by Dennis Crouch
Another interesting en banc petition by Robert Greenspoon and Phil Mann: Cascades Projection v. Espon and Sony, Appeal No. 17-1517 (Fed. Cir. 2017). The petition asks one question: “Whether a patent right is a public right.” Of course, the Federal Circuit has already decided this in MCM – which is why the petitioner is bypassing the initial appeal and asking directly for an en banc hearing.
[S]ince this Court has not had a chance (as a full court) to consider the exceptionally important constitutional question, since intervening decisions after MCM have encroached upon the MCM constitutional holding, since patentees continue to bring the same constitutional challenge in hopes of overturning the MCM constitutional holding, and since overturning the MCM holding will potentially reduce this Court’s ballooning USPTO docket, Appellant seeks initial en banc review.
The “public rights” issue is complicated, but the basic outcome is simple – if patents rights are not public rights (but instead private rights) then an administrative agency cannot lawfully revoke a patent once issued (without the permission of the patentee).
The Supreme Court appeared to speak directly on this issue in McCormick Harvesting Mach. Co. v. Aultman-Miller Co., 169 U.S. 606 (1898):
The only authority competent to set a patent aside, or to annul it, or to correct it for any reason whatever, is vested in the courts of the United States, and not in the department which issued the patent. Moore v. Robbins, 96 U. S. 530, 533; U. S. v. American Bell Tel. Co., 128 U. S. 315, 364, 9 Sup. Ct. 90; Lumber Co. v. Rust, 168 U. S. 589, 593, 18 Sup. Ct. 208.
Although the direct case is 100+ years ago, we’re still working with the same United States Constitution that protects private property rights against governmental intrusion that violate due process and equal protection principles.
In MCM, the Federal Circuit distinguished these old cases by noting that patent office cancellations were not authorized by Congress: “McCormick … certainly did not forbid Congress from granting the PTO the authority to correct or cancel an issued patent.” MCM (opinion by Judge Dyk, joined by Judges Prost and Hughes). The petition offers several responses: (1) McCormick does not actualy provide the ‘statutory caveat’ but instead limits PTO authority “for any reason whatever.” (2) The reissue statute in force in McCormick did expressly authorize examiners to reject the issued claims – whether original or amended. Thus, the McCormick decision did limit the power of Congress to increase PTO power.
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One of the petitioner’s justifications for en banc review here is that it might allow the court to limit its docket. In the process, the petition cites my recent Wrongly Affirmed Without Opinion article for the proposition that the court’s opinion writing docket may soon be further ballooning. “If Professor Crouch is right, it could be serendipitous if the Court overrules MCM, thus reducing docket load through reduction of incentives of patent owners to appeal.”
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- Read the petition: petition-for-initial-en-banc-hearing.
- Amicus filings will be due March 1.
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The public/private divide is, in reality, a false dichotomy since the Court is comfortable with the notion of “quasi-private right” — which has the aspects of a private property right, but which can be subjected to administrative agency control. A key recent opinion on point is B&B Hardware (2015) – albeit the dissent by Justice Thomas (with Scalia):
Trademark registration under the Lanham Act has the characteristics of a quasi-private right. Registration is a creature of the Lanham Act, which “confers important legal rights and benefits on trademark owners who register their marks.” Because registration is merely a statutory government entitlement, no one disputes that the TTAB may constitutionally adjudicate a registration claim.
By contrast, the right to adopt and exclusively use a trademark appears to be a private property right that “has been long recognized by the common law and the chancery courts of England and of this country.” In re Trade–Mark Cases, 100 U.S. 82, 92, 25 L.Ed. 550 (1879). As this Court explained when addressing Congress’ first trademark statute, enacted in 1870, the exclusive right to use a trademark “was not created by the act of Congress, and does not now depend upon it for its enforcement.” Ibid. “The whole system of trade-mark property and the civil remedies for its protection existed long anterior to that act, and have remained in full force since its passage.” Ibid. Thus, it appears that the trademark infringement suit at issue in this case might be of a type that must be decided by “Article III judges in Article III courts.” Stern, 564 U.S., at ––––, 131 S.Ct., at 2609.
B & B Hardware, Inc. v. Hargis Indus., Inc., 135 S. Ct. 1293, 1317, 191 L. Ed. 2d 222 (2015) (Thomas, J. Dissenting).