The next Patent-Term-Adjustment (PTA) challenge appears to be simmering.
The ordinary term of a patent is twenty-years from the original patent application filing date. The first several years of that term are generally worthless because they are spent prosecuting the application. The Patent Act provides for a patent term adjustment in cases where the patent prosecution process is unduly slow. With the current USPTO backlog, about 80% of issued patent receive some term adjustment. The average PTA for recently issued patents is just shy of two years. Thus, any discussion of the US twenty-year patent term must consider the real impact of PTA. In Wyeth v. Kappos, 591 F.3d 1364 (Fed. Cir. 2010), the Federal Circuit held that the USPTO had been substantially under-calculating the PTO due to patentees. That change boosted the average calculated PTA by about six-months.
Now, a new PTA challenge appears to be brewing in relation the dramatic increase in the number of appeals to the Board of Patent Appeals & Interferences (BPAI). There is typically a fairly long delay between (1) the point that a patent applicant files a notice of appeal and (2) the point that the appeal is docketed at the BPAI. That delay is due to a lengthy briefing and review period. The patent examiner maintains control over the case during that entire briefing period. It turns out that the majority of appeals never actually reach the BPAI. Rather, the most common occurrence is that at some point during the briefing-period the patent examiner withdraws the appealed rejection and subsequently either issues (1) a notice of allowance or else (2) a new rejection.
The brewing patent term adjustment issue involves how to account for the prosecution delay when a patent applicant appeals a rejection that is later withdrawn prior to a BPAI decision . The delay from notice-to-appeal to withdrawal-of-rejection is often around eight months.
PTA calculations are somewhat complex. 35 U.S.C. 154(b)(1) divides the "patent term guarantee" into three parts: (A) adjustments for delayed USPTO office responses; (B) adjustments for application pendency of more than three years; and (C) adjustments for delays due to appeals, interferences, and secrecy orders. Each Part considers aspects of appeals to the BPAI: Part (A) accounts for any USPTO delay that is more than four-months in responding to "an appeal taken under section 134" or to a decision by the BPAI where allowable claims remain; Part (B) states that the three-year pendency guarantee does not include "any time consumed by appellate review by the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences or by a Federal court;" while Part (C) accounts for time in appellate review, but only if "the patent was issued under a decision in the review reversing an adverse determination of patentability."
In recent papers, the USPTO petitions office has rejected any PTA for the situation discussed above – where the applicant files a notice of appeal and appeal brief but then the examiner withdraws the rejection, so long as the withdrawal occurs within four-months of the appeal brief filing date. Running through the three-parts, the PTO argues that: Part (A) does not apply because the response to the appeal occurred within four months of the appeal brief. (37 U.S.C. §1.703 specifically interprets "appeal taken" to mean filing of the appeal brief rather than notice of appeal.) Part (B) does not apply because the USPTO interprets every day subsequent to the notice of appeal as being "consumed by appellate review." Finally, Part (C) does not apply because the board did not reach a decision.
Wrong Interpretation: The PTO's interpretation of the statute is not clearly right and is probably wrong because of the inconsistency in how the Office interprets the timing of BPAI review and because the current interpretation frustrates the "guarantees" provided in the statute. In particular, for Part (A) the USPTO states that an appeal is "taken" (and PTA counting-started) only after the applicant files the appeal brief while for Part (B) the USPTO states that time is being consumed by appellate review (and PTA counting-delayed) as soon as a notice of appeal is filed. The better interpretation is that "appellate review by the Board" for Part (B) does not begin until after the examiner answer. Certainly, until that point, the case-file remains under the examiner's control and not under review by the Board.