Patent attorney Jill Browning attended today’s Tafas v. Dudas hearing on behalf of Patently-O and provides the following report.
Substantive vs. Procedural: The Court actively directed the parties with questions throughout the argument, beginning with questions directed to why the proposed rule changes were “substantive” and following up with a question regarding the proposed remedy if the Court were to determine that the proposed rules were substantive.
GSK responded by indicating that the proposed rules were substantive because they (i) affect individual applicants’ rights and/or obligations (i.e., limit the number of continuations and claims); (ii) reflect a change in existing law and/or policy and (iii) interpret the patent statute.
In response, the USPTO argued that the debate between identifying the rules as either “substantive” or “procedural” was the plaintiffs’ attempt to distract the Court from the real issue, which, according to the USPTO, is whether Congress delegated the proper authority to the USPTO to enact the proposed rules.
The PTO’s authority arises from 35 U.S.C. § 2(b)(2). The arguments primarily focusing on subsections (A) and (B), which state, in relevant part, that the USPTO:
- (2) may establish regulations, not inconsistent with law, which-
- (A) shall govern the conduct of proceedings in the Office;
- (B) shall be made in accordance with section 553 of title 5;
Plaintiffs read the above statute as requiring the USPTO to comply with both (A) and (B), which would mean that the USPTO may only enact rules that (i) are not inconsistent with law; (ii) govern the procedures to handle the applications at the USPTO; and (iii) that are enacted only after the USPTO engages in the notice and comment rulemaking procedures of the Administrative Procedures Act (“APA”). Thus, plaintiffs indicated that the USPTO would not properly be permitted to enact even procedural rules without engaging in the notice/comment procedures of the APA.
The USPTO advanced the position that a fair reading of 35 U.S.C. § 2 clearly supports its position that Congress delegated the authority to the USPTO to enact the proposed rules.
Further, the USPTO argued that the proposed rules are not “substantive” because they are not directed to the substantive eligibility requirements (such as novelty or written description) for an applicant to obtain a patent. According to the PTO, the proposed rules merely affect the “timing,” as they encourage applicants to claim their invention early.
To support this position, the USPTO analogized to powers granted to other agencies to impose timing restrictions, pointing out that agencies’ ability to completely cut-off third parties benefits applications have been upheld. In response, Plaintiffs pointed out that the USPTO, as an agency, is different from other agencies because the USPTO was not awarding “benefits” as other agencies such as, for example, the FCC when it grants the right to certain bandwidths. Here, the patents applicants have the “benefit” and are electing to confer that benefit to the public in return for the limited right to exclude others for the term of the patent.
Remedy – Void Rules: With respect to the proposed remedy, GSK and Tafas argued that, should the Court find that the rules proposed are “substantive” in nature, as opposed to only affecting the procedural aspects of examining patent applications, then the rules should be struck as void and not remanded to the patent office. The USPTO indicated that, should the rules be found to be “substantive,” then they should be accorded less deference.
Plaintiffs argued that the proposed rules retroactively impact applications already on file, abrogating the quid pro quo the applicants believed it had when it filed the application (i.e., disclosing its trade secrets to the public in return for the limited monopoly). When an applicant filed its application, it was permitted to file an unlimited number of continuations, RCE’s and claims (subject to extreme cases wherein the Federal Circuit has permitted the USPTO to refuse further applications).
Property Interest in Patent Application: The USPTO argued that the “quid pro quo” is a fallacy because an application is not a property right (only patents are property rights) and, moreover, there are no property rights in “procedures.” Further, the USPTO argued that the applicant is the party who elects to disclose the trade secret – the USPTO is willing to maintain the confidentiality of all applications filed. Further, the USPTO appeared to concede that substantive rules cannot be applied retroactively, but compared the proposed rules to newly enacted Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, indicating that newly enacted Federal Rules were routinely applied to pending cases, as these proposed rules should be applied to pending applications. The USPTO indicated that, should the Court find the rules have an improper retroactive impact, the Court should simply change the effective date of the Rules.
Mr. Walsh of the USPTO presented arguments relating to Sections 120 and 132. Echoing the concerns already articulated by his co-counsel, Mr. Walsh further indicated that the USPTO had experienced a significant increase in applications, particularly continuation applications. The proposed rules were a reasonable restriction on the growing numbers of applications and provide ample opportunity (at least 8) for the applicant to present its position to the Examiner, after which, they should appeal to the Board. Further, if the applicant believes that it requires additional applications, the applicant can petition for permission to file an additional application, he must only indicate why they need additional bites at the apple.
He further indicated that delay in presenting claims has never been favored and that Section 120 does not compel the USPTO to accept an unlimited number of continuation applications. With respect to Section 132, the USPTO’s proposed new rule 114 limits application families to a single RCE. The USPTO argued this limit is justified (and more stringent requirements could be imposed) because the wording of § 132 is that the applicant can “request” the continued application, indicating discretion on the USPTO’s part regarding whether or not to grant the request. The USPTO further argued that, should the petition to file additional RCE’s be denied, the applicant has the remedy of judicial review.
In response, plaintiffs pointed out that an increase in patent application filings or other administrative burdens cannot grant the USPTO the authority to enact rules.
- Arguing Attorneys included John Desmerais of K&E for GSK; Lauren Wetzler and Steve Walsh for the Administration; Jim Nealon of Kelley Drye for Tafas.
- Insider prediction (not DDC): Court may rule that rules are substantive and that PTO lacks substantive rulemaking authority. This allows the court to give a clean ruling without worrying potentially more difficult secondary issues.