Studying Nonobviousness

By Jason Rantanen

There are lots of quantitative studies of patent litigation appellate court decisions, going all the way back to P.J. Federico’s 1956 article Adjudicated Patents in the Journal of the Patent and Trademark Office Society.  One of the big limitations of these studies, though, is that there hasn’t really been any work done to examine how replicable their observations are – even for variables as seemingly simple as whether the court affirmed or reversed on a particular issue, or reached a particular outcome, such as whether a patent’s claims was obvious.  New studies compare their aggregate results to previous studies, but not the actual data themselves–even when studying the same set of cases.

In an article forthcoming in the Hastings Law Journal, Abigail Matthews, Lindsay Kriz and I set out to do exactly that: to examine the amount of agreement between two studies on nonobviousness around the time of KSR v. Teleflex, one that I did that was published in 2013 and one that was recently published by Judge Ryan Holte and Prof. Ted Sichelman.

Our reliability assessment reveals a complex picture.  Somewhat reassuringly, the results from the two studies are largely consistent for decisions from the same time period.  Surprisingly, however, fewer than 2/3rds of the decisions analyzed in both studies were the same—even when limited to the identical time period and using the same criteria.  Within that set of cases, however, the core data coding was largely identical, with a few notable exceptions.  Specifically, we find differences in the coding for procedural postures and in some coding related to judicial reasoning.

In addition, since the period covered by those two studies ended several years ago, we also updated the dataset through the end of 2019.  Here are some highlights from our findings:

  • The number of Federal Circuit decisions in appeals arising from the district courts that involved a § 103 issue peaked between 2010 and 2015, and in recent years has declined to half of that peak.
  • The percentage of Federal Circuit decisions with an outcome of “obvious” in appeals arising from the district courts remained high between 2006 and 2014, but since 2015 the number of “obvious” outcomes has fallen dramatically.
  • The Federal Circuit continues to affirm district courts on the issue of obviousness at a high rate (around 80% of the time since 2013), and—in contrast with the immediate post-KSR period studied Holte & Sichelman (2019) and Rantanen (2013)—since 2013, affirmances have been equally high for district court outcomes of “nonobvious.”
  • The number of grants of summary judgment involving § 103 that were reviewed by the Federal Circuit in its decisions has fallen substantially in recent years. Nearly all § 103 decisions arising from the district court that were reviewed by the Federal Circuit between 2016 and 2019 involved a bench or jury trial.

In the paper we talk about some possible explanations for this decline, including two obvious causes: the rise of inter partes review and patent eligible subject matter issues.  You can read the full preprint on SSRN here:  I’m hoping to have the data posted within the next few weeks.