Judge Linn Calls for En Banc Restatement of the Law of Inequitable Conduct

Larson Mfg. Co. v. Aluminart Products Ltd. (Fed. Cir. 2008)

Larson's patent covers a specially designed outside. The appeal focuses on inequitable conduct and the Federal Circuit vacated a district court judgment that the asserted patent was unenforceable. I will return to the decision in a later post, but wanted to focus attention on the concurring opinion by Judge Linn and his call for an en banc review of inequitable conduct jurisprudence. Linn's concerns could be addressed by the Supreme Court in Aventis Pharma v. Amphastar Pharmaceuticals, which is pending certiorari.

I write separately … to express my view that this precedent has significantly diverged from the Supreme Court's treatment of inequitable conduct and perpetuates what was once referred to as a "plague" that our en banc court sought to cure in Kingsdown Medical Consultants, Ltd. v. Hollister Inc., 863 F.2d 867 (Fed. Cir. 1988) (en banc). …

Symptoms of this plague are apparent from the facts of this case. The patent-in-suit has undergone examination twice in the PTO, and the patentee has been accused of inequitable conduct on each occasion for allegedly withholding material information. During original prosecution, the PTO considered 143 references, 135 of which the submitted two more IDSs in the reexamination, each within approximately one month of the application's Office Actions. The IDSs contained all references relied on in those rejections but did not include the Office Actions themselves. With full knowledge of the co-pending application, the PTO confirmed the patent, which survived reexamination without substantive change to the litigated claims. When the litigation resumed, the accused infringer again charged the patentee with inequitable conduct, this time based on conduct in the reexamination. This second inequitable conduct allegation was the sole issue at trial. Following remand today, the litigation will continue to focus on inequitable conduct, to the exclusion of the patentee's infringement contentions.

The ease with which inequitable conduct can be pled, but not dismissed, is a problem of our own making. The Supreme Court's three inequitable conduct cases involved overt fraud, not equivocal acts of omission. Precision Instrument Mfg. Co. v. Auto. Maint. Mach. Co., 324 U.S. 806, 809, 819 (1945) ("patent claims infected with fraud and perjury" where assignee knew that its employee "gave false dates as to the conception, disclosure, drawing, description and reduction to practice" during interference proceeding and then "secured the perjured . . . application and exacted promises from the other parties never to question the validity of any patent that might be issued on that application"); Keystone Driller Co. v. Gen. Excavator Co., 290 U.S. 240, 243 (1933) (false affidavits and deposition testimonies obtained "for valuable considerations" averring that the prior art use "was an abandoned experiment" and "to keep secret the details of the prior use"); Hazel-Atlas Glass Co. v. Hartford-Empire Co., 322 U.S. 238, 240, 243 (1944) (false trade article procured from "an ostensibly disinterested expert" in exchange for $8,000 to gain patent issuance in spite of previously "insurmountable Patent Office opposition"), overruled on other grounds by Standard Oil Co. v. United States, 429 U.S. 17 (1976).

We clarified en banc that the "two elements, materiality and intent, must be proven by clear and convincing evidence," and that "'gross negligence' does not of itself justify an inference of intent to deceive." Kingsdown. But in seeming contradiction with Kingsdown, a standard even lower than "gross negligence" has propagated through our case law. This standard permits an inference of deceptive intent when "(1) highly material information is withheld; (2) 'the applicant knew of the information [and] . . . knew or should have known of the materiality of the information; and (3) the applicant has not provided a credible explanation for the withholding.'" Praxair, Inc. v. ATMI, Inc., 543 F.3d 1306, 1313-14 (Fed. Cir. 2008).

This test is problematic. First, the "high materiality" prong of the intent element simply repeats the materiality element. Conflating materiality and intent in this manner is inconsistent with the principle that "materiality does not presume intent, which is a separate and essential component of inequitable conduct." Manville Sales Corp. The second, "should have known" prong sets forth a simple negligence standard, lower even than the "gross negligence" standard that was expressly rejected in Kingsdown. I also question whether a fact-finder who has deemed information to be "highly material" would not also be compelled to conclude that a reasonable patentee "should have known of the materiality," at least when the patentee "knew of the information," as prong two requires. Third, the "credible explanation" prong effectively shifts the burden to the patentee to prove a negative: that it did not intend to deceive the PTO. But it is the "accused infringer"—not the patentee—who "must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the material information was withheld with the specific intent to deceive the PTO." Star Scientific, Inc. As to this third prong, we have also explained that "[t]he patentee need not offer any good faith explanation unless the accused infringer first carried his burden to prove a threshold level of intent to deceive by clear and convincing evidence." Id. As explained above, however, the first two prongs are not evidence of deceptive intent. The first is evidence of materiality; the second is evidence of negligence. These two prongs are therefore insufficient as a matter of law to establish a clear and convincing "threshold level" of deceptive intent before the third prong can ever properly come into play.

