Tag Archives: Enablement

Eon v. AT&T and the role of “Pure Functional Claiming”

by Dennis Crouch

In a major 2014 decision, the Supreme Court raised the standard of definiteness under 35 U.S.C. 112(b) – now requiring that the scope of patent claims be “reasonably certain” to one of skill in the art. Nautilus v. Biosig. Historically, “reasonably certain” is a high standard and has been linked with the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard in criminal law. I.e., claim scope that is reasonably certain may also be seen as having its scope defined beyond a reasonable doubt.  The higher standard can also be contrasted with the prior Federal Circuit that only invalidated ambiguous claims that were both insolubly ambiguous and not amenable to construction.

Despite the dramatic potential of Nautilus, the Federal Circuit has largely muted its impact.

The one area where patent-challengers see continued success is when means-plus-function claims lack appropriate structural support in the underlying patent document.  35 U.S.C. 112(f) allows a patentee to claim a “means” for accomplishing a specified function without reciting the actual structure of the mechanism or material used to accomplish the function.  However, as a rule of construction, the statute indicates that the “means” will be construed to “cover the corresponding structure, material, or acts described in the specification and equivalents thereof.”  The impact is that, although the claim appears to broadly cover a “function” it will be construed to be much more limited.  When an applicant follows this claiming approach, but fails to specify any corresponding structure within the specification then the claim is deemed invalid as indefinite.

In Eon Corp v. AT&T (Fed. Cir. 2015), the Federal Circuit has affirmed that Eon’s asserted patent claims are invalid for failing to specify the structure associated with a purely functional claim element.

Eon’s U.S. Patent No. 5,663,757 covers a data processing station that facilitates instant purchases while watching a television program.  The patent was written back when the wort “means” was still popular among patent drafters.  Here, the district court found that eight separate “means” claims were directed to “complex” computer software such as “causing selected themes to automatically display a second menu.”  Based upon that undisturbed complexity fact-finding, the appellate court found that a structure in the form of the software algorithm should have been disclosed.  Because no software algrithms were disclosed, the software means claims failed and were properly held invalid as indefinite.

Of interest here, the Federal Circuit reasoned that the algorithm is necessary to “avoid pure functional claiming.”  Quoting Aristocrat Techs. Austl. Pty Ltd. v. Int’l Game Tech., 521 F.3d 1328 (Fed. Cir. 2008).

A general purpose computer is flexible—it can do anything it is programmed to do. Therefore, the disclosure of a general purpose computer or a microprocessor as corresponding structure for a software function does nothing to limit the scope of the claim and “avoid pure functional claiming.” Aristocrat. As such, when a patentee invokes means-plus-function claiming to recite a software function, it accedes to the reciprocal obligation of disclosing a sufficient algorithm as corresponding structure.

Although the court here highlights the doctrinal point of “pure” functional claiming — claiming function with no limiting structure — the actual facts are that the disclosed microprocessor and does provide some amount of structure.  As with abstract-idea analysis, it seems here that the question is not so black-and-white, but rather whether some magical threshold has been crossed.

The case also offers some hints to the ongoing debate over subject matter eligibility of computer implemented inventions.  In particular, the court reiterated its prior statements that a “the general purpose computer becomes a special purpose computer when loaded with the special programming.”

Biosig v. Nautilus: Indefiniteness on Remand

By Jason Rantanen

Biosig Instruments, Inc. v. Nautilus, Inc. (Fed. Cir. 2015) (on remand from the Supreme Court) [2015 WL 1883265]  Download Opinion
Panel: Newman, Schall, Wallach (author)

About a month ago, I wrote an essay entitled “Teva, Nautilus and Change without Change.”  To the extent that anyone still harbored doubts about that premise in the context of Nautilus, the Federal Circuit’s opinion on remand should dispel them.  (Caveat: As I discussed in the essay, means-plus-function claims, such as the claims in Eon that Dennis will post about shortly, are a whole different ball of wax.  To me one of the most fascinating issues in patent law right now is whether the court will expand that framework to function-claiming more broadly.  The revised Nautilus opinion leaves that door a little more open than the original opinion.)

This dispute is well-known, so I’ll just summarize the procedural posture.  The district court granted summary judgment that the claims were indefinite.  On appeal, the Federal Circuit reversed, holding the claims not indefinite.  The Supreme Court granted certiorari to address the legal standard the Federal Circuit referenced on indefiniteness: that a claim is indefinite “only when it is ‘not amenable to construction’ or ‘insolubly ambiguous.'” 715 F.3d 891, 898 (2013).  In Nautilus, the Supreme Court rejected this standard:

Those formulations can breed lower court confusion, for they lack the precision § 112, ¶ 2 demands. It cannot be sufficient that a court can ascribe some meaning to a patent’s claims; the definiteness inquiry trains on the understanding of a skilled artisan at the time of the patent application, not that of a court viewing matters post hoc. To tolerate imprecision just short of that rendering a claim “insolubly ambiguous” would diminish the definiteness requirement’s public-notice function and foster the innovation-discouraging “zone of uncertainty,” United Carbon, 317 U.S., at 236, 63 S.Ct. 165, against which this Court has warned.

Nautilus, 134 S.Ct. at 2130 (2014).  The Court did not, however, resolve the overall dispute, instead returning the appeal to the Federal Circuit.

On remand the parties disputed “whether the Supreme Court articulated a new, stricter standard or whether, in rejecting the phrases ‘insolubly ambiguous’ and ‘amenable to construction,’ the Court was primarily clarifying that a patent’s claims must inform those skilled in the art with “reasonable certainty” of what is claimed.”  Slip Op. at 7-8.  The Federal Circuit did not directly answer this question, but suggested the latter through a nautical metaphor: “The Court has accordingly modified the standard by which lower courts examine allegedly ambiguous claims; we may now steer by the bright star of ‘reasonable certainty,’ rather than the unreliable compass of ‘insoluble ambiguity.'”  Id. at 9. The implication of this metaphor, combined with the passage preceding it, is that the problem the Court perceived was not that the insolubly ambiguous standard allowed too much imprecision in patent claims; the problem was that the insolubly ambiguous standard itself was too imprecise: “The Court found too imprecise our “insolubly ambiguous” standard,” Id. at 8.  The implication that Nautilus simply clarified, rather than raised, the standard for indefiniteness is further supported by an extensively-footnoted discussion of “reasonably certainty” as a “familiar standard,” one that “In the wake of Nautilus II, judges have had not problem operating under.”  Id. at 12.  The takeaway is that Nautilus offers a more precise standard, but not one that moves the target.

With this clarification in place, the panel concluded that its prior decision was correct: Biosig’s claims inform those skilled in the art with reasonable certainty about the scope of the invention.”  Id. at 14.  The court’s revised analysis turns entirely on the intrinsic evidence (“We revisit the intrinsic evidence here to make clear that a skilled artisan would understand with reasonable certainty the scope of the invention.”)  Notably missing from this discussion is any mention of Halliburton, which the court distinguished at length in the original opinion.  To the contrary: the description of the indefiniteness standard at the beginning of the opinion expressly quotes from that case: “Moreover, when a claim limitation is defined in ‘purely functional terms,’ a determination of whether the limitation is sufficiently definite is ‘highly dependent on context (e.g., the disclosure in the specification and the knowledge of a person of ordinary skill in the relevant art area).’ Halliburton Energy Servs., Inc. v. M-I LLC, 514 F.3d 1244, 1255 (Fed. Cir. 2008).”  Function-claiming remains an area to watch.

Grace Period Restoration Act of 2015

In the move to a first-to-file patent system, the U.S. narrowed its pre-filing grace period previously codified under 35 U.S.C. 102(b)(2010).  The new law enacted as part of the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (AIA) continues to permit a one-year grace period but limits the scope of coverage only to a pre-filing “disclosure . . . of a claimed invention” (A) “made by the inventor or joint inventor or by another who obtained the subject matter directly or indirectly from the inventor” or (B) made subsequent to an (A) disclosure.  35 U.S.C. §102(b)(1)(A) and (B)(2015).  There are a number of questions up for interpretation regarding the AIA grace period. Examples: Does the grace period apply when the inventor’s initial disclosure is slightly different than the invention being claimed? Does the grace period apply when a third party publishes a modified version of the inventor’s original disclosure?

The proposed Grace Period Restoration Act of 2015 (H.R. 1791 / S. 926) is designed to “correct the drafting problem in the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act relating to the grace period.”  In particular, the bill would add a new section 102(b)(3) that creates a stronger first-to-disclose system.

