Guest Post by Professor Jeffrey Lefstin (U.C. Hastings)
Microsoft’s petition for certiorari in the i4i case challenges the Federal Circuit’s rule that patent invalidity must be proven by “clear and convincing evidence,” even when the defense rests on prior art not considered by the PTO. Nearly all of the briefs filed in the case, and nearly all academic commentary as well, assume that the rule was devised by the Federal Circuit early in its history. For example, one brief asserts that the “position of the Federal Circuit traces to dicta in a 1983 Federal Circuit panel decision [Connell v. Sears, Roebuck & Co.] that gave no reasoning and cited no authority whatsoever.”
The actual history of the rule challenged in i4i is rather different. The rule was not a creature of the Federal Circuit, but rather of its predecessor court, the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals. The CCPA held in Astra-Sjuco v. ITC, 629 F.2d 682 (CCPA 1980) that patents must be proven invalid by clear and convincing evidence. It had already held, in Solder Removal Co. v. ITC, 582 F.2d 628 (CCPA 1978), that the statutory presumption of validity is not weakened when a challenger introduces prior art not considered by the PTO.
In its first decision, South Corp. v. United States, 690 F.2d 1368 (Fed. Cir. 1982), the Federal Circuit adopted the CCPA’s case law as controlling precedent. The Federal Circuit’s early cases were quite clear: in holding that the presumption of validity was unaffected by prior art not before the PTO, the court was following the binding precedent of the CCPA, rather than creating a new rule of law.
How did the CCPA, which ordinarily heard appeals from the PTO, come to create a rule governing patent litigation? Under the Trade Act of 1974, the International Trade Commission was given the power to bar importation of articles that would infringe U.S. patents. In its final years, the CCPA heard a handful of appeals – Astra-Sjuco and Solder Removal among them – from infringement complaints decided by the ITC.
It is probably not coincidental that the CCPA devised a patentee-friendly rule. For most of its history, the CCPA heard only appeals from the PTO. From this perspective it saw only the benefits of the patent system: inventors bringing their inventions to the PTO. Even in the ITC infringement cases, the CCPA saw only domestic patentees who might be injured by foreign competition.
In contrast, the regional Circuit Courts of Appeals, in their many years’ experience with infringement cases, routinely saw the costs of the patent system: infringers, perhaps even innocent infringers, who were nonetheless forced to pay heavy damages and abandon otherwise legitimate and productive activity. Given that perspective, it is not surprising that prior to 1982, several of the Circuit Courts of Appeals had held that the presumption of validity should be weakened when a challenger presents prior art not considered by the PTO. But intentionally or not, when the Federal Circuit adopted the CCPA’s precedent in South Corp., it instantly consigned any conflicting precedent from the Circuit Courts to the dustbin of history.
However, the precedent from the CCPA is not the end of the story. In South Corp., the Federal Circuit adopted not only the precedent of the CCPA, but also of its other predecessor court: the United States Court of Claims. The Court of Claims heard patent infringement actions brought against the United States government under 28 U.S.C. § 1498, and the Federal Circuit has repeatedly held that the patent jurisprudence of the Court of Claims is binding upon it. (Most notably, the Federal Circuit maintained that the Court of Claims’ decision in Pitcairn v. United States compelled its narrow view of the experimental use defense in Roche, Embrex, and Madey.)
There was a long line of precedent from the Court of Claims holding unequivocally that the presumption of validity was weakened when a challenger introduced prior art not considered by the PTO: General Elec. Co. v. United States, 572 F2d 745, 761 (Ct. Cl. 1978); Douglas v. United States, 510 F.2d 364, 369 (Ct. Cl. 1975); Nossen v. United States, 416 F.2d 1362, 1371 (Ct. Cl. 1969); Ellicott Mach. Corp. v. United States, 405 F.2d 1385, 1392 (Ct. Cl. 1969); Martin-Marietta Corp. v. United States, 373 F.2d 972, 977 (Ct. Cl. 1967). As far as I can determine, the Federal Circuit has never taken note of these decisions. But under the Federal Circuit’s own case law, the line of authority descending from the Court of Claims is just as binding as that of the CCPA.
Note: Prof Lefstin discusses the how the CCPA’s unique perspective shaped the law it bequeathed to the Federal Circuit in a paper forthcoming in the Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review, available at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1565818.
 See, e.g., D.L. Auld Co. v. Chroma Graphics Corp., 714 F.2d 1144, 1147 n.2 (Fed. Cir. 1983).