by Jeremy Kriegel of Marshall, Gerstein & Borun
In an effort to promote repatriation of jobs, H.R. 5980 was introduced on July 29, 2010. The Bill proposes replacing the 18-month publication of U.S. patent applications in their entirety with a requirement that the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) publish only the abstract of an application until it issues as a patent. This change would detrimentally impact the ability to monitor competitors’ pending applications (provided the full text of the applications were not otherwise still available via Public PAIR, an on-line resource provided by the USPTO that supplies free access to all patent documents exchanged between patent applicants and patent examiners upon publication of an application).
The proposed shift would potentially impact companies that have come to depend on access to published patent applications as a source of lawful competitive intelligence and freedom-to-practice planning.
With knowledge that only an application’s abstract will be made available to the public, it would likely just be a matter of time before applicants become more evasive in the drafting of patent abstracts. Even today, patent abstracts rarely provide meaningful detail as to the scope of the claims of a patent application, and are limited by USPTO regulations to 150 words or less. 37 CFR 1.72(b).
While a change to the statutory term of U.S. patents and a judicially-created “prosecution laches” defense eliminated most concerns over “submarine” patents (where an applicant would keep at least one of a chain of patent applications pending before springing an issued patent on an unsuspecting party or industry), limiting public access to only the abstract of a pending application would invite a return to such undersea tactics in patent prosecution.
To the extent publishing only the abstracts of patent applications has any potential to reduce the loss of American jobs, this protection is illusory in most situations. Many patent applications on products having significant commercial potential are filed not only in the United States, but also in foreign countries (and/or internationally under the Patent Cooperation Treaty). Most foreign countries already require publication of the entire patent application 18 months from the earliest priority filing date, so publishing only the abstract in the U.S. would merely invite interested third parties to search for foreign counterpart applications published in their entirety.
For applicants concerned about foreign competitors learning of the details of their inventions prior to issuance of their patents, U.S. patent law already provides an avenue even more secure than limiting publications of applications to abstracts as proposed in H.R. 5980. So long as an applicant agrees at the time of filing a U.S. application to forego foreign patent filings in countries that publish applications 18 months after filing, the application may include a request for non-publication. The USPTO will then maintain the entire application in secrecy until the application issues as a patent. The option of foregoing foreign filings in exchange for non-publication of a U.S. patent application was proposed to assuage concerns over the disparate impact pre-grant U.S. publication might have on small businesses. This was known as the Kaptur Amendment and was initially limited to “small entities” (i.e., entities with fewer than 500 employees, universities and independent inventors), but the small entity requirement was ultimately removed.
Alternatively, 35 U.S.C. Section 154(d) provides provisional rights to obtain a reasonable royalty for infringement occurring prior to the issuance of a patent, beginning as early as the date of publication of the application. Recovery of pre-issuance royalties requires the infringed claims ultimately issuing in a patent to be substantially identical to claims of the published application and requires actual notice to the infringer of the published patent application. If claims are substantially amended during prosecution, an applicant may, for a fee, electronically request republication of the application with the amended claims. H.R. 5980 would limit provisional rights to claims of published PCT applications that later mature into U.S. patents. Ironically, this disparity would favor foreign applicants of US patents (who typically file PCT applications prior to filing a US national phase application) over US inventors who opt not to file a PCT application. Foreign patentees in some situations would effectively have a longer term to collect patent damages than their US counterparts.
Another problem with the “Patent Protection” proposal of H.R. 5980 is that it runs contrary to commitments the United States made to Japan under the U.S.-Japan Letters of Agreement signed August 16, 1994 by then-Commerce Secretary Richard H. Brown and Japanese Ambassador Takakazu Kurizama. In exchange for U.S. commitments to publish applications 18 months after filing, expand the grounds for requesting patent reexamination, and permit increased third party participation in reexaminations, Japan agreed to eliminate dependent patent compulsory licenses, end third party pre-grant oppositions, and offer an accelerated examination procedure. It took five years for mandatory publication of applications to become law with passage of the American Inventors Protection Act of 1999.
Though mandatory publication of U.S. patent applications is barely a decade old, H.R. 5980’s bid to substitute abstracts for full publication of U.S. applications would return a cloak of secrecy to some U.S. patent applications. However, for patent applications also filed abroad, the reality is that corresponding applications filed in other countries would still be published in their entirety. Given the ubiquitous access to published foreign patent applications made possible by the Internet, publishing only patent abstracts in the U.S. would not provide a meaningful obstacle to foreign companies seeking to capitalize on U.S. ingenuity.
Jeremy R. Kriegel is a partner at Marshall, Gerstein & Borun LLP in Chicago. This article expresses the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the views of Marshall, Gerstein & Borun or its clients.