The general hypothetical setup here is that we have a pending patent application or perhaps an issued patent (the claimed invention) that is being challenged based upon prior art whose effective date is less than one year before that of the claimed invention in question.  Pre-AIA, the applicant might be able to negate the that reference by showing prior-invention through a process often termed “swearing behind” the asserted art. However, under a first-to-file system, invention-date is no longer directly relevant.

The proposed AIA-amendment here would allow the patentee to negate the prior art so long as the claimed invention had been previously – but still within the one-year timeline – “publicly disclosed in a printed publication by a covered person in a manner that satisfies the relevant section 112(a) requirements.”

Thus, if the inventor (1) first discloses the invention in a way that satisfies the enablement and written description requirements of section 112(a) and (2) subsequently files the patent application within one-year of the disclosure; then the inventor will be immunized against any prior art whose effective date follows that disclosure.  To be clear here, the immunizing would require “public disclosure in a printed publication” and could either be done by an inventor or someone who obtained the information an inventor (either directly or indirectly).

The proposed language:

102(b)(3)(b) PUBLIC DISCLOSURE.—A disclosure by any person shall not be prior art to a claimed invention under subsection (a) or section 103 if

(i) the disclosure is made under subsection (a)(1) or effectively filed under subsection (a)(2) 1 year or less before the effective filing date of the claimed invention; and

(ii) before the disclosure described in clause (i) is made or filed, and 1 year or less before the effective filing date of the claimed invention, the claimed invention is publicly disclosed in a printed publication by a covered person in a manner that satisfies the relevant section 112(a) requirements.

Here, I have only excerpted the most relevant portions of the statutory proposal. In his remarks, Professor Hal Wegner has identified the proposed amendment as largely serving the purpose of “expand[ing] the definition of novelty under 35 U.S.C. 102 to roughly 1200 words, an unreasonable mass of verbiage that the sponsors couldn’t figure out.”

As proposed, the new grace period definition serves as a layer in addition to the grace period already available under 102(b).  The grace period already in existence is narrower in some ways but broader in others.  For instance, the triggering initial public disclosure need have been disclosed in a printed publication.

Time will tell whether the proposal has legs. It it does, I hope that we will first see a less cumbersome rewrite.

Million Dollar Mistake? The Cost of Limiting or Canceling IP Rights

Guest post by  Cynthia M. Ho, Clifford E. Vickrey Research Professor, Loyola University of Chicago School of Law.

Philip Morris and Eli Lilly think that they are entitled to millions in compensation from countries that limit or deny desired intellectual property rights.  These companies are the first to challenge IP issues pursuant to international agreements protecting investments of foreign companies. However, they join a trend of companies increasingly suing states before a panel of private arbitrators pursuant to investor-dispute settlement (ISDS).  The substantial financial stakes may have a chilling effect on traditional domestic laws and policies.

Although there are only two IP related ISDS disputes so far, IP policy makers should be concerned and oppose pending fast-track legislation that would permit President Obama to easily conclude more agreements with these problematic provisions.  Indeed, pending agreements have been criticized by a diverse group of individuals and countries including Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, Elizabeth Warren, the Cato Institute and countries such as France and Germany.  The USTR recently issued a fact sheet, which was promptly debunked.

What is ISDS?

ISDS is a mechanism in over 3000 international agreements that permit foreign investors to seek compensation against countries.  The agreements guarantee freedom from discriminatory measures, a guarantee of being treated no less favorably than domestic companies, compensation for expropriation of investments, and “fair and equitable treatment.”  If these rights are allegedly violated, investors can bring a dispute before a tribunal of private (usually commercial) lawyers chosen by the parties to the dispute. There is not only no independent judiciary, but also no binding precedent and no appellate review, such that there can be inconsistent and unpredictable results.

Historically, these provisions were first added to international agreements promoting investments after World War II when newly independent nations wanted to encourage foreign investment.  ISDS was intended to provide protection to companies that lacked any legal recourse against unlawful state action.  ISDS was conceived as an improvement over “gunboat diplomacy” that nations used to protect their companies.

Why is ISDS relevant to IP?

Although ISDS was not originally designed to protect IP, companies are trying to use it for this purpose.

Most agreements providing ISDS do so only for investments of foreign companies.  These investments can include not only tangible, but also intangible property, which would seem to include IP.

Is a Canceled IP Right an “Investment” Subject to ISDS?

Even if IP is within the scope of covered investments, a critical question is whether this should include canceled IP.  IP lawyers and even students know that IP is at most presumptively valid, such that it can and often is canceled when found to not meet basic requirements.  Although canceled IP has never been considered to provide rights, Eli Lilly assumes it has rights.  In particular, it is seeking $500 million from Canada after failing to convince both a trial and appellate court that two of its patents were valid.

Highlights of Existing ISDS Claims Regarding IP

Eli Lilly’s case involves a challenge to Canada’s “promise doctrine” for assessing utility of patents and applications that make certain promises.  The promise doctrine is unusual as a utility requirement, but similar to disclosure and other patentability  requirements of other countries.  Eli Lilly claims that because this doctrine developed after its patents were granted (a point that is contested, even by some lawyers), it is improper to retroactively apply it to invalidate its patents, such that its patents have been improperly “expropriated,” which is roughly similar, but broader than US takings.  However, patents are routinely invalidated after common law modifications to laws, such as the scope of patentable subject matter with no claims of takings.

Eli Lilly seems to assume both that an issued patent is a state representation that it will remain forever valid and also that a nation can not modify its laws without violating legitimate expectations.  The supposed violation of its legitimate expectations figures prominently in a claim for denial of the amorphous condition of “fair and equitable treatment.”

Problematically, although a patent lawyer would readily reject the idea that patents are always valid and untouchable by subsequent law, they will not be deciding Eli Lilly’s case. Notably, when I presented a forthcoming article about this case to an international law colloquium, I was surprised that the audience resisted the basic principle that patent rights can and should be invalidated when found not to satisfy fundamental requirements.

Philip Morris also claims its legitimate expectations were violated, but in a different way.  Philip Morris asserts that it had a legitimate expectation that Australia would uphold its obligation to comply with TRIPS requirements for trademarks.   This suit fundamentally challenges the process for resolving alleged TRIPS violations.  Only countries, not companies, have standing to adjudicate alleged violations under TRIPS.  Thus far, countries have been cautious in doing so since there are often political implications for their actions. Moreover, permitting violations of TRIPS to be litigated outside of the WTO forum would seem wholly inconsistent with the WTO dispute settlement process that is intended to be the only forum for litigating such disputes.  In addition, there could be conflicting results; indeed, there is a pending WTO case.

ISDS for IP Threatens Flexibilities Under TRIPS

Eli Lilly’s case poses a serious threat to the minimum standard approach of TRIPS (and NAFTA).  Although these agreements have been widely understood to permit nations flexibility to define key terms, such as what is “new” or what counts as “useful,” Eli Lilly falsely claims that Canada’s definition is impermissible.

Ironically, these cases are arising at a time when many academics and policy makers (Eastern Europe, South Africa) have been encouraging countries to take greater advantage of their already limited flexibilities under TRIPS.  The present disputes may have chilling effects at a time when countries such as South Africa and Brazil have been considering modifying patent laws.

Future Problems

In the near future, companies may use ISDS to challenge patent provisions, such as compulsory licensing and India’s patent law designed to prevent “evergreening” of drugs that have attracted criticism, but no WTO dispute.  Moreover, regulatory provisions are also ripe for challenge.  For example, countries that fail to provide data exclusivity desired by the pharmaceutical industry could be subject to challenge.  In addition, a pending EU law hailed by public health advocates for increasing transparency concerning data of approved drugs is also at risk.

Given the wide range of issues at the intersection of intellectual property and public health that are potentially threatened by ISDS, this should be an issue of major concern.  Those who want to preserve policy space for countries should oppose pending agreements that permit ISDS, such as the pending Trans Pacific Partnership Act, especially because there is no public access to draft text of pending agreements except through sources such as Wikileaks, which just released the secret investment chapter of the TPP, that permits ISDS.   Public opposition is important; the EU has now delayed consideration of ISDS in its pending Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement with the US.  In addition, although “fast-track” legislation is presently stalled, it should be opposed if re-introduced mid-April.  In the meantime, you can join  a petition to Congress, or directly contact your Congressman to oppose fast track bills.

Cynthia is a Law Professor at Loyola University of Chicago School of Law.

