone from using custom XML in Word in an effort to avoid the injunction and any further damages.

Microsoft has now moved-on to the Supreme Court — asking the high court to reject the "clear and convincing" evidence standard for proving a patent invalid. As Microsoft wrote in its petition for writ of certiorari, the question is "Whether the court of appeals erred in holding that Microsoft's invalidity defense must be proved by clear and convincing evidence" when the prior-art was not considered by the USPTO. This is essentially the same question that Microsoft raised in its 2008 petition in z4. That petition was withdrawn after the parties settled.

The Patent: i4i's asserted patent (U.S. Patent No. 5,787,449) covers a system for editing the metacodes of an HTML or XML document. The system uses a metacode map that is stored separately from the XML document and provides a menu of potential metacodes. The patent application was filed in 1994 and should remain in-force until 2015.

Microsoft's Invalidity Argument: Microsoft was not able to uncover any prior publication or patent that would invalidate the invention. However, the software giant argued at trial that i4i had sold an embodiment of the invention in the US more than one year prior to the 1994 patent application date. In particular, Microsoft argues that the invention was "embedded in a system called S4 - that the inventors of the ′449 Patent developed and sold to SEMI, a client of i4i's predecessor, over a year before applying for the ′449 Patent." That sale was not disclosed to the USPTO during the original prosecution and could not be presented during reexamination because reexaminations are limited to a review of prior art patents and publications. At the trial, the inventors (Vulpe and Owens) testified that the S4 system did not include a metacode map or separate the map from the marked-up document – two key features of their invention. Because the source-code for the 1993 custom software was no longer available, Microsoft primarily relied on testimony from a former i4i employee and upon written statements that Vulpe had made to investors and to the Canadian Government suggesting that the S4 software did separate metacode information.

The jury form asked "Did Microsoft prove by clear and convincing evidence that any of the listed claims of the '449 patent are invalid?" The jury answered "no." On appeal, the Federal Circuit held that the jury had sufficient evidence to rule that the patent was not anticipated by S4.

Importance of the Rule: A recent study conducted by Etan Chatlynne and published on Patently-O looked at all 119 Federal Circuit decisions on patent validity for the past several years. The study found that lowering the burden of proof would not have made any difference for 74% of those cases but might have made a difference in 26% of the cases. None of the decisions expressly stated that the result would be different if the standard had been reduced.

The clear and convincing standard probably has an important psychological impact in jury (and judicial) deliberations where the defendant's high burden for proving invalidity is contrasted with the plaintiff's lower burden for proving infringement.

UPDATE: Investigating Patent Law’s Presumption of Validity

By Etan S. Chatlynne

Last year, I investigated the role that the presumption of validity, and the evidentiary standard for rebutting it, played in validity challenges adjudged at the Federal Circuit. In March 2010, Professor Crouch graciously published the study's results in the Patently-O Patent Law Journal. [Link]. In response to Microsoft's petition for certiorari challenging the Federal Circuit's hard-line application of a clear and convincing standard, please find updated statistics below that include Federal Circuit decisions through October 2010. To learn the methodology for collecting the data, and to read my understanding of what they suggest (and do not suggest), please refer to the original publication. A spreadsheet of the updated data is available. [Link].

At least eighty-eight of the one hundred nineteen (74%) patent challenges analyzed were evidentiary-standard independent. Of these determinations, forty-one (47%) were based on a granted motion for summary judgment, six (7%) were based on a granted motion for JMOL, twenty-four (27%) resulted from a jury trial, and seventeen (19%) resulted from a bench trial. Twenty-one (24%) determinations were reversals and seventy (80%) resulted in invalidation. The Federal Circuit mentioned the presumption or the evidentiary standard for rebutting it thirty-four times (39%) and expressly applied them eleven times (13%).

At most, thirty-one of the one hundred nineteen (26%) patent challenges may have been evidentiary standard dependent. Of these determinations twenty-three (74%) resulted from a jury trial and eight (26%) resulted from a bench trial. None of these challenges resulted in invalidation, and each was upheld at the Federal Circuit. The Federal Circuit mentioned the presumption of validity or the evidentiary standard twenty-one times (68%) and expressly applied them fifteen times (48%).

Thanks to Lucas Watkins and Steve Kenny for helping to create this update.

Peer-to-Patent Begins Expanded Pilot

Even the most ardent supporters of the current US patent system will readily admit that the patent examiners do not see or consider all of the relevant prior art.  This is a growing problem for patentees with important or valuable patent rights as (1) courts increasingly see invalidity as the most likely non-settlement outcome of patent litigation and (2) the Supreme Court questions whether the clear-and-convincing standard for invalidating a patent applies when the USPTO failed to consider relevant patentability questions.

