The potential move to a first-to-file system has received little attention — it is certainly not the most controversial in the current package of patent reforms. Of course, this says more about the Patent Reform proposal than about the potential impact of the first-to-file change. Although not receiving the most press, in the end, this change would have the most impact on the reform package.
The entirely re-written Section 102 would create a bar to patentability if “the claimed invention was patented, described in a printed publication, or in public use, on sale, or otherwise available to the public” prior to the filing of the patent application (the ‘effective date’). [Use Thomas to obtain the most recent version.] The rule would also encompass 102(e) prior art, so long as the prior art filing was prior to the effective date. A one-year grace period would remain in place, but only for public disclosures released by the inventors, the assignee, or a signatory to a joint research agreement.
The first-to-file rule can be thought of as a “race to the courthouse” recording statute. In the world of first-to-file, it does not matter who invented first, only who is the first to file the patent application. A perhaps more salient way to think of the shift is that it primarily operates by shifting the ‘critical date’ of 102(b) to the filing date, thus creating a whole new set of prior art that can be asserted against an applicant.
Apart from whether a first-to-file system is a better system, the legislation itself has problems. Most critical is the inclusion of the ill defined clause “otherwise available to the public.” This clause could easily swallow the entire list of prior art types, except perhaps “on sale.” (patented, printed publication, and public use are all available to the public). We’re left wondering what additional activities will be encompassed by subsequent CAFC decisions.
This amendment would greatly increase the value of creating a joint-research-agreement any time any research or information is shared between parties. In addition, some companies will increase their provisional application filing as a way to ensure that the invention is on file at the PTO ASAP. Of course, this change will have negative little impact on foreign companies seeking US patents or US companies already filing patents internationally because these rules closely mirror the requirements already in place around the world.
The benefits of first to file:
- Encourages inventors to quickly file for patent rights;
- We avoid the potential for fraud in swearing-behind references;
- Interferences are gone (but derivation litigation is in);
- A patent would be more difficult to obtain – especially when the invention is easily conceived by another; and
- Global harmony .