Guest Counterpoint: Patent Exhaustion and Helferich’s Assertion Problem

Guest Post by Professor Amelia Smith Rinehart (University of Utah)

Recently, the Federal Circuit held that the New York Times and others infringed patents claiming methods and systems for delivering content to smartphones.[1] In a related Patently-O essay, Professor Sam Ernst states that the Federal Circuit’s opinion in Helferich is “directly contrary to Supreme Court precedent and represents a fundamental misunderstanding of one of the core purposes of the exhaustion doctrine.”[2] To support his premise, Ernst claims that the Federal Circuit made “a broad and novel pronouncement that patent exhaustion only shields an authorized acquirer from liability, and does not follow the licensed device down the stream of commerce to protect all users of the device for its intended purpose.” [3]

I respectfully disagree. There is nothing broad or novel about the Federal Circuit’s “authorized acquirers” concept. In fact, as the Federal Circuit explains in Helferich, it comports with 150 years of judicial authority examining the patent exhaustion doctrine in a variety of contexts.[4] Likewise, Helferich squares directly with the Supreme Court’s recent exhaustion decisions in Quanta Computer v. LG Electronics[5] and Bowman v. Monsanto Co.[6] More surprising, perhaps, may be the fact that this is so—that Helferich could win infringement suits against New York Times and J.C. Penney based on their provision of content to smartphones that were already licensed by Helferich.[7] Accordingly, the difficulty with Helferich is not that the Federal Circuit stretches the exhaustion doctrine in a new way, but that the doctrine, in its old way, fails to provide an easy way to remove infringement liability in an increasingly complex world of patent assertion.

In his well-reasoned post, Professor Ernst contends that the exhaustion doctrine “has frequently applied to shield from liability persons who are not ‘authorized acquirers’ of the licensed devices,” and looks to both Quanta and the much older Motion Picture Patents v. Universal Manufacturing Co. for support. In my view, neither of these cases provides authority for applying the exhaustion doctrine directly to third parties who have not acquired the sold articles.

Quanta involved a license agreement that authorized the licensee to make, use, and sell the licensed products without restriction. In a separate agreement, the licensee agreed to notify its customers that they did not have a license to combine the licensed products with other non-licensed components. The Supreme Court held that the notice restriction was irrelevant because the licensee had a blanket authorization to make, use, and sell the licensed products. Once made then sold under this first authorization to make, sell, and use, the licensed products could be used by anyone downstream without liability for infringement on the grounds of exhaustion, including those purchasers who had notice of the separate notice restriction.[8] In Quanta, the purchasers of the licensed products—the customers of the licensee, Intel—were authorized acquirers (having acquired title to the products from one authorized to make and sell them unconditionally) shielded from liability when the patent owner sued them for infringement. The Quanta Court did not have to address the question of whether a third party who has not acquired title to a licensed product is shielded from direct liability for its own infringement by an authorized acquirer’s unlimited right to use and sell the patented good obtained via exhaustion.

Motion Picture Patents provides a more nuanced account of the exhaustion doctrine, but still involves authorized acquirers shielded from infringement liability.[9] The patented movie projectors in Motion Picture Patents carried a label notice that restricted the projector owner’s permission to use the projector to use solely with the patent owner’s films. After the patent owner sued a projector owner and a third party film manufacturer for infringement, the Court held that the projector patent rights were not infringed because of exhaustion. The label notice was not enforceable as a matter of patent law because the films were not within the patent rights in question—“to enforce [the label notice] would be to create a monopoly in the manufacture and use of moving picture films, wholly outside of the patent in suit and of the patent law as we have interpreted it.”[10] The projector owner clearly qualified as an authorized acquirer (with an invalid restriction on use) and avoided infringement liability because the authorized projector sale exhausted the patent rights covering those projectors.

Professor Ernst seems to extrapolate from the Motion Picture Patents opinion (which admittedly is unclear on this point) that the third party film manufacturer could not be liable for infringement of the projector patents because it made and sold films for use in the projectors obtained from the patent owner in an authorized sale. In other words, Professor Ernst reads Motion Picture Patents to hold that exhaustion shielded the film manufacturer from liability because otherwise the patent owner could interfere with a projector owner’s use of the machines themselves.[11]

But Motion Picture Patents doesn’t go that far. The questions addressed by the Supreme Court both focus on whether the patent owner can restrict by mere notice a machine’s use by its purchaser or his successors in interest.[12] Later in its opinion, the Supreme Court distinguishes the machine from the materials to be used with it, declaring that “the right of the owner [of the machine] . . . to control by restriction the materials to be used in operating [it] . . . must be a right derived through the general law from the ownership of the property in the machine.”[13] Plainly, the Court applies the exhaustion doctrine to the possessor of the projector, a patented good now in commerce and owned free and clear from the patentee’s right to control the use and sale of the good itself. Therefore, I believe the better view of Motion Picture Patents is that the film manufacturer would’ve been liable, if at all, on a theory of contributory infringement. When the label notices could not be enforced, the sales of the projectors exhausted the projector patent rights as to those machines, and the film manufacturer could produce unpatented film for use in any of the sold machines without contributing to or inducing any infringement by the machine users.

Like the projectors in Motion Picture Patents, goods can travel through many hands downstream from the first authorized acquirer of title to the good. Nothing in Helferich indicates that the Federal Circuit is construing its “authorized acquirer” concept so narrowly as to exclude a good’s future owner (no matter how that downstream party obtained the good) from claiming exhaustion as a defense, should that good’s owner be charged with infringement by use or sale. Rather, the Federal Circuit seems to be unremarkably suggesting that an alleged infringer cannot assert an exhaustion defense unless she has acquired a good from the patent owner (directly or indirectly through someone with authorization to make and sell) that exhausts the claims at issue. Difficult questions may arise as to whether the good was acquired without condition on sale, whether the good’s sale exhausts claims to methods or combinations, whether any post-sale restrictions on the good are enforceable, and so on, but those questions are not at issue in the Helferich appeal.

When Professor Ernst states that “patent exhaustion adheres in the patented device, not in ‘certain persons’ who are authorized to use the device,” he might be conflating the exclusive rights of a patent with the exclusive rights of a purchased good, a conundrum that itself supports the existence of the patent exhaustion doctrine in the first place. Patent exhaustion is a defense to patent infringement. As such, it belongs to juridical persons accused of infringement (people, corporations, etc.), not the good itself.[14] Although we might talk in shorthand about the patented good traveling in commerce unencumbered by patent rights, a patent grants to its owner the right to exclude others (people, corporations, etc.) from infringing the patent. The purchaser of a good holds the rights inherent to the good as a piece of personal property. When the good is patented, these rights overlap. The doctrine of patent exhaustion emerged to reconcile that overlap in favor of the purchaser (and downstream acquirers, too) when it comes to using and selling a patented good acquired from an authorized seller: “one who buys patented articles of manufacture from one authorized to sell them becomes possessed of an absolute property in such articles, unrestricted in time or place.”[15] If the patented good is bought from someone unauthorized, if the transfer of the good’s title is conditional, if the good carries a post-sale restriction, then the purchaser may not be able to avail itself of the exhaustion defense. Thus, it is true that “patent exhaustion removes those legal restrictions [imposed by the patent statute] on certain persons in certain circumstances”[16]

The Federal Circuit makes Helferich look easy (and much less groundbreaking than Professor Ernst suggests) by assuming that Helferich controls separate and distinct patents from an exhaustion standpoint. The court holds that Helferich’s content claims are distinct patentable inventions from its handset claims, and, importantly, the allegedly infringing content providers are distinct infringing entities from the handset owners. This enables the court to affirm that exhaustion does not apply to “multiple related and separately patentable inventions” in this manner, without addressing the possibility offered by Professor Ernst that the exhaustion doctrine’s protection of downstream uses of a purchased good might inure to third parties who practice a claimed invention simply referencing a downstream device.[17]

During the parties’ oral arguments, all three judges asked both sides to consider that more difficult question of whether exhaustion would apply to the third party content providers if the content and handset patents were not separate and distinct. The plaintiffs not surprisingly answered no, that third parties not in possession of the patented good could not benefit from the exhaustion defense. The defendants admitted that no case existed on this point, but that cases like Hewlett Packard and Keurig, Inc. v. Sturm Foods, Inc. held that claims contemplating that an alleged infringer interferes with the use of a patented good would suffice to trigger exhaustion as to that third party.[18] In its opinion, the court confirmed that third party exhaustion was a question of first impression— “[n]either the parties nor we have identified any case from the Supreme Court that has found exhaustion without this common feature [of an authorized acquirer infringing the asserted claims].” Then, distinguishing the Keurig case directly, the court held that an alleged infringer who does not acquire the relevant patented good in an authorized manner cannot claim an exhaustion defense for his own direct infringement.[19]

