Perhaps the most debated issue in obviousness disputes is the question of whether a person of ordinary skill in the art would have been motivated to combine prior art references in order to form the invention as claimed. In KSR, the Supreme Court made the process a little bit easier for patent examiners by permitting a common sense analysis. Still, 10 years later, the issue arises on a daily basis for patent attorneys and in the vast majority of obviousness challenges to issued patents.
I have long felt that prosecution history files may serve as key evidence in justifying the motivation to combine. As an example, consider a patent prosecution file history from several years ago that that includes an office action rejection based upon the patent examiners conclusion the two prior art references should be combined. Regardless of whether the examiners assertions were correct at the time, that document seems to be pretty good evidence someone actually considered combining references together. In general, a prior art statement that expressly suggests and provides reasons for combining Reference A with Reference B is really good evidence for combining the two.
There are several difficulties with my “patent prosecution as prior art” theory. A first problem is that, although patent prosecution files are open to the public once a patent issues or the application publishes, the prosecution history files are not well indexed or searchable in any meaningful way. As far as I know, there is no publicly accessible database of prosecution history files that is either indexed or searchable. That problem is becoming a historic problem.
Beginning this week, the USPTO has transitioned its Private Pair system to include text versions of its office action rejections as well as notices of allowances (actual XML and DOCX versions). It is a straightforward step to move these documents into a searchable database available for public consumption.
I’ll note here that the XML/DOCX files are quite nice and, although not well tagged, will make it easy for patent attorneys to cut & paste from the OA in their responses or client emails. The system also includes a new mechanism for submitting documents to the PTO.