by Dennis Crouch
So far, the Supreme Court has not granted certiorari in any patent cases for its 2021-2022 Term. Still, there are a couple dozen cases pending that may offers some interest. On September 27, 2021, the court is meeting privately for what is known as the “long conference” to decide the fate of the petitions for writ of certiorari that have piled-up over the summer. There are also a host of additional petitions scheduled for a later conference or not yet scheduled. Although the total number of petitions is down from last year, there is much more diversity since we have now largely moved past the appointments-clause issues.
Capacity to Sue: My favorite pending case is Tormasi v. Western Digital. Tormasi is a convicted murderer and also a patentee seeking to enforce his disk-drive patent. The Federal Circuit held that Tormasi lacked the “capacity to sue” under Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 17(b). That provision states that an individual’s capacity to sue is determined by “the law of the individual’s domicile.” Tormasi lives in New Jersey (state prison) and the administrative rule in N.J. bars a prisoner from conducting business activities without the Wardon’s approval. The courts held that his enforcement action is an “unauthorized patent monetization business” and thus that he has no capacity to sue. Tormasi argues that this conclusion violates his due process and other constitutionally protected rights. There are other standing-related cases pending in the trademark context: Naked TM, LLC v. Australian Therapeutic Supplies Pty. Ltd. (standing to petition cancel a TM registration); See also Kaszuba v. Hirshfeld (pro se, standing of USPTO to intervene in TM appeal).
Eligibility: The Supreme Court has shown the most interest in hearing American Axle & Manufacturing, Inc. v. Neapco Holdings LLC by Calling for the Views of the Solicitor General (CVSG). I expect for the SG to file a brief by the end of calendar year 2021. And, there is a good chance that the SG brief will support the petition. At that point, there would still be time for the Court to grant certiorari and decide the case before the end of June 2022. American Axle asks two questions:
1. What is the appropriate standard for determining whether a patent claim is directed to” a patent-ineligible concept under step 1 of the Court’s two-step framework for determining whether an invention is eligible for patenting under 35 U.S.C. § 101?
2. Is patent eligibility (at each step of the Court’s two-step framework) a question of law for the court based on the scope of the claims or a question of fact for the jury based on the state of art at the time of the patent?
There are Am.Axle follow-on cases asking the same questions: iLife Technologies, Inc., v. Nintendo of America, Inc.; VoIP-Pal.com, Inc. v. Apple, Inc. (also raising 112/101 coordination issue). See also Mohapatra v. Hirshfeld (pro se)
Preclusion: I am generally interested in the concept of preclusion. This typically comes in the forms of issue and claim preclusion. In patent law, we also have the “Kessler doctrine,” which sits between the two. PersonalWeb Technologies, LLC v. Patreon, Inc. challenges the ongoing viability of Kessler, especially as expanded by the Federal Circuit in recent cases. Kessler allows for non-mutual issue preclusion even in cases where the particular issue was not actually litigated or decided.
Process-by-Product Claim: In Biogen MA Inc., Petitioner v. EMD Serono, Inc., the Federal Circuit found the claimed treatment method anticipated by use of a naturally occurring protein. But, the claims required use of a “recombinant” protein — i.e., genetically modified. Can Biogen distinguish the prior art by simply adding a “man made” limitation? “Whether courts may disregard the express claim term “recombinant” so as to render a method-of-treatment patent anticipated—and thus invalid—in light of prior-art treatments that used the naturally occurring human protein, where it is undisputed that the recombinant protein was not used in the prior art?”
Printed Publication: A core patent law question is what can qualify as a printed publication under 35 U.S.C. § 102(a). Centripetal Networks, Inc. v. Cisco Systems, Inc., asks whether a user-manual counts for a machine that costs $25,000. (The Federal Circuit said “yes, it counts.”)
Writing Opinions: A few years ago, I wrote a paper arguing that the Patent Act requires the Federal Circuit to actually write opinions when judging appeals from the USPTO. Although dozens of briefs have subsequently argued this point, the Federal Circuit has refused to make any statement regarding its ongoing practice of no-opinion R.36 judgments. Ultratec, Inc. v. CaptionCall, LLC asks the Supreme Court to weigh in on the question of whether the use of Federal Circuit Rule 36 to summarily affirm decisions from the PTAB “without opinion” violates 35 U.S.C. § 144. A second case, Bobcar Media, LLC v. Aardvark Event Logistics, Inc., also argues that R.36 decisions are improper, although relies upon Constitutional principles rather than statutory guidance.
IPR Issues: Ultratec, Inc. v. CaptionCall, LLC (retroactive application of IPR to already issued patents). Mylan Laboratories Ltd., v. Janssen Pharmaceutica (appealing institution denials); Apple Inc. v. Optis Cellular Technology, LLC (appealing institution denials); Infineum USA L.P. v. Chevron Oronite Company LLC (post-arthrex timing issue)
Utility: Hu v. Hirshfeld, focuses on a heightened utility requirement that seems to appear when a patentee seeks rights covering an invention that pushes the bounds of traditional scientific principles. Hu’s inventions, for instance, cover various ways to make use of quantum entanglement. Hu argues that the court moved the standard from a preponderance of the evidence to something akin to “a statistical certainty.”
Indefiniteness: Rain Computing, Inc. v. Samsung Electronics America, Inc. focuses on the intersection of Sections 112(b)/112(f). The Federal Circuit uses an algorithmic approach: if a claim is interpreted under Section 112 and the specification fails to include corresponding structure, then the claim is invalid as indefinite. Rain says ‘not so fast.’ The court is forgetting to ask the actual pertinent question: whether the scope is reasonably certain to a person of skill in the art. The petition also argues that underlying issues of fact tending to show invalidity must be proven with clear and convincing evidence. Infinity Computer Products, Inc. v. Oki Data Americas, Inc. also raises an indefiniteness question — again arguing that the Federal Circuit took a shortcut in its analysis and refused to give deference to factual findings.