Professor Ernst concludes that “[a] primary reason why patent exhaustion liberates the patented device from infringement claims is to promote the policy against restraints on alienation.” This notion obviously relates to the restrictions that factored so heavily into the early cases about exhaustion: territorial restrictions, post-sale restrictions, and tying restrictions like the ones in Motion Picture Patents. The holding in Helferich does not, as Professor Ernst urges, “threaten to impose a servitude on devices as they pass down the stream of commerce” because a downstream acquirer of the device can fully avail himself of the defense due to his property rights in the device. Judge Bryson’s walkie-talkie owner can sell his walkie-talkie, use it as an expensive paperweight, or otherwise dispose of it as he sees fit without fear of suit from the patent owner. In contrast, Helferich may continue to bring its infringement claims because these alleged infringers cannot avail themselves of a patent exhaustion doctrine defense. In my view, the Federal Circuit gets it right on the law from Quanta and earlier cases. Indeed, the court recognizes that to hold otherwise would expand the judicial doctrine.[20]

Unfortunately, the exhaustion doctrine presently can’t regulate what is most troubling about Helferich: the patent owner’s licensing practices. Helferich is a patent assertion entity that generates revenue from handset device licensing, making all handset device owners authorized acquirers of its patented goods. Yet, Helferich also intends to generate revenue from content licensing that allows companies like the New York Times, J.C. Penney, CBS, and others to provide content to those same handsets. It cannot do so unless it can threaten these companies with infringement. In this manner, Helferich wields what Justice Clarke in Motion Picture Patents called “a potential power for evil over an industry which must be recognized as an important element in the amusement life of a nation. . .”[21] Like the patent owners in that case, Helferich sells its machines and attempts to prohibit their use with content providers not authorized by Helferich. Unlike the patent owners in that case, Helferich’s content provision claims are independently patentable (or so the Federal Circuit determined based on the limited evidence before it) and, even if they were not, the content providers themselves (who do not use or sell the purchased handset devices) are not subject to the exhaustion doctrine based upon those claims.[22] Confirming the Court’s recent decisions in Quanta and Bowman, the class of “certain persons in certain circumstances” who can avail themselves of the patent exhaustion defense remains bound up in questions of what is used and sold, who bought the things used and sold, and what conditions are placed on that use or sale. None of these relevant limitations are apparent in Helferich.

Nevertheless, Professor Ernst is right to balk at carte blanche enforcement of these patents. The patent exhaustion doctrine fails to eliminate infringement liability for the defendants in Helferich, but the case offers an opportunity for scholars, courts, and other policymakers to reexamine the underlying goals of patenting along with mechanisms within patent law and antitrust law, like the narrowly applied exhaustion doctrine, that may promote or impede those goals in the context of patent assertion entities.[23]

—– notes —–

[1] Helferich Patent Licensing Co. v. New York Times Co. (Fed. Cir. Feb. 10, 2015).

[2] Samuel F. Ernst, The Federal Circuit’s New Authorized Acquirer Restriction on Patent Exhaustion, Patently-O blog, available at https://patentlyo.com/patent/2015/02/authorized-restriction-exhaustion.html.

[3] Id.

[4] Helferich, slip op. at 18.

[5] Quanta Computer, Inc. v. LG Electronics, Inc., 553 U.S. 617 (2008).


[7] Helferich, slip op. at 7.

[8] Quanta, 553 U.S. at 638.

[9] Motion Picture Patents Co. v. Universal Film Mfg. Co., 243 U.S. 502 (1917).

[10] Id.

[11] See Hewlett-Packard Co. v. Repeat-O-Type Stencil Mfg. Corp., Inc., 123 F.3d 1445 (Fed. Cir. 1997). Counsel for the Helferich defendants argued that the concept of interference with use laid out in Hewlett-Packard, a case about printer cartridge refilling, laid the grounds for a third party’s assertion of an exhaustion defense despite not owning the article sold. See Oral Argument, available at http://oralarguments.cafc.uscourts.gov/default.aspx?fl=2014-1196.mp3.

[12] Id. at 508–509.

[13] Id. at 513.

[14] See 35 U.S.C. § 271(a) (2012) (“whoever without authority makes, uses, offers to sell, or sells any patented invention, within the United States or imports into the United States any patented invention during the term of the patent therefor, infringes the patent.”) (emphasis added).

[15] Keeler v. Standard Folding Bed Co., 157 U.S. 659, 666 (1895).

[16] Helferich, slip op. at 18.

[17] Helferich, slip op. at 17.

[18] Hewlett-Packard, 123 F.3d at 1455; Keurig, Inc. v. Sturm Foods, Inc., 732 F.3d 1370, 1374 (Fed. Cir. 2013).

[19] See Helferich, slip op. at 21 (“in contrast to Keurig, the present cases involve no assertion that the defendants are inducing or contributing to authorized acquirers’ infringement of the claims asserted against defendants.”)

[20] Id. at 29. Bowman further supports a goods-based view of exhaustion. There, the patented technology could self-replicate, meaning a use of the patented invention also made the patented invention. The Supreme Court held that an authorized sale only exhausted the right to use and sell the patented invention, not the right to make the invention, and so the second generation seed, despite being a product of a use of the first generation seed, infringed the patent when a farmer used it to grow (make) a third generation seed. Bowman, __ U.S. at __.

[21] Motion Picture Patents, 243 U.S. at 514–15.

[22] Notably, the films in Motion Picture Patents were also independently patentable, but the patent had expired before Universal began supplying film to the projector in suit. See Motion Picture Patents Co. v. Universal Film Mfg. Co., 235 F. 398, 399 (2d Cir. 1916) aff’d, 243 U.S. 502 (1917). (“Reissued letters patent No. 12,192 expired subsequent to the execution of the license by the complainant to the Precision Machine Company. Thereupon the Universal Film Manufacturing Company made a film embodying that invention, and sold it to the Universal Film Exchange, who furnished it for use to the [projector owner].”

[23] See also Mark A. Lemley & Douglas A. Melamed, Missing the Forest for the Trolls, 113 Colum. L. Rev. 2117 (suggesting changes to improve the patent system generally, including revising patentability standards, remedies and fee-shifting in patent litigation, and importantly, using antitrust to limit anticompetitive patent dispersion).

Binding Teams in Silicon Valley

After seeing his interesting new article, I asked Professor Andres Sawicki (University of Miami School of Law) to draft this short essay about his work. — Dennis.

by Andres Sawicki

In a recently published article, I report preliminary evidence supporting a novel view of what patents can do: keep inventive teams together. This evidence suggests that, in addition to their traditional role as incentives for innovation, patents may be doing important work in fostering collaboration in high tech industries.

To see how this works, suppose you’re the founder of a Silicon Valley start-up. After a few years, you’ve found modest success—a product launch, a small core of devoted customers. But it seems clear at this point that there’s no massive IPO exit on the horizon. Instead, your capital is running low and the venture capitalists who financed your firm are getting impatient.

Now Facebook shows up at your door: it wants to hire you and your team of engineers. The catch is that it wants the whole team. Facebook knows how hard it is to find talent that works well together. Plus, both you and Facebook know that if your team doesn’t go as a group, any team member that strikes off on her own is likely to soon become a competitor. What do you do?

One possibility is that you convince Facebook not only to hire your team, but also to buy the entire start-up. That way, Facebook can acquire the rights to any patents flowing from the work the team did at the start-up. These patents can then bind the team together by raising the costs to members of leaving—a departing team member won’t be able to continue working in the path set out by the team’s patents. Thus, while intellectual property is traditionally thought to prevent the entire public from freeriding on a creator’s investment in producing a public good, it can also regulate relationships among team members, as Robert Merges and Paul Heald have separately argued in the patent context, and as Tony Casey and I have jointly argued in the copyright context.

In my most recent article, I support this team-binding view of patents with data from Silicon Valley acqui-hires. Those transactions, illustrated by the founder-Facebook scenario posed above and explored in illuminating detail by John Coyle and Gregg Polsky, are understood to be driven by Silicon Valley norms of cooperation. Facebook and the engineers agree to send some money to the start-up’s equity holders to ensure that the VCs will be open to another pitch from the engineers a few years down the road. This usual understanding of the acqui-hire has little room for IP.

But sending money to the VCs may also be a way to ensure that the start-up’s IP follows the team from the start-up to the buyer. Before the transaction, the start-up will ordinarily have claims to the IP generated by its engineers. Diverting some of the purchase price to the VCs and other equity holders enables the buyer to obtain those claims.