One project directed toward assisting the USPTO in improving its examination is the Peer-to-Patent project operated through New York Law School (NYLS). The USPTO and NYLS have just announced a new expanded Peer-to-Patent project that will open-up 1,000 patent applications to "peer-review" through a novel prior-art submission and commenting system created as part of the project.  To be clear, Peer-to-Patent is not intended to replace the patent examiner's role or the USPTO's examining authority. Rather, the system is designed to support examination by providing prior art deemed important by the peer community and by generating a discussion of how that prior art is related to the invention as claimed.  According to the USPTO press release: "Volunteer scientific and technical experts [will] discuss the applications and submit prior art they think might be relevant to determining if an invention is new and non-obvious, as the law requires. After the review period, the prior art is sent to the USPTO patent examiners for their consideration during examination."  Although the written comments & discussions are not sent to the patent examiner, examiners will be free to read those comments as part of the examination process.

Gold Plating: For applicants, Peer-to-Patent offers a potential mechanism to bolster the credibility of their patent rights. I can imagine the patentee's top litigator explaining to the jury that — in addition to the ordinary rigorous examination process — the applicant volunteered its patent for the gold-standard of academic review — public peer-review. Some applicants do prefer a low-quality examination because they fear that a more rigorous consideration of the prior art would negate any potential for patent protection.  They would rather have a likely invalid patent than no patent at all.  I do not believe that pessimistic view is representative of most of patent applicants.  Instead, most applicants have reasons to believe that their inventions are patentable and prefer strong, predictable rights over facially questionable ones.  The pessimistic view also presents a false patentable/unpatentable dichotomy.  Rather, in the prior pilot, adding Peer-to-Patent to support examination most typically lead to narrowing amendments in the claim scope.  The final claim issued set is hopefully one that is more likely valid while still being valuable to its owner.

It is unclear to me whether a negative inference will also be created — with judges inferring that a patentee who failed to participate in the peer-review system did so because of a lack of confidence in the patentability of its invention.

Accelerating Examination: In addition to the "gold plating" perception discussed above, it appears that the USPTO is offering a queue-jumping incentive to participating patent applicants. Applications that are part of the program will be "advanced out of turn" for initial examination on the merits.  Following this approach, application submissions for the first pilot ended in June 2009 and all of those applications have received at least a first action on the merits.

Objections: Over the past week, I spoke with a number of participants in the earlier US Peer-to-Patent pilot.  I was initially concerned that the reviewer-comments might look like ad hominem attacks with little factual support (as often seen on certain blogs).  Others were concerned that they would see a tremendous flood of prior art that would greatly increase the workload of prosecuting attorneys.  Neither of those concerns were realized. Rather, the reviewers and review communities appeared at with a high level of professionalism, and only a few of the applications under review received more than six prior art submissions.  

Patent Attorney's Duty: At this point in the project, I suspect that patent attorneys and agents are almost under an ethical duty to inform their clients of two-aspects of the project: (1) that applicants can volunteer their own applications for peer-review in the project (under a fairly tight time-schedule discussed below) with the benefits and objections discussed above and (2) that the patent applications of competitors may be available for peer-review.  In the US there is almost no history of third-party participation in the initial patent examination process. That approach is almost unique in the world. As an example, applications at the Japanese Patent Office (JPO) are open for third-party submissions. Over the past year, the JPO has received third-party submissions of prior art in over 8,000 pending cases. Most of the time (~75% of cases), the submitted prior art is used by the JPO examiner in making a rejection. 

Details of Participation in the New Pilot: The new pilot, which begins next week, relies upon patent applicants to volunteer their cases for review. The real timing trick is that applicants must file a consent-to-participate with the USPTO 30–days of publication. (Consent can be filed before publication; there is no fee).  Eligible applications must be published between September 23, 2010 and September 30, 2011. Once the peer-review begins, it will continue for a three-month period. The pilot has expanded to include software, business methods, biotechnology, bio-informatics, telecommunications, and speech recognition technologies.  To participate, the application must have been classified in one of the following technology classes: 260, 370, 380, 424, 435, 455, 504, 514, 518, 532, 534, 536, 540, 544, 546, 549, 554, 556, 560, 562, 568, 570, 702–705, 709, 713, 726, or 987.  The program will have a limit of 1000 participating applications with no more than 25–applications per company.

Links:

  

Guest Post: Origins of the Clear and Convincing Standard

Guest Post by Professor Jeffrey Lefstin (U.C. Hastings)

Microsoft’s petition for certiorari in the i4i case challenges the Federal Circuit’s rule that patent invalidity must be proven by “clear and convincing evidence,” even when the defense rests on prior art not considered by the PTO. Nearly all of the briefs filed in the case, and nearly all academic commentary as well, assume that the rule was devised by the Federal Circuit early in its history. For example, one brief asserts that the “position of the Federal Circuit traces to dicta in a 1983 Federal Circuit panel decision [Connell v. Sears, Roebuck & Co.] that gave no reasoning and cited no authority whatsoever.”