As it now stands, the test generally permits an inference of deceptive intent to be drawn whenever the three prongs are satisfied. This is in tension with the rule in Star Scientific that "the inference must not only be based on sufficient evidence and be reasonable in light of that evidence, but it must also be the single most reasonable inference able to be drawn from the evidence." Id. It cannot be said that deceptive intent is the "single most reasonable inference" when all that prong two shows is that the patentee "should have known" that the information was material. An equally reasonable inference under this test is that the patentee incorrectly believed that the information was not material, or that the patentee was negligent, or even grossly negligent. None of these gives rise to deceptive intent under Kingsdown, nor is deceptive intent the "single most reasonable inference" under Star Scientific.

For the foregoing reasons, I respectfully submit that the test for inferring deceptive intent, as it currently exists, falls short of the standard "need[ed] to strictly enforce the burden of proof and elevated standard of proof in the inequitable conduct context." Star Scientific. The facts of this case suggest that the time has come for the court to review the issue en banc.

Cardiac Pacemaker v. Jude: Challenging 271(f) Liability for Components of a Method

Cardiac Pacemakers v. St. Jude Medical (On motion for en banc rehearing)

35 U.S.C. § 271 defines various types of patent infringement including direct infringement and contributory infringement. Section 271(f) details a special cause of action that captures some transnational activities. In particular, Section 271(f) creates a cause of action for supplying components of a patented invention to be assembled abroad.

In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled on a 271(f) case — finding that software per se cannot be considered a “component” under the statute. Microsoft v AT&T, 550 U.S. 437 (2007). In December 2008, the Federal Circuit decided Cardiac Pacemaker and held that the Microsoft v. AT&T did not overrule a prior precedential ruling that Section 271(f) does extend to cover components of a claimed method. “[T]he Supreme Court’s decision does not alter [the] holding” that “271(f) applies to components used in the performance of patented methods and processes.” The precedent in question is Union Carbide v. Shell. Although the Federal Circuit denied a request to rehear the Union Carbide case, Judges Lourie, Michel, and Linn, argued then that the issue was ready for en banc review. Judge Dyk also dissent from the en banc denial in Union Carbide.

In their decision, the panel (Judges Newman, Mayer, & Lourie) practically begged for en banc rehearing: “As a panel, we cannot reverse the holding of another panel of this court. We thus affirm the district court’s decisions relating to damages.” [Link] Of course, Judge Mayer signed-on to Judge Rader’s original Union Carbide opinion.

Now, the defendant (St. Jude) has asked for a rehearing en banc. If unsuccessful, we can expect a petition for a writ of certiorari. The FCBA and AIPLA joined forces in an amicus brief supporting the rehearing en banc and for a reversal of the Union Carbide analysis. Writing on behalf of Cisco, Intel, Microsoft, Oracle, and Symantec, Ed Reines also argues that the rule should be overturned. The tech companies argue in particular that the limit on exports creates major adverse economic incentives.

“A very common business arrangement is for United States companies to export instructions, materials, recipes, and other knowledge-exports to Asian and other off-shore locations where manufacturing processes takes place. An overbroad extraterritorial interpretation of § 271(f) to apply to process patents creates potential worldwide liability for companies based in the United States that export anything that can properly be considered a process step. Yet, if their competitors exist outside the United States, they are not exposed to liability for United States patent infringement for supporting foreign manufacturing processes.”

A good handful of judges have at least loosely indicated that they would support an en banc rehearing — making this a very likely candidate.



Federal Circuit Revises (Muzzles) Comiskey

In re Comiskey (Fed. Cir. 2009) (Revised Panel Opinion)(En Banc Order)

After a request for en banc rehearing, the original Federal Circuit panel has revised its decision in Comsikey – erasing the “misunderstood” phrases of the original opinion linking Sections 101 (subject matter) and 103 (nonobviousness). The original opinion implicitly held that any portion of an invention that would constitute nonstatutory subject matter would be considered de facto obvious. [Link]

The new opinion finds that Comiskey’s method claims do not present patentable subject matter and remanded the case to the PTO to determine the subject matter eligibility of the system claims. The Federal Circuit refused to consider nonobviousness issues – even though nonobviousness was the sole issue presented in the original appeal. Subject matter eligibility had been raised sua sponte by the panel.

Judges Moore and Newman each dissented from the en banc order. Judge Moore argued that the decision violates the court’s “well established precedent that this court will not consider new grounds of rejecting patent claims on appeal.”