To test the plausibility of this hypothesis, I examined a set of 63 acqui-hires over a two-year period, to see whether: (1) the start-up assigned some of its patents to the buyer; (2) the start-up assigned some of its pending patent applications to the buyer; or (3) the buyer filed, after the transaction, a patent application naming one of the start-up’s principals as an inventor. In 29 of the 63 acqui-hires, at least one of those three kinds of patent transfers occurred. In many of the remaining 34 acqui-hires, there were simply no pre- or post-transaction patents to speak of, indicating that patents cannot completely account for the acqui-hire trend. Still, there was only one transaction in which the start-up retained all of its existing patents and pending applications, and none of the start-up’s principals had been listed as an inventor on one of the buyer’s post-transaction patent applications. In short, when the start-up has rights to existing or future patents, the buyers consistently obtain those rights. This data thus indicates that patents are in fact an important part of the acqui-hire trend, without which it may be difficult for the founders and Facebook to consummate the deal. And, more generally, it suggests that patents are not only rewards for lone inventors, but also tools for keeping groups of inventors together.

Giving Deference to the Supreme Court in Teva v. Sandoz

by Dennis Crouch

In Teva v. Sandoz, the Supreme Court raised the standard of appellate review of a district court’s factual conclusions regarding extrinsic evidence relied upon during claim construction proceedings.  Although the decision represents a relatively small change in procedural law, it is important, both because claim construction has become such a major element of patent litigation and because the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has a history of reversing a high percentage of claim construction decisions.

I asked a handful of patent law experts for their instant thoughts on the decision (and gave them strict word limits). Douglas Kline, Chair of Goodwin Procter’s IP Litigation Group spells out the basic first-order result of the case:

From now on, when a district court resolves factual disputes concerning extrinsic evidence bearing on patent claim construction, the Federal Circuit will review those subsidiary factual findings for clear error.  This should result in the Federal Circuit affirming some claim construction decisions it might have overturned under the old standard.

Thinking forward about how parties will react, MBHB Partners Joshua Rich and Andrew Williams suggest higher reliance on expert testimony and thus higher litigation costs:

Today’s decision is likely to increase the cost and complexity of claim construction because it encourages parties to introduce extrinsic evidence, especially expert testimony, in an attempt to maximize deference to a favorable decision.  And some trial courts may end up relying on that extrinsic evidence to insulate their decisions.

Joshua Rich & Andrew Williams, partners at McDonnell Boehnen Hulbert & Berghoff.  “At the district court level, the new standard of review will likely mean more reliance on experts in interpreting the claims.” Dominick Conde, partner at Fitzpatrick, Cella, Harper & Scinto LLP.

Providing Guidance: The decision itself does a nice job of detailing the level of review for each different aspect of a claim construction ruling.  Paul Hughes from Mayer Brown LLP comments that “the Court provided unusually robust prospective guidance to aid the Federal Circuit in distinguishing questions of fact from questions of law.”

As usual, Professor Lefstin’s comments are both insightful and linked to historic evidence. Here, Lefstin disagrees slightly with Hughes in that some surprising aspects of claim construction should also be considered extrinsic evidence.

As Justice Traynor pointed out long ago, sources of meaning such as dictionaries and the judge’s personal linguistic experience are ‘extrinsic.’ Under Justice Breyer’s holding, the act of consulting a dictionary – which is how a court might determine “the meaning of a term in the relevant art during the relevant time period” – seems entitled to deference.

Jeffrey A. Lefstin, Professor of Law, UC Hastings College of Law.  However, Lefstin – along with others – believes that the ultimate change in the law is too slight to make much difference. Or, perhaps more pointedly, Lefstin’s argument is that the Teva decision leaves the Federal Circuit with power to continue reviewing claim construction without deference.

Ultimately it will make no difference, since the CAFC can review without deference the district court’s assignment of that meaning “in the context of the specific patent claim under review.”  The opportunities for the CAFC to frame construction as a contextual inquiry are so pervasive that Teva will serve only to generate pointless disputes over the extrinsic/intrinsic and isolated/contextual boundaries.

Lefstin. Recognizing this same point, Professor Liivak explains that a legal analysis is still required for claim construction which will be reviewed de novo.

There is still ample room for de facto de novo review.  The district court “must” conduct a “legal analysis” on whether the factual determination is relevant in the “context of the specific patent claim under review.”  This is where all the maneuvering will be.

Oskar Liivak, Professor of Law, Cornell Law School.  With reference to the disputed “molecular weight” claim term in this case, Liivak foresees that the Federal Circuit could fairly easily modify its opinion to satisfy the Supreme Court without changing its ultimate determination.

On remand as to this claim term, a very few words have to change but the outcome need not:  the factual determination about SEC is quite plausibly irrelevant to interpretation of the intrinsic evidence in Fig. 1.

Liivak.  The question – in Professor David Berry’s mind is whether the CAFC will “flex its muscles” on the issue.  If not, we can “look for more expert testimony, especially on the crucial question of what the claim meant to those in the art. That finding frequently will be dispositive, and may insulate the whole construction from de novo review.”  Professor David C. Berry, Western Michigan University – Cooley Law School.

Fallacy of Predictability: One of the key policy goals of deference is to provide predictability – at least once the district court construes the claims.  Professor Mark Janis sees the potential that this particular outcome will, unfortunately, not aid that goal. Still, Janis has some optimism. He writes:

A long-overdue ruling.  But it’s one that leaves CAFC judges ample room to defer (or not) in any given case.   The CAFC’s challenge is to demonstrate that it can implement Teva in the service of better predictability – which may require some CAFC judges to set aside cherished views about who really gets to call the shots in claim construction.

Mark D. Janis, Robert A. Lucas Chair of Law, Center for Intellectual Property Research, Indiana Univ. Maurer School of Law.  I agree with the fallacy of predictability given by deference, but at an even deeper level.  If I may quote myself:

My problem with the decision is that giving deference on review only masks the major problem that claim scope is not well understood until decided by a court.  Claim scope should be clearly understood at the time of issuance.

Dennis Crouch, Professor at the University of Missouri School of Law.

Who Benefits?: Erich Spangenberg is the CEO of nXn Partners and founder and former CEO of IPNav. He has been on the patent-owner side of a very large number of patent lawsuits and he tends to provide insight that is spot on. In my prior article on Teva, I suggested that patentees will prefer the new rule and Spangenberg agrees, with caveats:

The appellate reversal rate was too high and created far too much uncertainty.  If what Teva means is that we are going to have greater certainty, faster resolution as a result of fewer reversals and the occasional district court decision that gets it wrong—I am in favor.  My enthusiasm is tempered by the likelihood that there are a few years of disputes as the new boundaries are defined—but longer term, this is a positive.

Erich Spangenberg.

Professor Roger Ford recognizes that “who benefits” may well depend upon the case:

How [Teva] will play out is unclear, since litigants don’t always know, before construction, what review standard they’d prefer. Optimistic parties may prefer deferential review, assuming they’ll win; risk-averse ones may prefer having two chances to win.

Roger Ford is Assistant Professor of Law at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.

Evidentiary Hearings: Few courts conduct evidentiary hearings as part of claim construction. Going against the tide, Michael Risch doesn’t foresee any change in that reality:

A key question after Teva will be whether District Courts are more likely to hear extrinsic evidence just because findings get deference. Given likely reversal if the intrinsic evidence is clear, I don’t see why they would waste their time that way.

Michael Risch, Professor of Law, Villanova University School of Law.  Implicit in Professor Risch’s remarks is the conclusion that the Phillips “intrinsic first” approach continues to reign. Dean Holbrook believes that conclusion is correct:

The Federal Circuit will continue to use the Phillips hierarchy, turning to extrinsic evidence only when the intrinsic evidence is ambiguous. I think, in the main, the Federal Circuit will view the intrinsic evidence as determinative, retaining de novo review in the vast majority of cases.

Timothy R. Holbrook, Associate Dean of Faculty and Professor of Law, Emory University School of Law.

Changing Claim Construction: Dean Holbrook’s conclusion is not universally supported.  Professor Jason Rantanen argues instead that Teva may have more generally changed the nature of claim construction:

As I read Teva, the Court endorses a claim construction process where the judge begins with the extrinisic evidence about a claim term, decides what the extrinsic evidence establishes for that term and then determines whether the way the patent uses the term is inconsistent with the established ordinary meaning of the term.  This approach is more consistent with Texas Digital than Phillips.

Jason Rantanen, Associate Professor of Law, University of Iowa College of Law.  Rantanen does fully agree with others that significant power is now in the Federal Circuit’s hands — in particular, he “fully expects the Federal Circuit to disagree with [his] reading” of the case.  Eileen M. Herlihy, a da Vinci Fellow at George Mason CPIP, recognizes a particular evidentiary focus here – the person having ordinary skill in the art. She notes that the court once again “reemphasizes the patent law specific importance of the PHOSITA, thereby adds to recent Supreme Court cases asserting this perspective.”

