In an important case, the Federal Circuit has expanded the scope of so-called 102(e) “secret prior art.” Under the decision, a US patent or published application will be considered prior art as of the filing date of its qualifying provisional application. The case is important because of the large number of provisional patent applications being filed each year.
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In re Giacomini (Fed. Cir. 2010)
Giacomini’s patent application was filed on November 29, 2000. In his search, the examiner found U.S. patent 7,039,683 (the “Tran patent”) and asserted that patent as prior art over Giacomini. The Tran patent application was filed in December 2000 (after Giacomini) and issued in 2006. However, the USPTO asserted that the patent should be considered 102(e) prior art because it claims priority to a U.S. provisional application that was filed in September 2000.
35 U.S.C. 102(e)(2) bars patentability if
the invention was described in . . . a patent granted on an application for patent by another filed in the United States before the invention by the applicant for patent, except that an international application filed . . . shall have the effects for the purposes of this subsection of an application filed in the United States only if the international application designated the United States and was published under Article 21(2) of [the PCT] in the English language.
The question in this case is whether the 102(e) priority date for prior art reaches-back to the filing date of the provisional application. On appeal, the Federal Circuit agreed with the USPTO that the provisional filing date is the 102(e) priority date.
In the 1968 case of In re Klesper, the Federal Circuit predecessor court (the CCPA) held that the 102(e) follows the prior precedent of treating a prior art disclosure found in an issued patent as being disclosed as of the “filing date of the earliest U.S. application to which the patent is entitled, provided the disclosure was contained in substance in the said earliest application.” The Federal Circuit agreed that this provision applies equally to provisional patent applications “ so long as the provisional application [provides] written description support for the claimed invention . . . in accordance with Section 119(e).” Giacomini never argued that the provisional failed to describe the invention found in the prior art.
Therefore, the Tran patent “shall have the same effect,” [Citing 119(e)] including a patent-defeating effect, as to the claimed invention as though it was filed on the date of the Tran provisional. Accordingly, Giacomini, who filed his application after Tran filed his provisional application, cannot receive a patent covering the same subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 102(e).
This decision follows the BPAI’s 2008 precedential of Ex parte Yamaguchi, 61 U.S.P.Q.2d 1043 (BPAI 2008). However, the decision is in tension with the Hilmer doctrine. In re Hilmer, 359 F.2d 859 (CCPA 1966) (a U.S. application’s 102(e) priority date does not extend to its Section 119 foreign filing date). Giacomini had argued that provisional applications should be treated like foreign filings rather than like non-provisionals because the priority statute for provisional applications is also found in Section 119 and becaues provisional applications lack the formality of non-provisionals.
Note: US Court interpretations of 103(a)/102(e) offer a major difference between US practice and European practice. Namely, in the US secret 102(e) prior art is available to be combined as part of an argument for obviousness while in most European countries, the filing date of prior art is only important for novelty purposes.