The actual history of the rule challenged in i4i is rather different. The rule was not a creature of the Federal Circuit, but rather of its predecessor court, the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals. The CCPA held in Astra-Sjuco v. ITC, 629 F.2d 682 (CCPA 1980) that patents must be proven invalid by clear and convincing evidence. It had already held, in Solder Removal Co. v. ITC, 582 F.2d 628 (CCPA 1978), that the statutory presumption of validity is not weakened when a challenger introduces prior art not considered by the PTO.

In its first decision, South Corp. v. United States, 690 F.2d 1368 (Fed. Cir. 1982), the Federal Circuit adopted the CCPA’s case law as controlling precedent. The Federal Circuit’s early cases were quite clear: in holding that the presumption of validity was unaffected by prior art not before the PTO, the court was following the binding precedent of the CCPA, rather than creating a new rule of law.[1]

How did the CCPA, which ordinarily heard appeals from the PTO, come to create a rule governing patent litigation? Under the Trade Act of 1974, the International Trade Commission was given the power to bar importation of articles that would infringe U.S. patents. In its final years, the CCPA heard a handful of appeals – Astra-Sjuco and Solder Removal among them – from infringement complaints decided by the ITC.

It is probably not coincidental that the CCPA devised a patentee-friendly rule. For most of its history, the CCPA heard only appeals from the PTO. From this perspective it saw only the benefits of the patent system: inventors bringing their inventions to the PTO. Even in the ITC infringement cases, the CCPA saw only domestic patentees who might be injured by foreign competition.

In contrast, the regional Circuit Courts of Appeals, in their many years’ experience with infringement cases, routinely saw the costs of the patent system: infringers, perhaps even innocent infringers, who were nonetheless forced to pay heavy damages and abandon otherwise legitimate and productive activity. Given that perspective, it is not surprising that prior to 1982, several of the Circuit Courts of Appeals had held that the presumption of validity should be weakened when a challenger presents prior art not considered by the PTO. But intentionally or not, when the Federal Circuit adopted the CCPA’s precedent in South Corp., it instantly consigned any conflicting precedent from the Circuit Courts to the dustbin of history.

However, the precedent from the CCPA is not the end of the story. In South Corp., the Federal Circuit adopted not only the precedent of the CCPA, but also of its other predecessor court:  the United States Court of Claims. The Court of Claims heard patent infringement actions brought against the United States government under 28 U.S.C. § 1498, and the Federal Circuit has repeatedly held that the patent jurisprudence of the Court of Claims is binding upon it. (Most notably, the Federal Circuit maintained that the Court of Claims’ decision in Pitcairn v. United States compelled its narrow view of the experimental use defense in Roche, Embrex, and Madey.)

There was a long line of precedent from the Court of Claims holding unequivocally that the presumption of validity was weakened when a challenger introduced prior art not considered by the PTO: General Elec. Co. v. United States, 572 F2d 745, 761 (Ct. Cl. 1978); Douglas v. United States, 510 F.2d 364, 369 (Ct. Cl. 1975); Nossen v. United States, 416 F.2d 1362, 1371 (Ct. Cl. 1969); Ellicott Mach. Corp. v. United States, 405 F.2d 1385, 1392 (Ct. Cl. 1969); Martin-Marietta Corp. v. United States, 373 F.2d 972, 977 (Ct. Cl. 1967). As far as I can determine, the Federal Circuit has never taken note of these decisions. But under the Federal Circuit’s own case law, the line of authority descending from the Court of Claims is just as binding as that of the CCPA.

Note: Prof Lefstin discusses the how the CCPA’s unique perspective shaped the law it bequeathed to the Federal Circuit in a paper forthcoming in the Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review, available at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1565818.



[1] See, e.g., D.L. Auld Co. v. Chroma Graphics Corp., 714 F.2d 1144, 1147 n.2 (Fed. Cir. 1983).

The Standard for Patent Invalidity Under the Prospect Theory

By Dennis Crouch

In 1888, the US Supreme Court plainly held that patent rights granted by the US government could only be overcome with clear and convincing evidence:

The presumption attending the patent, even when directly assailed, that it was issued upon sufficient evidence that the law had been complied with by the officers of the government . . . can only be overcome by clear and convincing proof.

U.S. v. Iron Silver Min. Co., 128 U.S. 673 (1888). Of course, Iron Silver does not concern invention rights. Rather, the case is about patents for placer mineral rights that were granted to Iron Silver based on the company's claim that it had discovered valuable minerals on the surface of US public land near Leadville, Colorado. Under the law at the time, discovery of surface minerals on public lands allowed a prospector to stake a legal claim that extended to mineral rights under the surface.