Although Rantanen in his claim-construction-shift compares precedent, Professor Shubha Ghosh encourages creative lawyering in suggesting alternative “styles of claim construction”

Teva teaches that patent claims consist of law, reviewed de novo, and evidence, reviewed for clear error.  Unanswered is what mix of law and evidence forms the basis for claim construction.  The Federal Circuit’s and rulings favored strict constuction.  The Court’s decision here opens the floodgates for experimentation by advocates and judges  in different styles of claim construction.

Shubha Ghosh, Vilas Research Fellow and George Young Bascom Professor
of Intellectual Property and Business Law, University of Wisconsin,
Madison, Law School.

Exceptionality: One theme of Supreme Court patent cases over the past decade is that patent law need not always be so exceptional – i.e., different from other areas of law.  Rather, when traditional principles apply across doctrines, then they should apply to patent law as well. Referencing eBay, an early case in this trend, Professor Clifford writes:

Patent law is not unique when balancing must be done before granting equitable relief. Now, as is required for other legal documents such as contracts, we must separate interpretation of the words used (a matter of fact) from the meaning and effect they have (a matter of law).

Ralph D. Clifford, Prof., Univ. of Massachusetts School of Law. Similarly, Professor Landers writes that “Teva underscores the Supreme Court’s view that (like eBay and Holmes v. Vorando) the procedural aspects of patent cases are not exceptional.” Prof. Amy Landers, Drexel University Kline School of Law.  “Teva has broad significance because it … conforms patent law to other areas of the law on a matter of proper appellate function.”  Eileen M. Herlihy, da Vinci Fellow at George Mason CPIP.

Indefiniteness and ambiguity have been important topics in recent patent law cases.  Profesor Laakmann reminds us that the setup for the Teva case is not so-much claim construction but instead the lower court determination that the claim was unduly ambiguous and therefore invalid as indefinite.

The case turns on whether there is cognizable distinction between a claim term being factually ambiguous (and thus amenable to extrinsic evidence under a “clearly erroneous” standard of review) and legally indefinite (and thus invalid under 112 under a de novo standard of review).  This is the crux of the disagreement between the majority and the dissent – the majority says “yes” and the dissent says “no.”

Anna Laakmann is an Assistant Professor at Lewis and Clark Law School.  On remand, an important feature of the case is that the lower courts will also now need to work-in the new standard of indefiniteness from Nautilus.

At the PTO: For the most part, we’re talking about patent litigation.  However, Professor Joe Miller thinks that there may be a broader impact on USPTO practice as well:

Justice Breyer, speaking for a split Court’s majority, set aside a Federal Circuit patent validity determination. According to the Court, the Federal Circuit had not reviewed the lower tribunal’s key factual findings with the greater deference the controlling rule requires. Today’s decision in Teva v. Sandoz? Sure. But also 1999’s Dickinson v. Zurko, 527 U.S. 150 (1999). Teva’s main effects may well be felt at the PTO.

Joe Miller, Professor, University of Georgia Law School.

Although there are differing perspectives here, the overarching thought is that we’ll have to wait to see what the Federal Circuit does — which is exactly the result deference is supposed to avoid.

– Dennis

* Thanks to my colleagues for providing their interesting input on this article.


Promega v. Life Tech, pt. 2: Inducing Oneself

By Jason Rantanen

Promega Corp. v. Life Tech. Corp. (Fed. Cir. 2014) Download Promega v. Life Tech
Panel: Prost (dissenting-in-part), Mayer, Chen (author)

Before the holidays, I wrote about the enablement issue in this case.  Today I’ll talk about the inducement issue, which involves two significant—and probably erroneous—doctrinal developments.  I say “probably erroneous” because in my view at least one, if not both, would likely be reversed by the Supreme Court were it to grant cert.

The short version is that the majority held that in 35 U.S.C. § 271(f)(1), “induce” means “specific intent to cause” and “a substantial portion of the components” includes “a single important or essential component.”  The consequence of the former is that one can induce oneself; the consequence of the latter is that merely supplying a single “main” or “major” component of the claimed invention is sufficient for purposes to 271(f)(1).  Judge Prost dissented as to “induce” and would not have reached the “substantial portion” issue.

The patent claim: The asserted claim, claim 42 of patent No. RE 37,984, is directed to “[a] kit for analyzing polymorphism in at least one locus in a DNA sample.”  The claim limitations involve vessels containing a variety of materials: a mixture of primers, a “polymerizing enzyme suitable for performing a primer-directed polymerase chain reaction,” adenosine, guanine, cytosine and thymidine, a buffer solution, and template DNA.

LifeTech’s activities: LifeTech manufactured Taq polymerase in the United States and shipped it to its facility in the U.K. where it was combined with foreign-manufactured components to produce kits containing all the claimed elements.  While some of the kits were sold in the United States, the main issue on appeal involved kits that never entered the United States.  Taq is indisputably “a polymerizing enzyme suitable for performing a primer-directed polymerase chain reaction.”

Procedural History: At trial, the jury was instructed to consider liability for all “United States sales,” which included “all kits made, used, offered for sale, sold within the United States or imported in the United States as well as kits made outside the United States where a substantial portion of the components are supplied from the United States.” Id. at 11 (emphasis added).  LifeTech preserved its challenge to the italicized language.  The jury returned a verdict finding that “all of LifeTech’s worldwide sales were attributable to infringing acts in the United States.”  Id.  The district court subsequently granted JMOL in LifeTech’s favor.

On appeal, Promega challenged the court’s grant of JMOL as to both sales infringing under 271(a) and under 271(f)(1).  The Federal Circuit focused primarily on the 271(f)(1) issue. 35 U.S.C. § 271(f)(1) states:

Whoever without authority supplies or causes to be supplied in or from the United States all or a substantial portion of the components of a patented invention, where such components are uncombined in whole or in part, in such manner as to actively induce the combination of such components outside of the United States in a manner that would infringe the patent if such combination occurred within the United States, shall be liable as an infringer.


(emphasis added).  LifeTech raised two legal grounds for affirming the district court’s grant of JMOL.  First, it argued that 271(f)(1) requires inducement of another; one cannot induce oneself.  Thus, it could not be liable under 271(f)(1) for exporting the Taq polymerase to itself to combine with the other components.  Second, it argued that 271(f)(1) requires that a “substantial portion” of the components be exported; “one” component is not a “substantial portion” of the components.

For 271(f)(1), one can induce oneself: The majority first rejected LifeTech’s argument that 271(f)(1) should be interpreted as requiring another person to be induced.  Rather, it means “merely the specific intent to cause the combination of the components of a patented invention outside the United States.”  Slip Op. at 23.  In reaching this conclusion, it first looked to the dictionary definition of “induce,” observing that it means “to bring about, to cause.”  Id.  From this, it concluded that “[t]he object of the transitive verb ‘induce’ can either be a person or a thing, such as an activity or result.”  Id.  Here, it is the activity that is being “induce[d]”: “The statute is written such that an activity—”the combination”—is the object of “induce,” not a person.”  Id.  Thus, no third party is necessary.  Furthermore, “[h]ad Congress wanted to limit “induce” to actions contemplated by two separate parties, it could easily have done so by assigning liability only where one party actively induced another “to combine the [p]atented components.”  Id.  To bolster its conclusion, the majority drew upon its reading of the legislative history and what it divined as Congress’s intent in passing the statute.  The result is to effectively turn the word “induce” into word “cause.”

The majority’s pseudo-textualist analysis: I’m thoroughly unconvinced by the majority’s analysis.  Setting aside the majority’s reading of the legislative history, which Judge Prost criticizes in her dissent, its textual analysis is deeply flawed.  Proper textualism involves the consideration of the ordinary meaning of words, evaluated in context, and an application of the canons of statutory construction.  But just as in patent law, “ordinary meaning” doesn’t just mean “ordinary meaning.”  Rather, terms with a legal meaning (such as “person”) are given their ordinary legal meaning.   The problem with the majority’s analysis begins with its reliance on a general-purpose dictionary for a term that has a well-established legal meaning and goes downhill from there.