En Banc Federal Circuit Revives Design Patent Law

Egyptian Goddess v. Swisa (Fed. Cir 2008, en banc)

In a rare unanimous en banc opinion, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has revived the value of design patent protection by loosening the standard for infringement. The opinion – penned by Judge Bryson – rejects the “point of novelty” test as a requirement to prove infringement of a design patent. Instead, the judges agree that the 1871 Gorham “ordinary observer” test is the “sole test for determining whether a design patent has been infringed.”

The focus of the Gorham test is to look for substantial similarity between the patented design and the accused design. It is called the ordinary observer test because the similarity is considered from the perspective of an ordinary observer who is familiar with the art. Although Gorham only requires a comparison between the patented and accused designs, prior art designs will generally be useful for highlighting differences. A second pro-patentee rule that emerges from this case is that the burden of production of prior art designs will fall on the accused infringer. On claim construction, the Federal Circuit agreed that a ‘verbal description’ of the diagrams is not required, but will not – by itself – be reversible error.

Ordinary Observer With a Tight Focus: Although the patentee was able to change the law, it actually lost the day. In the appeal, the CAFC concluded that even under the ordinary observer test, “no reasonable fact finder could find that EGI met its burden of showing, by a preponderance of the evidence, that an ordinary observer, taking into account the prior art, would believe the accused design to be the same as the patented design.”

The courts application of the law shows that proving infringement under the ordinary observer test will not be a walk in the park for design patent holders. Many cases will likely still turn on technical points of similarity rather than simply a broader totality of similarity. Yet, despite the potential difficulties, the situation is vastly improved from the hardships imposed by the point of novelty test.

More to come…

Ex Parte Bilski: On the Briefs:

In Ex Parte Bilski, an en banc Federal Circuit plans to reconsider the scope of patentable subject matter as it relates to business methods and so called mental methods. Perhaps more importantly to the patent system as a whole, the court is considering the proper procedures going forward for determining whether a particular invention falls within the scope of 35 USC 101.

In its en banc decision, the CAFC invited non-party amici briefs, which were due April 7. (Scroll down to find the briefs).  In reading through the briefs, the first aspect that caught my attention was a common theme that institutional strengths and weaknesses of the PTO and Courts should help dictate the ultimate subject matter rule.  

  • Prof Morris: Through its examiners, the PTO has expertise in determining the technical questions of novelty, nonobviousness, and indefiniteness. On the other hand, examiners do not have the expertise to decide “philosophical and abstract” issues of statutory subject matter.
  • Prof Lemley*: Arbitrary subject matter boundaries have generally been difficult to enforce and usually result in patent attorneys using “magic words” to avoid the limits. (*NOTE: I signed Prof Lemley’s brief along with 21 other law professors.)
  • Prof Collins: A test that excludes “human cognition” elements is administrable.
  • EFF: Proposed three-step process provides a more “efficient and meaningful” way to administer the Section 101 threshold.
  • AIPLA: Section 112 should guard claim scope rather than Section 101.

Narrow or Expansive: The main thrust of the Bilski arguments, however, focus on whether patentable subject matter should be narrow or expansive. I have categorized the briefs on this axis:

Expansive Subject Matter:

  • Prof Lemley: We cannot predict the next area of innovation, and arbitrary limits on patent scope reduces incentives in those potential areas. “Bad patents” should be dealt with using the true tools of the Patent Act: Sections 102, 103, and 112. “Mental methods” should be allowed if they fall within the other requirements of patentability.
  • Regulatory Data Corp (Prof Duffy): Even under a narrow definition, applied economics is now part of the “useful arts.”  Statutory subject matter should only limit claims directed to abstract ideas, physical phenomena, or principles of nature.
  • AIPLA: We should continue to follow Diehr, State Street, & AT&T.
  • RMC: Business methods should be patentable.
  • American Express: Patenting of business and information management processes encourages the development of those useful societal tools.
  • Accenture: Business methods should be patentable regardless of any physicality limitations. Congress has deemed that business methods should be patentable via 35 USC 273.
  • Greg Aharonian: The Supreme Court’s 1876 Cochraine test does not exclusively define “process.” Rather, a patent eligible process should be broadly defined to include any process or method that yields a “useful concrete and tangible result.”
  • Koninklijke Philips: The court should be wary of relying upon precedent that focused on traditional manufacturing methods. Rather, the court should look at the broad definition of process required by Congress in 35 U.S.C. 100(b).