Still, the court's holdings on land-patent rights may have some relevance to Microsoft's current challenge to the clear and convincing standard. As Professor Ed Kitch noted in his seminal 1977 article titled The Nature and Function of the Patent System that introduces the "prospect theory of patents," there are many similarities between the mineral claiming patent system and the utility patent system. The prospect theory suggests that patent rights are useful in channeling and coordinating post-invention development activities. The core idea that Kitch recognized is that a business is more likely to pursue post-invention investment and development of a product that falls within its own sphere of patent exclusivity. "The patent system achieves these ends by awarding exclusive and publicly recorded ownership of a prospect shortly after its discovery. The patent system so viewed is closely analogous to the American mineral claim system for public lands. For expositional convenience, this view of the patent system will be called the prospect theory."

Although Kitch does not expressly discuss the legal standards for invalidation, his theory would suggest strong rights tend to better-serve the prospect-role of patents.

Challenging the Clear and Convincing Standard of Proof for Invalidating Patents in Court

Microsoft Corp. v. i4i Limited Partnership (on petition for certiorari 2010)

By Dennis Crouch

In 2009, an Eastern District of Texas jury awarded $200 million to i4i after finding that Microsoft willfully infringed the Canadian company’s patent. Judge Davis subsequently added-on $40 million of punitive damages for willful infringement.  The judge also issued an injunction ordering Microsoft to stop selling Word products with the capability of using “custom XML.” That injunction was stayed by the Federal Circuit pending appeal.  On appeal, the Federal Circuit affirmed the lower court’s findings of validity, willful infringement, enhanced damages, and permanent injunctive relief. Despite the injunction, Microsoft continues to sell its software based on a “patch” that apparently prevents the use of custom XML in Word.

Meanwhile, the USPTO conducted a reexamination of the i4i patent and confirmed that the claims at issue were properly patentable.   However, the reexamination did not consider what Microsoft's (now) argues is its key invalidity argument.  That invalidity argument is based on a prior offer-for-sale, and offers-for-sale are excluded from consideration during reexaminations.  The prior offer-for-sale was likewise not considered during the original prosecution of the i4i patent.

This summer, Microsoft petitioned the Supreme Court to take a fresh look at the case —  specifically asking the Court to reject the Federal Circuit's requirement that invalidity be proven with “clear and convincing evidence” when the invalidity argument is one that was not specifically considered by the Patent Office when granting the patent.  Microsoft raised the following  question:

The Patent Act provides that “[a] patent shall be presumed valid” and that “[t]he burden of establishing invalidity of a patent or any claim thereof shall rest on the party asserting such invalidity.” 35 U.S.C. § 282.The Federal Circuit held below that Microsoft was required to prove its defense of invalidity under 35 U.S.C. § 102(b) by “clear and convincing evidence,” even though the prior art on which the invalidity defense rests was not considered by the Patent and Trademark Office prior to the issuance of the asserted patent. The question presented is:

Whether the court of appeals erred in holding that Microsoft’s invalidity defense must be proved by clear and convincing evidence.

This petition is one similar to that raised by Microsoft in z4. That petition was withdrawn when the parties settled

Eleven parties have filed amicus briefs supporting the petition for certiorari.  Microsoft's counsel makes the point that the companies signing in their own name “employ more than three million people and the publicly-traded companies have a combined market capitalization of more than $1.2 trillion.”  Briefs opposing the petition as well as i4i's opposition appear to be due on October 29, 2010.

Chief Judge Roberts has recused himself from the case.

A review of the briefs follow.  Many of the briefs cover similar material and I have attempted to point out some of the differences. Of course, all of these briefs listed argue that the current evidentiary standard is too-high.

* * * * *

Briefs in support of the Petition:

36 Professors led by Mark Lemley:  The professors suggest that the clear and convincing standard does not make sense based on the known bureaucratic difficulties of the USPTO and the result that many issued patents would not survive a serious Section 103(a) analysis. The professors also write that the Supreme Court offered a signal in KSR that the Federal Circuit should reconsider its standard, but that the Federal Circuit has refused to do so.

Brief by Acushnet, SAP, and Others: James Dabney and John Duffy collaborated to examine the history of invalidity defenses. The brief does an especially good job of spelling out different aspects of an invalidity argument that may need a higher standard of proof.  Thus, Acushnet seemingly argues that uncorroborated oral testimony should still be excluded even if the general standard of proof was lowered.  This is one of the more nuanced briefs.

Teva, Cisco, and the Generic Pharma Association: The current standard creates an incentive for patent applicants to conceal material information from the USPTO. An issued patent is valuable — even if it would eventually be found invalid. The cost of invalidating a patent is so high that a patentee can usually obtain significant settlements even for a patent that should have never issued.

Google, Verizon, Dell, HP, Wal-Mart: A preponderance-of-the-evidence is the default burden of proof in civil cases.  The Federal Circuit has no legal justification for its clear-and-convincing standard that unduly burdens accused infringers.  The USPTO normal examination of patents is insufficient to warrant a high level of deference.