While “induce” might mean “to bring about, to cause” in the general-usage context, in the legal context—and particularly the patent law context—its meaning invariably involves a relationship between two separate persons.  I am not aware of any instances (but would be interested to learn of them) where courts have interpreted “induce”  as encompassing one’s own performance of the proscribed acts.  This is especially true with respect to 271(b), where both the Federal Circuit and the Supreme Court have written extensively about the requirements for the relationship to rise to the level of inducement.  One would not “induce” infringement of a patent by using a machine to carry out a claimed process; one would be liable for direct infringement.  To treat the word as if it were necessary to start from first principles, looking it up in a general purpose dictionary, is to ignore all of this well-established legal meaning.

As part of my background reading for this post, I took a look at Bryan Garner’s Black’s Law Dictionary.  Here’s his entry for “inducement” (there is no separate entry for “induce”), defining it as “The act or process of enticing or persuading another person to take a certain course of action”:

Garner 1999 InducementCongress did not have the benefit of Professor Garner’s text in 1984, when it passed 274(f); this definition comes from the 1999 version of Black’s.*  But my sense is that Garner’s definition is a lot closer to the legal meaning of “actively inducement” than “http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/induce.”  Slip Op. at 23.  And to the extent it is descriptive of the legal meaning, it unquestionably supports the interpretation as involving another person.

Edit to add a legal citation: “It is, however, well established that “[w]here Congress uses terms that have accumulated settled meaning under… the common law, a court must infer, unless the statute otherwise dictates, that Congress means to incorporate the established meaning of these terms.”  CCNV v. Reid, 490 U.S. 730 (1989) (quoting NLRB v. Amax Coal Co., 453 U.S. 322, 329 (1981)).

“Congress knows how to say…”: In addition to its dictionary definition, the majority also observed that Congress could easily have included the word “another” in the statute.  The main problem with this interpretative principle is that it only applies when it’s clear that Congress actually does know how to say something.  Typically, the principle is invoked in the context of a parallel statute in which Congress actually said it.  See, e.g., Limelight Networks, Inc. v. Akamai Technologies, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2111, 2118 (2014) (“As this provision illustrates, when Congress wishes to impose liability for inducing activity that does not itself constitute direct infringement, it knows precisely how to do so.”) (emphasis added).  Here, however, there is no such contrasting statute that contains that “something;” worse, the closest parallel—Section 271(b)—does not contain the word “another.”  Rather, it says simply “Whoever actively induces infringement of a patent shall be liable as an infringer.”

Edit to add a citation: “Ordinarily, ‘Congress’ silence is just that—silence.”  CCNV v. Reid (quoting Alaska Airlines, Inc. v. Brock, 480 U.C. 678, 686 (1987)).

Judge Prost’s Dissent: Judge Prost’s dissent identifies another problem with the majority’s interpretation: that interpretation is foreclosed by precedent.  “[W]e have never before held—in the context of either § 271(f) or § 271(b)—that a party can induce itself to infringe.  And for good reason: this conclusion runs counter to unambiguous Supreme Court precedent.”  Dissent at 2.

Twice the Supreme Court has held that inducement liability requires a third party. In interpreting the phrase “induces infringement” in § 271(b), the Supreme Court wrote that it requires “that the inducer lead another” or “persuade another.” Global-Tech Appliances, Inc. v. SEB SA, 131 S. Ct. 2060, 2065 (2011) (emphases added). Additionally, in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd., a case in the analogous copyright context, the Supreme Court stated that inducement is defined as “entic[ing] or persuad[ing] another” to infringe. 545 U.S. 913, 935 (2005) (emphasis added). The majority cannot point to a single case—from the Supreme Court or otherwise—that supports its contrary interpretation of inducement.

Id. at 2-3.

Judge Prost might go too far in arguing that the majority’s interpretation is foreclosed by precedent (As the majority points out, none of these cases directly confronted the question of whether one can “induce” oneself), but her underlying point is sound: these cases demonstrated that the meaning of “induce” is already well-established as requiring another person.

Multinational companies must be careful: As long as the accused party meets the “supplies…a substantial portion of the components” requirement, it will be liable for its own foreign combination of those elements.**   This has particular importance for multinational companies that engage in distributed manufacturing.  As a policy matter, the court’s decision pushes those companies towards one of two alternatives: purchasing their components from another (possibly US) supplier or simply making the components abroad.  Perhaps the lack of liability in this situation was an oversight in the statute, a statutory loophole.  But if so, the appropriate response would be—as was the case following Deepsouth—legislative action.  (I’m not convinced that it’s necessarily a loophole, but need to think further on that point.)

Every “essential” component is a “substantial portion of the components.”  The majority also interpreted the requirement that “all or a substantial portion of the components of a patented invention” be supplied, concluding that “substantial portion of the components” includes “a single important or essential component.”  Slip Op. at 27.  Here, that component was the Taq polymerase, a widely-used enzyme for polymerase chain reaction.  The court concluded that supplying Taq was enough based on the following evidence: “Without Taq polymerase, the genetic testing kit recited in the Tautz patent would be inoperable because no PCR could occur.  LifeTech’s own witness admitted that the Taq polymerase is one of the “main” and “major components of the accused kits.”  Id. at 32.  As the Taq example demonstrates, under the court’s interpretation any component of a patented invention is an essential component.  If one removes Taq, the kit won’t work; if one removes the primers, the kit won’t work; if one removes the nucelotide bases, the kit won’t work.  This has the potential to greatly expand liability under 271(f)(1).

Rendering 271(f)(2) superfluous: In my view, the majority’s textual analysis of  “substantial portion” suffers from similar flaws as its analysis of “induce.”   The deepest, however, is that by reading “substantial portion” as it does, the majority renders 271(f)(2) superfluous.  That section states:

(2) Whoever without authority supplies or causes to be supplied in or from the United States any component of a patented invention that is especially made or especially adapted for use in the invention and not a staple article or commodity of commerce suitable for substantial noninfringing use, where such component is uncombined in whole or in part, knowing that such component is so made or adapted and intending that such component will be combined outside of the United States in a manner that would infringe the patent if such combination occurred within the United States, shall be liable as an infringer.
Under the majority’s interpretation of “substantial portion,” 271(f)(1) reads:
 “Whoever without authority supplies or causes to be supplied in or from the United States an important or essential component of a patented invention, where such components are uncombined in whole or in part, in such manner as to actively induce the combination of such components outside of the United States in a manner that would infringe the patent if such combination occurred within the United States, shall be liable as an infringer.”

The only differences between the two are that (f)(2) is limited to components that are “especially made or especially adapted for use in the invention and not a staple article or commodity of commerce suitable for substantial noninfringing use;” a knowledge of infringement requirement in (f)(2); and the “intending that such component will be combined” language of (f)(2) versus the “in such manner as to actively induce the combination” language of (f)(1).  The first two differences make (f)(2)’s scope narrower than that of (f)(1), and the third does not constitute a meaningful difference under the majority’s interpretation of “actively induces.”***  The result is that, under the majority’s interpretation, I can’t envision any conduct that would fall within (f)(2) that would not also fall within (f)(1).

*The older definition of “induce” from Black’s doesn’t provide much interpretative help in my view.  See Black’s Law Dictionary, Fourth Edition (West 1951) (defining “induce” as “to bring on or about, to affect, cause, to influence to an act or course of conduct, lead by persuasion or reasoning, incite by motives, prevail on”) (this definition was carried forward through at least the 1990 version). Part of my ambivalence is that without looking at the source of the definition, it’s not clear that another party isn’t required.  And once you look at the source of the definition, it’s apparent that the case wasn’t talking about the legal meaning of “induce” but it’s general purpose meaning.  See State v. Stratford, 55 Idaho 65 (Idaho 1934).

**Nor does the argument that the majority’s interpretation still imposes an “intent” requirement change the analysis.  The majority concludes that “actively induce the combination” means “merely the specific intent to cause the combination of the components of a patented invention outside the United States.”  Slip Op. at 23.  This is nothing more than a volitional conduct requirement: a person that combines the elements will necessarily have the “specific intent to cause the combination” except in very rare, very unusual circumstances.  And the jury instruction discussed above did not mention any requirement of intent.

***If “actively induce” were interpreted as requiring the participation of a third party, then there might be a difference between the two in that a reasonable reading of 271(f)(2) is that it covers one’s own combination of the components.

Side note: This appeal is one of the two that were at the heart of In re Reines; Ed Reines represents LifeTech.  In the other appeal, the district court’s judgment in favor of Promega was summarily affirmed in March.

Comments are welcome.  My comment moderation policy is in effect. 

Promega v. Life Tech: Enablement and Open Claim Elements

By Jason Rantanen

Promega Corp. v. Life Tech. Corp. (Fed. Cir. 2014) Download Promega v Life Tech
Panel: Prost (dissenting-in-part), Mayer, Chen (author)

This decision is interesting for its enablement analysis, which revolves around the term “comprising,” and for its holding on 271(f) liability for international inducement (the portion of the opinion as to which Chief Judge Prost dissented).  I’ll write more about the 271(f) issue in a subsequent post.

