Guest Post by Kate S. Gaudry, Ph.D and Thomas D. Franklin, Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP or its clients. This article is not intended to be and should not be viewed as legal advice.
An increasing number of statistics are available on trends in patent application filings and prosecution outcomes. However, it is uncommon to see the data segregated based on type of application. Specifically, how frequently are continuation applications filed? And does previous prosecution experience with a parent application result in favorable prosecution outcomes?
Answers to these questions may be pertinent when developing strategies as to whether to file a continuation application. Frequent continuation filings may indicate that competitors consider it important to have the claiming flexibility of keeping a family alive or a trend toward filing omnibus applications (disclosing multiple ideas or idea aspects per specification). Meanwhile, any advantage of a continuation must be considered in view of its cost, which depend in part on prosecution expectations.
Accordingly, we requested data from the USPTO that identified, for each fiscal year and technology center (TC), the number of new applications filed (excluding RCEs) that were: (1) a continuation application; (2) a divisional application; (3) a continuation-in-part application; or (4) none of the above. Further, we requested, for each of these application types: (1) the number of patents issued and number of abandonments between July 1, 2014 and July 8, 2015 (to generate a final-disposal allowance rate for this time period); and (2) the average number of office actions issued for each application that received a notice of allowance during this time.
Continuation Applications: Increasingly Common
Overall, in fiscal year 2015, 20% of the filed applications were continuation applications. Divisionals comprised 6% of the data set, and continuation-in-part applications accounted for 3% of the applications. The remaining 72% lacked a priority claim to another non-provisional U.S. application. (FIG. 1)
FIGs. 2A and 2B respectively show the unnormalized and normalized distributions of filing types per fiscal year. The percentage of applications that were continuations doubled from 9% in 2005 to 18% in 2015.
The increased popularity of continuation applications is observed across all TCs. (FIG. 3.) The most substantial increases is observed in TCs 2100 (Computer Architecture, Software, and Information Security) and 2600 (Communications), where the contribution of continuation applications to total filings increased by 142% and 132%, respectively, between 2005 and 2015.
Continuation applications were most common in TCs 1600 (Biotechnology and Organic Chemistry), 2100 (Computer Architecture, Software, and Information Security) and 2400 (Computer Networks, Multiplex Communication, Video Distribution and Security), where continuation applications accounted for 29%, 28% and 30% of the applications, respectively. Continuation applications were least common in TC 3600 (Transportation, Construction, Electronic Commerce, Agriculture, National Security and License & Review), accounting for only 14% of the applications. The infrequency of TC 3600 continuation applications may be due, in part, to the rarity of allowances in the business-method art units.
Continuation and Original Applications have Similar Prosecution Statistics
Potentially, experience with a parent application (and, typically, a same examiner) may guide claiming strategy for a continuation. Thus, perhaps, continuations represent a two-fold cost-savings opportunity: a savings in drafting and in prosecution costs. Assessing the latter potential savings requires evaluating allowance rates and office-action counts of continuation applications. Accordingly, we evaluated prosecution statistics from a recent time period (July 2014-July 2015) for each of the application types.
Overall, the final-disposal allowance rate for continuations is slightly higher than that for original applications (80% versus 74%). (FIG. 4A.) The average office-action count per patent is slightly lower for continuation applications (1.85 versus 1.96). (FIG. 4B.)
Discussion: Why and How to File Continuations
Continuation applications provide a variety of advantages, including an opportunity to seek a new scope of protection in view of business priorities and to strategically draft claims in view of ongoing or threatened challenges to a patent. This latter upside is becoming increasingly significant as the number of post-grant challenges continues to grow.
Should an applicant decide that the advantages of keeping a family alive are sufficiently important, claiming strategy for the child application must then be identified. Slightly tweaking an allowed claim may result in minimal prosecution costs. However, a fast allowance will lead to an overall cost of the family exploding (assuming repeated continuation filings). Seeking substantially broader protection, meanwhile, may lead to extended and frustrating prosecution. Our data showing that continuation and original applications have similar prosecution statistics suggest that applicants are not consistently choosing an easy or hard continuation-claiming path, though it may be explained by split uses of these types of claim-drafting techniques.
Another approach to continuations is to seek protection of a completely different idea in the specification. This could allow a resulting patent family to provide diverse protections towards different elements of an applicant’s technology. However, a new focus requires that the new idea be supported and enabled by the original specification. In an era where flat fees and legal bidding wars are common, it is our hypothesis that few applicants are willing to pay the higher drafting fees for preparation of such enhanced applications. However, we believe that this is a strategic approach and should be more frequently used.
Consider a case where an applicant is seeking patent protection of two ideas. A traditional approach is that separate patent applications be drafted for each idea. Another approach is to draft a single “omnibus” patent application that describes both ideas. One idea can be the focus of an original filing, and another the focus of a continuation filing. Then, by investing in keeping a single family alive (via the original and continuation filings and/or additional continuation applications), claiming flexibility for each idea is preserved. Further, if ideas within an omnibus application are related, drafting fees may be less than preparing two independent applications. The application may also illuminate synergies and interactions between the ideas, which may further expand claiming possibilities.
Our data shows that continuation-application filings are becoming increasingly common. Filing continuation applications offers many advantages, particularly now that patents are frequently challenged. However, blindly filing continuation applications will lead to an explosion in costs. Strategic filing of omnibus continuation applications, however, will offer long-term cost savings and prosecution advantages. Therefore, applicants should consider intelligently identifying and organizing sets of ideas into omnibus applications.
 Gaudry KS. 2015. Post-Alice, Allowances are a Rare Sighting in Business-Method Art Units. IPWatchDog. <http://www.ipwatchdog.com/2014/12/16/post-alice-allowances-rare-in-business-method/id=52675/>