Yahoo!: “In requiring clear and convincing proof of facts bearing on patent invalidity, the Federal Circuit’s rule conflicts with this Court’s teaching that a heightened evidentiary standard should not apply where a statute does not prescribe the heightened standard.”

Intel: We have “a thicket of invalid patents that stifles competition and impedes further innovation.”

Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association:  “The Federal Circuit’s stance is contrary to the guidance of this Court as well as to the standards applied by the regional circuits before 1982.”  The flood of bad patents is especially troublesome in the area of business methods and financial software. New transparency laws make it more likely that these patents will be enforced.

Facebook, Netflix, et al.: An important goal of the patent system is to encourage innovation without disrupting other-innovation through mistaken government “grants of monopolies.” To harmonize with the reexamination statute, court's should at least lower the threshold for proving invalidity once a substantial new question of patentability is established.  (I wonder if Facebook's loose use of the “monopoly” term here will come back to haunt them.).

EFF et al.: Giving value to illegitimate patents creates perverse incentives.  These problems are particularly concerning in the software and internet realms for several reasons, including that they impede alternative innovation models such as FOSS.  In addition, the clear and convincing standard is a non-statutory extension of the law.

Apple: Apple argues that the current system makes it too difficult and costly to obtain a judicial decision that a patent is invalid. “”The clear and convincing standard shields a growing number of poor quality patents from the truthseeking function of our adversarial system.”

CTIA –  The Wireless Association: The clear and convincing standard makes a difference in litigation — making it much more likely that a patent will survive validity attacks.  This reality has created practical problems in dealing with holders of low-quality patents who seek large damage awards.

Documents:

Links


 

Mayo v. Prometheus Labs: Bilski and Medical Methods

Mayo v. Prometheus Labs (On Remand to the Federal Circuit 2010)

The Federal Circuit’s first full post-Bilski decision may come in the case of Mayo v. Prometheus Labs. That case had been pending on a petition for a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court. In a June 29 order, the Court granted the petition and then summarily vacated the decision with a remand to the Federal Circuit to reconsider the case “in light of Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. ___ (2010).”  The Supreme Court regularly uses this grant-vacate-remand (“GVR”) proceeding for pending cases are impacted by a decision.

In the case, the Mayo Clinic has challenging the validity of two Prometheus patents based upon suspect patentable subject matter. (U.S. Patents 6,355,623 and 6,680,302). 

The Prometheus patents claims an iterative approach to dosing that involves three steps: (1) first administer a drug to a subject; (2) then determine the level of drug in the subject; and (3) finally decide whether the next dose should be the same, higher, or lower. The decision on the next dose is made by comparing the the level of the drug in the subject against predetermined thresholds. Claim 1 of the '302 patent adds additional detail including identifying the active ingredient (6-thioguanine), the diagnosis (a GI disorder), and the predetermined thresholds (e.g., 230 pmol of drug per 8108 red blood cells). Claim 46 of the '623 is a broad claim in that it does not not require the administration step (step 1 from above).

The Federal Circuit held the method patentable under its Bilski test by finding that the required administration of the drug transformed an article into a different state or thing — essentially creating a per se rule that a method requiring administration of a drug will be deemed patentable subject matter under Section 101. The court also held that the "determining the level" step was necessarily transformative since "those levels cannot be determined by mere inspection." 

On remand, the focus will shift from the machine-or-transformation test to the broader question of whether the claims are directed to a statutory “process” and/or whether the claim scope is impermissibly abstract. Of course, the machine-or-transformation test may still be instructive in answering these question.

Abstract Idea and Broad Functional Language: The claims are written in broad functional language without tying the the claimed methods to any particular technology. Thus, the "administering" step could potentially be accomplished by any effective method (that has or will be invented) of getting the drug into the subject. Likewise, the patent offers potential methods of "determining the level" of drug in the body (e.g., liquid chromatography) but the claim is broadly written to seemingly cover any mechanism that fulfills that method. 

Novelty Involves the Mental Step: Of course, the general iterative process is well known, what makes the Prometheus claims novel is that they identify the particular thresholds that are important (e.g., 230 pmol). In practice, the process of comparing the thresholds to the subject's drug level is done in the mind of a physician. As Mayo explains, this merely involves the physician's mental recognition of a natural correlation between metabolite levels and patient condition.

The case also represents a growing trend of pitting patient advocates (who want cheaper access to medicine) against innovators (who create better treatments).