Narrow Subject Matter:

  • Prof Sarnoff: The court should return to the precedent of Flook. The inventive concept of a patent cannot be an abstract idea (such as hedging risk). Likewise, an information processing method must include significant post-solution activity. State Street is unconstitutionally over-broad.
  • End Software patents: Software should not be patentable even when loaded on a computer. Rather, to be patentable, there must be significant additional (non-information processing) physical activity.
  • American Civil Liberties Union: Patents mental processes would violate the first amendment.
  • EFF: There must be a technological component of a patentable invention.
  • Computer & Communications Industry Association: The CAFC should shed its “patentee-centric approach” and insted try to meet the needs of the modern world. In particular, the court should consider the systemic policy implications of its decisions. The policy implications of broader patent coverage is more litigation & rent seeking.
  • IBM: There is no sound policy for allowing business method patents.
  • American Institute of CPAs: Tax methods should not be patentable because they preempt free use of the tax laws. (Of course, the same could be said of CPAs charging corporations for their service).
  • SAP: A process should both (1) have a concrete, useful, and tangible result and (2) be “sufficiently machine-like” in order to avoid preempting work-arounds. However, software processes should be patentable.
  • Prof Collins: The court should add a “human cognition” exception to Section 101. Steps involving human cognition should receive no consideration in judging patentability.
  • Red Hat: Software patents put a huge kink in the open source software movement.
  • Financial Services Industry: State Street and its progeny are unduly broad. A token inclusion of a ‘machine’ in a claim would not render that claim patentable subject matter.
  • Dell & Microsoft: A patentable invention must operate on “something physical.” To be patentable, software should be tied to a computer and cause some physical transformation (such as movement of electrons). And, following Comiskey, a patent should not be granted under 103 if the inventor merely combined well known computer hardware with inventive but otherwise unpatentable software.


  • Yahoo! and Prof Merges: A strict “technology” requirement is too inflexible. State Street taught us that such a strict requirement does not fit well with “onrushing technology.” The Yahoo!/Merges test: a patent eligible process must itself be “stable, predictable, and reproducible” and its result must be “useful, concrete, and tangible.”  Bilski’s claims would not be eligible because they do not define a “stable” process.
  • Intellectual Property Owners Association: A process that is either implemented by a machine or that transforms matter into another state is patentable subject matter.  IPO favorably cites the Flook limitations on on information processing.
  • Business Software Alliance: Courts should err on the side of patentable subject matter because Sections 102, 103, and 112 make-up any slack. Software should be patentable. However, Bilski’s invention is not patentable because it is an abstract idea.
  • Washington State IP Law Assn: The CAFC should re-write State Street to be consistent with Supreme Court precedent.
  • Prof Morris: Subject matter questions should be avoided. Rather the PTO and courts should look to the substantive rules of 102, 103, and 112 to decide the issue. Section 101 jurisprudence has been both haphazard and unfair.

The elephant in the room is the recent Comiskey decision. There, it appeared that the court refused to give any patentable weight to the portion of the invention directed to non-statutory subject matter. In its brief, the Boston Patent Law Assn asks the court to clarify the following statement from Comiskey:

“The routine addition of modern electronics to an otherwise unpatentable invention typically creates a prima facie case of obviousness. Moreover, there is no pertinent evidence of secondary considerations because the only evidence offered is of long-felt need for the unpatentable mental process itself, not long-felt need for the combination of the mental process and a modern communication device or computer.”


  • I signed Professor Lemley’s brief along with twenty-one other law professors. The theory behind the brief follows the IPO brief that I helped draft in the Metabolite case.

Amici Briefs:





Inducement Requires Knowledge of The Patent and Culpable Mens Rea

PatentlyO2006017DSU Medical v. JMS (Fed. Cir. 2006) (en banc)

The interesting portion of this opinion rests in Section III.B, where the CAFC convened an en banc panel to clarify that “inducement” of infringement requires intent to induce actual infringement, which necessarily requires knowledge of the patent.

Section 271(b) of the Patent Act spells out the tort: “Whoever actively induces infringement of a patent shall be liable as an infringer.”

Applying the language of Grokster, the CAFC clarified that in patent cases, “the intent requirement for inducement requires more than just intent to cause the acts that produce direct infringement. . . . [I]nducement requires evidence of culpable conduct, directed to encouraging another’s infringement.”  According to the court, this culpable conduct requires knowledge of the patent and an intent to induce infringement of the patent.

As Kevin Noonan has noted, the distinction in this case is that “there was evidence (an opinion of counsel and testimony from corporate officials) that the defendant believed that the accused behavior was not infringement. Thus, CAFC said the evidence supported the trial court’s finding that the defendant did not intend to induce infringement, which was the mens rea required for liability under 35 USC 271(b).”