Eight Reasons: I am undergoing a project to better understand the role of the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences (BPAI). There are several reasons why BPAI is now receiving more limelight than ever. Here are eight such reasons: (1) every proposed patent reform bill includes an expanded role for a patent administrative court, such as the BPAI; (2) as various technology centers make patents more difficult to obtain, more cases are appealed to the administrative court; (3) under the proposed rule changes to limit continuation applications, more cases will likely be appealed; (4) as the value of patent rights continue to grow, important cases will continue to be challenged; (5) the publication of patent applications means that BPAI decisions can now also be immediately published; (6) the current large batch of examiners without much experience requires a serious check on potential abuses of naiveté; (7) under Judge Fleming, the BPAI has begun to open up to more public input and scrutiny; and (8) BPAI decisions are now available via Google search and Westlaw search.
BPAI is a Busy Court: It is important to recognize that the BPAI is deciding 3,500 cases every year. Thousands more are ‘settled’ prior to a BPAI decision either because the patent examiner withdrew a rejection (and likely re-opened prosecution) or the patent applicant filed a continuing application or abandoned the case. The BPAI usually sits in three-member panels, although there are occasionally ‘stacked’ panels for important cases such as Lundgren or Bilski. In my one-year sample, over seventy different Administrative Patent Judges (APJs) authored opinions.
As part of my initial study, this week, I created a database of information on recent BPAI decisions and coded them by issues discussed. My database is derived from decisions available on Westlaw. Consequently, it is missing some decisions. In particular, Westlaw decisions do not include appeals associated with unpublished patent applications.
The table below looks at board decisions for each technology center. The relative numbers are interesting — showing a low affirmance rate for rejection of business method cases (TC 3600) and a high affirmance rate for chemistry cases (TC 1700). The BPAI offers its own calculation of these numbers based on all of its decisions that are roughly parallel. [LINK]
(Note, the table does not add-up to 100% because I excluded decisions to remand and deny rehearing).
Independence of the BPAI: One serious question about the competence of an internal patent appeal board is whether that body can act independently from the examining corps. Most of the BPAI judges are former examiners and they all work for the PTO Director. Although not conclusive, the above numbers give me some cause for hope that the BPAI does act independently. Over the past several years, many of the art units of TC 3600 has been notoriously difficult on applicants (especially e-commerce and business method groups). The BPAI’s low affirmance of rejections from that technology center may indicate that the Board has taken an independent stand against overzealous rejection practice. There are many other explanations, including some selection bias or difference in quality of attorneys. In addition, there is a skew of judges — i.e., Judges with a technical background related to a particular technology center are more likely to judge cases from that technology center. The BPAI rightfully does this to ensure that every case has at least one administrative patent judge (APJ) who is prepared to understand the technology at issue.
Issues on Appeal: Far and away the most decided issue is that of nonobviousness. Almost 80% of decisions involved a discussion of nonobviousness and 30 U.S.C. 103(a). Unfortunately for patent applicants, nonobviousness decisions were also the most difficult for applicants to win. In my study, decisions involving Section 103(a) were affirmed 63% of the time; decisions involving anticipation under Section 102 were affirmed 55% of the time; and decisions involving Section 112 were affirmed 52% of the time. As more issues are added to an appeal, the chance of affirmance goes down, and the chance of a split (reverse-in-part) decision goes up.
As might be expected, split decisions tend to be longer than others: 4500 words for split decision vs. 3500 words other decisions. If a short decision arrives at your desk, you may assume it is a remand.