Note: In the same Post-Bilski order, the Supreme Court also issued a GVR in the case of Classen Immunotherapies, Inc. v. Biogen IDEC.  On remand, the Federal Circuit will be asked to decide whether the following claim fits within the scope of 35 USC 101:

Claim: A method of determining whether an immunization schedule affects the incidence or severity of a chronic immune-mediated disorder in a treatment group of mammals, relative to a control group of mammals, which comprises immunizing mammals in the treatment group of mammals with one or more doses of one or more immunogens, according to said immunization schedule, and comparing the incidence, prevalence, frequency or severity of said chronic immune-mediated disorder or the level of a marker of such a disorder, in the treatment group, with that in the control group.

Impact of Merger/Buyout on Prior Agreement to Not Challenge Patent Validity

Epistar v. ITC (and Philips Lumileds Lighting) (Fed. Cir. 2009) 07-1457.pdf

Merger: Lumileds owns a patent covering a light-emitting diode (LED) with an electrically conductive window layer that is both brighter and more efficient than other LEDs. The conductive layer helps spread the flow of electrical current avoid “current crowding.”

At issue in this case is the impact of a corporate merger/buyout on a settlement agreement that included a promise to not challenge a patent’s validity.

Lumileds and Epistar have signed at least two prior settlement agreements involving the patent at issue here. In those agreements, Epistar agreed to pay a licensing fee for certain products, but reserved its right to challenge the patent if Lumileds asserted the patent against other patents. A third company, UEC, agreed that neither it nor its successors would later challenge the validity of the Lumileds patents.

Subsequently, Epistar purchased UEC, and the patentee argued that UEC’s agreement should also bind Epistar. On appeal, the Federal Circuit partially rejected that argument – holding that the UEC settlement continues to bind the parties, but only “as understood and intended by them, according to its ordinary terms.” Thus, even though Epistar took on all the legal obligations of UEC, Epistar can still challenge the Lumileds patent if the case does not involve UEC related products.

UEC’s settlement agreement has preclusive effect upon Epistar only “to the same extent as upon [UEC it]self.” Restatement (Second) of Judgments § 43 (1982). The preclusive effect of that agreement, if any, is limited to UEC’s pre–Epistar product lines. To paraphrase this court in International Nutrition v. Horphag Research, Epistar’s acquisition of UEC does not have the effect of limiting Epistar’s rights that are unrelated to the product lines it acquired from UEC. Accordingly, this court overturns the Commission’s final determination that Epistar is estopped from challenging validity of the ’718 patent when asserted against its own products, separate from the UEC–Lumileds settlement agreement.

Here, the court could have done well to cite the Supreme Court’s decision of Lear v. Adkins and its statements favoring the ability to challenge patent validity based on on “the strong federal policy favoring the full and free use of ideas in the public domain.”

Challenging the Strong Presumption of Patent Validity

One of the next major legal challenges to patent rights will be against the strong presumption of validity associated with the patent grant. Section 282 of the patent act says only that a patent and its claims "shall be presumed valid." Under longstanding doctrine, this presumption can only be overcome with clear and convincing evidence of invalidity. The challenge to this presumption is most likely on two fronts: (1) expanded post-grant review and (2) court challenges to the weight of the presumption.

Expanded Post Grant Review: The PTO uses the lower preponderance (more likely than not) standard when refusing to grant patent rights, and expanded post-grant oppositions will likely allow would-be defendants to challenge patents at the lower standard.

Challenging the Weight of the Presumption: The greater change would come, however, if the Supreme Court takes a case on point. Since the 1952 Supreme Court has not definitively weighed-in on the the level of proof necessary to overcome the statutory presumption of validity, and the Court's Radio Corp (1934) opinion arguably sums up the pre-unification state of the law: "The force of that presumption has found varying expression in this and other courts." Of course, the unified Federal Circuit cleared the air by firmly establishing the clear and convincing standard as the standard. In a 2004 article, Mark Janis reviews the history of the presumption – finding that the clear and convincing standard was already the majority rule prior to unification, but that the Federal Circuit made the standard "meaningful once again." His message: "there is no strict, inevitable correlation between the words of the evidentiary standard and the overlying message delivered by the presumption of validity."

More recently, in KSR the Supreme Court all but suggested one potential petition question: "whether the failure to disclose [relevant prior art] during prosecution … voids the presumption of validity given to issued patents." A more likely focus may be on reducing strength of the presumption over prior art that was not considered during prosecution.

Question: How would patent practice change if the strong presumption of validity was only applicable over prior art actually considered during prosecution?

Notes:

  • I do not believe that the presumption of validity should be reduced. However, I wrote this post to let folks know that it is on the horizon and that a change is somewhat likely during the life of any currently pending patent application.
  • Mark Janis, Reforming Patent Validity Litigation: The "Dubious Preponderance", 19 Berkeley Tech. L.J. 923 (2004).
  • This post was prompted by an e-mail amongst IP law professors with special input from Mark Lemley, Arti Rai, David Hricik, Howard Skaist, Josh Sarnoff and Tom Field. See also Mark A. Lemley and Douglas Lichtman, Rethinking Patent Law's Presumption of Validity, 60 Stanford Law Review 45 (2007)(suggesting gold-plated patents).

