Return Mail, Inc. v. United States Postal Service (Supreme Court 2019) [Return Mail, Inc. v. Postal Service]
In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court has decided the U.S. Government is not a “person” capable of petitioning for institution of AIA review proceedings.
Under the statute, a “person” other than the patent owner may petition for AIA Review (IPR, PRG, or CBM). See 35 U.S.C. 311 (for IPR).
In the case, Return Mail sued the US Postal Service (part of the US Federal Government) for infringing its address processing patent and USPS petitioned for CBM review. The PTO agreed that the patent claimed ineligible subject matter and cancelled the claims. On appeal, the Federal Circuit affirmed. Now, the Supreme Court has reversed – holding that the Government is not a person under the statute and therefore cannot petition for AIA review.
The overall outcome here is that the Federal Government is more likely to have to pay royalty fees when it uses someone’s patented invention.
The decision does not address an important background issue of the status of state and foreign governments. Also Companies are still people; but not monkeys.
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Justice Sotomayor led the conservative majority joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. Justice Breyer wrote in a dissent that was joined by Justices Ginsberg and Kagan.
The majority here started with its presumption that congressional statutes are not intended to bind or be directed to U.S. Government activity. See Rules are For Other People. Here, the court looked and did not find sufficient textual language to overcome that initial presumption. In particular, the word “person” is used many times in the Patent Act (at least 18 times) and in several different ways. There is basically no indication that this particular use of “person” was designed to include the U.S. Government. The majority also noted the awkwardness:
Finally, excluding federal agencies from the AIA review proceedings avoids the awkward situation that might result from forcing a civilian patent owner (such as Return Mail) to defend the patentability of her invention in an adversarial, adjudicatory proceeding initiated by one federal agency (such as the Postal Service) and overseen by a different federal agency (the Patent Office).
The dissent argued that the government-not-a-person presumption is rather weak and was overcome by the Patent Act. In particular, the majority notes that Federal agencies are authorized to apply for patent protection — even though the statute states that a “person” shall be “entitled to a patent.” See 35 U. S. C. §§ 207(a)(1) and 102(a)(1).
The dissent’s policy argument is hard to follow:
[T]he statutes help maintain a robust patent system in another way: They allow B, a patent holder who might be sued for infringing A’s (related) patent, to protect B’s own patent by more easily proving the invalidity of A’s patent. Insofar as this objective underlies the statutes at issue here, it applies to the same extent whether B is a private person or a Government agency.
Can someone help me out here on this one.