In re Fallaux (Fed. Cir. 2009) 08-1545.pdf
The Fallaux family of patents began with a PCT filing in June 1995. The first US patent issued in November 1999. Three more patents issued from continuation applications in 2001, 2003, and and 2006. The application at issue here was filed in 2003.
The PTO’s appellate board – the BPAI – rejected the most recent application under the judge-made doctrine of obviousness-type double patenting. Obviousness-type double patenting is equitable in nature and operates as a mechanism to prevent “unjust extension of patent exclusivity beyond the term of a patent.” Thus, an obviousness-type double patenting rejection requires a link between the two applications – either in terms of inventorship or ownership. The doctrine is only relevant when a prior patent cannot be considered prior art as defined by Sections 102 and 103(a) of the Patent Act. (If it is prior art, then the reference is applied under those statutory provisions.)
The change in the patent term and publication of pending applications eliminated most of the need for this judge-made regime. Because patent term is calculated from the filing date, it is now difficult to extend the term while claiming priority. Likewise, published applications ordinarily create a statutory bar that operates to prevent an applicant from extending the term by not claiming priority to an earlier filing. Here, the Federal Circuit recognized the significance of the change in the law, but was not prepared at this juncture to eliminate the doctrine.
It is true that the unjustified patent term extension justification for obviousness-type double patenting has limited force in this case. Indeed, this is surely true of many double patenting rejections today, in no small part because of the change in the Patent Act from a patent term of seventeen years from issuance to a term of twenty years from filing. … Nonetheless, we do not think that we may disregard all of our cases relying on this justification for obviousness-type double patenting. In some cases there may still be the possibility of an unjust time-wise extension of a patent arising from patent term adjustment under § 154 or patent term extension under § 156.
Furthermore, there is a second justification for obviousness-type double patenting—harassment by multiple assignees. … The harassment justification for obviousness-type double patenting is particularly pertinent here because the Fallaux application and the Vogels patents are not commonly owned.
Of course, careful Patently-O readers will realize that the Court’s use of mismatched patent term extensions as a justification for a double patenting rejection does not sit well with the law. In 2007, the Federal Circuit in Merck v. HI-TECH held that the patent term extension should apply to further extend the patent term despite a terminal disclaimer. Id. (Holding that a patent term extension under the Hatch-Waxman Act, 35 U.S.C. § 156, may be applied to a patent subject to a terminal disclaimer under 35 U.S.C. § 253, filed to overcome an obviousness-type double-patenting rejection.) The dicta of this Fallaux decision will tend to confuse the issue.
Common Inventorship: As the court notes, in this case, the double patenting rejection is based on second patent family. Both families list multiple inventors, and the link between the families is a single common inventor. Originally, the families were commonly owned by IntroGene, but some of the patents were assigned to Crucell and others to Galapagos Genomics.
No Common Ownership: The division of ownership rights here puts the applicant in a bind. Notably, it could not file a terminal disclaimer because the prior patent and the pending application were not commonly owned.
One Way versus Two Way Test: In most obviousness determinations, the examiner applies a “one way test” – asking “whether the application claims are obvious” over the prior art. This same approach is used in obviousness-type double patenting except that the prior patent is generally not considered “prior art.” More particularly, because the focus is on extending patent term, the question is whether the pending claims are only obvious variations of the already patented claims. Occasionally, courts have required a more stringent two-way test where the examiner additionally considers “whether the patent claims are obvious over the application claims.”
The two way test can be required if the PTO “is at fault” for a delay that causes an improvement patent to issue prior to the basic patent. Here, the court agreed with the PTO that
Dr. Fallaux was entirely responsible for the delay that caused the Vogels patents to issue prior to the filing of the Fallaux application. . . . there [is no] evidence to suggest—that the PTO shared any responsibility for the delay. . . . Dr. Fallaux elected to prosecute other applications and delay filing the Fallaux application [for] six years after the [original US] application was filed. During this six year period, the Vogels patents were filed for and issued. In view of the Board’s fact findings, we hold that the PTO was not responsible for the delay.
Because the PTO had not caused the delay in prosecution, it could apply the less stringent one-way test of obviousness. And, as a consequence, the Federal Circuit affirmed the rejection.
- The Fallaux panel of Judges Schall, Archer, and Moore* have no overlapping authors with the Merck v. HI-TECH panel of Judges Linn*, Friedman, and Plager. The direct contradiction of this case and the dramatic shift in the statutory law opens it to en banc rehearing.
- Patent term adjustments (due to PTO delay) are definitely limited by terminal disclaimers. Meck (“Section 154(b)(2)(B) expressly excludes patents in which a terminal disclaimer was filed from the benefit of a term adjustment for PTO delays.”).