Supreme Court Asked to Expand Defenses to Patent Infringement

IGT v. Aristocrat Tech of Australia (on petition for certiorari)

Every year, the PTO revives hundreds of unintentionally abandoned patent applications, and about half of those eventually issue as patents (not counting continuations and other descendants).

In the IGT case, the gaming-manufacturer was sued for allegedly infringing two of Aristrocrat's slot-machine patents. The first patent stemmed from an Australian provisional application that was followed by an international PCT filing. At the national stage in the US, the applicant missed the filing deadline but was able to convince the PTO to revive the application as unintentionally abandoned. The second patent is a continuation from the first.

In court, IGT has argued the revival was improper and thus, that the patents are invalid. IGT reasoned (and the district court agreed) that the revival was improper because the PTO lacked authority to revive national stage applications that were unintentionally filed late. Rather, the statute arguably only allows revival of applications upon proof that the tardiness was unavoidable.

Without determining the proper scope of the PTO's revival authority, the Federal Circuit rejected IGT's argument - holding that improper revival is not a "cognizable defense" to patent infringement and reminding defendants that a patent is not invalid simply because the PTO erred in issuing the patent.

Enumerated Defenses in Litigation: Section 282 of the Patent Act defines the defenses available against charges of patent infringement. These enumerated defenses include:

  1. Noninfringement …,
  2. Invalidity of the patent or any claim in suit on any ground specified in part II of this title as a condition for patentability,
  3. Invalidity of the patent or any claim in suit for failure to comply with any requirement of sections 112 or 251 of this title.
  4. Any other fact or act made a defense by this title.

In its analysis, the Federal Circuit found that improper revival did not fall within any of the four categories of defenses - and thus cannot be raised as a litigation defense. The case implicitly calls into question other traditional defenses such as nonstatutory double patenting, improper inventorship. IGT argues that the decision also implies that a defendant could not challenge a patent based on its expiration due to failure to pay maintenance fees. Of course, a defendant should have some mechanism for challenging an improperly revived patent - either through the courts or a post-grant procedure at the PTO. Under the Federal Circuit's rule, however, a typical defendant would have no recourse. (Two potential avenues could be (1) inequitable conduct in the revival and (2) trigger an interference.)

Leaving the PTO's revival grant's unchallengeable is particularly troublesome because of the serious lack of transparency in the petitions office. Pre-grant revivals are tucked away in individual prosecution file wrappers and cannot be searched in any public database. Thus, the public is left without any check on the system at either the micro or macro level.

Petition for Certiorari: IGT has petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari and has garnered the support of the group of usual defendants (Cisco, Dell, Google, Microsoft, etc.) with the simple question:

Whether a patent infringement defendant may assert as a defense the fact that the patent resulted from an abandoned application that was not revived according to the requirements prescribed by Congress.

In several ways, this cases parallels the other recent Supreme Court patent cases such as KSR, eBay, and MedImmune. At least as history tells the story, each of those cases began with a rigid rule created by the Federal Circuit to favor patent holders. In each case, the Supreme Court softened the rule to add flexibility in a way that favors the defendants. In KSR, the rigid TSM test for applying multiple references during obviousness analysis was relaxed. In eBay, the rule strongly favoring injunctive relief was relaxed. And, in MedImmune, the rule setting a reasonable apprehension of a lawsuit as a condition precedent to a declaratory judgment action was also relaxed. In the IGT case at hand, the Supreme Court has the opportunity to tear down another rigid application of the law and open a new avenue for defendants to challenge a patent holder's rights.

Invalidity of the patent or any claim: Although slightly off-topic, I am intrigued by the wording of Section 282, which creates the defense of "invalidity of the patent or any claim." (Emphasis added). Ordinary validity issues focus on individual claims. Is the claim anticipated or obvious? Is the claim definite, fully described, and enabled, and does it properly claim patentable subject matter? The general focus on the validity of claims begs the question of what we mean by "invalidity of the patent." IGT's theory of invalidity based on improper revival is bolstered here because it would breathe meaning into the statutory invalid "patent."

Aristocrat's opposition and any amici in opposition are due April 22.

Briefs:

Related Posts:

Erroneous Revival by PTO is not a Cognizable Defense in an Infringement Action

Aristocrat Technologies Australia v. International Game Technologies (IGT) (Fed. Cir. 2008)

‘The district court concluded that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office “improperly revived” U.S. Patent No. 7,056,215 after it was abandoned during prosecution, and therefore held it (and the continuation patent that followed it) invalid on summary judgment. We conclude that “improper revival” is not a cognizable defense in an action involving the validity or infringement of a patent. Thus, we reverse the district court’s grant of summary judgment and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.’

ATA missed its US national stage filing by one day. The PTO granted ATA’s petition to revive the application based on the applicant’s seemingly legitimate claim that the “entire delay” in filing the appropriate papers “was unintentional.” The district court, however, found the patent invalid based on the PTO’s “improper revival” of the application. In particular, the district court found that the PTO lacked authority to revive unintentionally late national stage applications.  Rather, according to the court, the PTO can only revive such applications when the cause of delay meets the much higher standard of being unavoidable. The Court found its statutory support from 35 USC 371, which requires the PTO to hold late national stage applications as abandoned unless “such failure to comply was unavoidable.”

On appeal, the Federal Circuit panel (Judges Newman, Bryson, and Linn) reversed – finding that “improper revival” is not a proper invalidity defense in a patent infringement action.

The court’s surprising conclusion is based on its interpretation of 35 U.S.C. §282. That statute lists the defenses available to charges of patent infringement. Those include:

(1) Noninfringement …,

(2) Invalidity of the patent or any claim in suit on any ground specified in part II of this title as a condition for patentability,

(3) Invalidity of the patent or any claim in suit for failure to comply with any requirement of sections 112 or 251 of this title.

(4) Any other fact or act made a defense by this title.

Conditions for Patentability: In the appeal, the Federal Circuit saw the term “condition for patentability” of ¶2 above as a term of art and gave it a narrow interpretation: “While there are most certainly other factors that bear on the validity or the enforceability of a patent, utility and eligibility, novelty, and nonobviousness are the only so-called conditions for patentability.” Thus, complying with the timing requirements is not a condition of patentability.

Made a Defense: Taking a similarly hard stand, the appellate panel found that ¶4 above would only apply when another act had explicitly been ‘made a defense’ by the words of the patent act.

“Congress made it clear in various provisions of the statute when it intended to create a defense of invalidity or noninfringement, but indicated no such intention in the statutes pertaining to revival of abandoned applications. For example, 35 U.S.C. § 273 is entitled “Defense to infringement based on earliest inventor” and expressly provides that the provision “shall be a defense to an action for infringement.”…

Because the proper revival of an abandoned application is neither a fact or act made a defense by title 35 nor a ground specified in part II of title 35 as a condition for patentability, we hold that improper revival may not be asserted as a defense in an action involving the validity or infringement of a patent.”

On several occasions, the court has allowed an invalidity finding when the cause of invalidity did not reach one of the Section 282 categories. In the 1995 Quantum case, for instance, the court invalidated a patent based on improperly expanding its scope during prosecution. Here, the court pushed Quantum aside finding it irrelevant or “inapposite.” On the policy side, the court noted that this case is a one-off and is unlikely to encourage bad applicant behavior.

What result: The result of this case is that an accused infringer has no recourse to invalidate a patent that was issued as a result of procedural lapses during prosecution. Absent proof of inequitable conduct, there may be no recourse at all. In this respect, the Federal Circuit quoted its own 1997 Magnivision decision:

“Procedural lapses during examination, should they occur, do not provide grounds of invalidity. Absent proof of inequitable conduct, the examiner’s or the applicant’s absolute compliance with the internal rules of patent examination becomes irrelevant after the patent has issued.”

Notes:

CAFC Vacates Validity Holding Based on Agreement by the Parties [UPDATED 2:00pm]

Baychar v. Salomon North America (Fed. Cir. 2008)

As part of a settlement process, parties regularly agree to 'consent decrees' that include admissions that the patent is valid and/or infringed. When signed by a court, those judgments serve important purposes in later direct challenges via res judicata or collateral estoppel. A consent decree may also serve as evidence or a deterrent against other challengers.  It is rare, however, for the Federal Circuit to sign a consent decree on appeal.

Baychar sued Solomon for infringement of its snowboard boot liner patent that apparently teaches a better way for wicking moisture. The district court found the patent (1) not infringed based on an implied license and (2) invalid.  By the time of oral arguments on appeal, the parties had apparently come to an agreement that Baychar would waive its infringement argument if the court would vacate the invalidity finding.  In a short non-precedential opinion, the appellate panel (Judges Mayer, Plager, and Dyk) did just that: affirming that the patent was infringed based on an implied license while vacating the judgment of invalidity.

The business issue here is that Baychar has asserted its patent against multiple defendants, and the invalidity finding would have ruined its chances of success across the board. It was willing to admit defeat in this case as a way to save the patent for another fight.

Notes:

  • In its opinion, the CAFC noted that the issue of infringement will be resolved by the appellate court rather soon in Baychar v. Burton.

In a prior opinion in the Salomon case, the CAFC dismissed Baychar's appeal on a procedural issue — its notice of appeal was filed five days late. Federal Circuit rules require a notice of appeal of a patent case be filed within 30 days from the final judgment. [Link] Apparently, the district court issued a second final judgment giving Baychar the opportunity to appeal again.