A few core technical details are useful for understanding this opinion.  The patents at issue relate to DNA, and specifically to the amplification of particular “short tandem repeats” (STR) loci.  These loci are important because they can be used to create a DNA “fingerprint” unique to each individual.  These fingerprints are valuable in both criminal forensics and health sciences research.

To create these DNA fingerprints, the STR loci must first be “amplified,” which essentially means copying the DNA many times over.  While the technology for DNA amplification described in the patent (polymerase chain reaction) was well known at the time of the patent application (1994), amplifying multiple STR loci at the same time (called “multiplexing”) remained challenging.  A central problem with multiplexing was the extreme difficulty in predicting what would happen when a new locus was added to the multiplex.  The multiplex might work or it might not, depending on the interactions between the new locus, the existing loci, and primers used in the reaction.   The patents-in-suit do not purport to solve this problem generally; rather, they identify specific combinations of loci that will successfully co-amplify.

Enablement and The Use of “Comprising”: The set of claims for which enablement was an issue all contained the term “comprising” before the set of loci (not just after the preamble).  Claim 23 of one of the patents-in-suit  is representative:

23. A kit for simultaneously analyzing short tandem repeat sequences in a set of short tandem repeat loci from one or more DNA samples, comprising:

A single container containing oligonucleotide primers for each locus in a set of short tandem repeat loci which can be co-amplified, comprising HUMCSF1PO, HUMTPOX, and HUMTH01.

(The “HUM” terms refer to specific loci.)  It’s black letter patent law that “comprising” is an “open” term; in other words, the claims encompass both products that are limited to the specific elements recited in the claims as well as those that contain those elements.  Here, that meant that the claims encompassed both “products that use no loci other than those listed in the claims” as well as “any other loci combination containing those three recited loci–whether that combination includes 13, 1,1300 or 13,000 STR loci.”  Slip Op. at 7.  Life Tech moved for summary judgment, which the district court denied because “the asserted claims need not enable ‘unrecited elements.'”  Id. at 14.

Applying the concept of commensurability, the Federal Circuit reversed.  “The enablement requirement ensures that ‘the public knowledge is enriched by the patent specification to a degree at least commensurate with the scope of the claims.'”   Slip Op. at 14 (quoting Nat’l Recovery Techs v. Magnetic Separation Sys., 166 F.3d 1190 (Fed. Cir. 1999)).

Here, the scope of the claims was not “less than or equal to the scope of enablement.”  Id.  First, the unstated STR loci combinations are not merely “unrecited elements;” “they are part of the claim scope.”  And not only are they are part of the claim scope, they are an important part.  Promega itself repeatedly argued the unpredictability point to the patent office during prosecution of the claims-in-suit to support their patentability over the prior art and during the litigation itself in defense of their nonobviousness.  “Promega explained that without a preexisting publication or teaching, a skilled artisan ‘could not predict with any certainty whether a given set of loci would co-amplify successfully together.'”  Slip Op. at 17.

These arguments proved fatal given the broad scope of Promega’s claims.  This case was similar to MagSil v. Hitachi, and Wyeth v. Abbott,  and the Federal Circuit concluded that “the teachings of Promega’s patents would not have enabled a skilled artisan at the time of filing to identify significantly more complicated sets of STR loci combinations that would successfully co-amplify–such as those found in LifeTech’s STR kits–without undue experimentation.”  Slip Op. at 18.  Ultimately, “Promega’s ‘difficulty in enabling the asserted claims is a problem of its own making.'”  Id. at 18, quoting MagSil.

So does the court’s treatment of “comprising” mean that every claim using this transitional phrase is invalid.  In a word, No.  In more words:

It is true that when used in the preamble of a claim, the term “comprising” permits the inclusion of other steps, elements, or materials in addition to the elements or components specified in the claims. [] As we stated in Gillette Co. v. Energizer Holdings, Inc., 405 F.3d 1367, 1371 (Fed. Cir. 2005), open claims “embrace technology that may add features to devices otherwise within the claim definition” (emphasis added). But the relevant usage of “comprising” here is not the one recited in the preamble. Rather, it is within the specific claim limitation that lists combinations of successfully co-amplifying STR loci, combinations whose identification and discovery Promega itself asserts is a complex and unpredictable endeavor. While the term “comprising” in a claim preamble may create a presumption that a list of claim elements is nonexclusive, it “does not reach into each [limitation] to render every word and phrase therein open-ended.” [] Promega’s claims differ from customary “open-ended” claims in that Promega’s usage of “comprising” in its “open loci set” limitation, as construed, expands the claims at a key limitation in order to cover what are indisputably advances in this unpredictable art. Under the circumstances here, the numerous embodiments covered by Promega’s claims cannot be merely regarded as “unrecited elements” in a standard “open-ended” claim.

Slip Op. at 20-21.

DDR Holdings – Federal Circuit Forges a Sensible Path on Software Patents

Guest post by Bart Eppenauer

Amidst all the angst and uncertainty following the Supreme Court’s decision in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank (2014), patent owners and inventors in the Information Technology world should be celebrating the decision last week in DDR Holdings v. Hotels.com from the Federal Circuit.  While the Alice decision fell short of ushering in a bright line test with absolute clarity, a vocal minority has grabbed the opportunity to generate headlines suggesting that software patents are all but dead in the water.  This kind of hysteria is not only unfounded, but it sends the wrong message to our policymakers, and to startups and innovative companies of all sizes across all industries.  Perhaps its wishful thinking to expect that DDR Holdings will quell opponents of software patents in any respect, but the decision should send a strong signal that software patents are far from dead.  As I’ve recently urged, the proper course of action at this point is to take a calm, measured and rational approach as we work through the current state of affairs.

As noted by Professor Crouch in his earlier post on DDR Holdings, the DDR ‘399 patent at issue under Section 101 involved an e-commerce syndication system for generating a composite web page that combines selected visual elements of a host website with content of a third-party merchant.  While I can acknowledge the view that the analysis in DDR Holdings could be in tension with the Federal Circuit’s Ultramercial decision, I firmly believe that the DDR patent falls within the contours of patent eligible subject matter.  And I respectfully take issue with the characterization of the DDR patent as a “business method” patent.  In my view, the DDR patent, both in the disclosure and in the claims, sets forth and defines a technical solution to a technical problem through the implementation of computer software in the context of e-commerce.  A cursory review of the specifications and claims of the DDR patent, the representative Alice patent and the Ultramercial patent reveals the stark differences in the level (or absence thereof) of technology-based, software-based disclosure in these patents.

The Alice patents were drawn to an abstract business method for intermediated settlement – i.e., escrow – hardly a new business concept.  The patents contained token references to performing the purported invention on a generic computer.  The patent in Ultramercial involved a business method for allowing consumers to access copyrighted content over the internet in exchange for viewing an advertisement.  In that patent, there is absolutely no disclosure whatsoever of software or computer technology, or of any other technological advancement in the form of computer software or hardware, or anything else.  The Ultramercial patent was simply a business method and nothing more.  In both cases, the now-defunct patents mentioned computers, but did not provide a technological connection between their described method and any kind of actual software innovation.

That connection is exactly what real software enables.  The Supreme Court explicitly stated that the Alice patent claims did not purport to improve the functioning of a computer itself, nor did they advance an improvement in any other technology or technical field.  And contrary to the assertions that the decision threatens all software patents, the Supreme Court specifically acknowledged, as if there was any question to begin with, that many computer-implemented claims (i.e., software) are indeed within the domain of patent-eligible subject matter.  In Ultramercial, the Federal Circuit followed suit in its recognition that at some level all inventions embody or otherwise use abstract ideas or laws of nature, but that they “do not purport to state that all claims in all software-based patents will necessarily be directed to an abstract idea.” Ultramercial at p. 10 (emphasis added).

Turning to the DDR patent, the Federal Circuit justifiably recognized that “the claimed solution is necessarily rooted in computer technology to overcome a problem specifically arising in the realm of computer networks” (DDR at p. 20), whereas the patents from earlier cited decisions claimed nothing more than the performance of abstract business practices on the Internet or using a generic computer.  Just a brief snippet of technical disclosure from the DDR patent illustrates that this is so:

  • The Link Generator allows host to create and maintain the shopping opportunities that they can then place on their site. Each Link is assigned a unique Link ID. The Link ID identifies who the host is, who the merchant is, and what commerce object (catalog, category, product or dynamic selection) is linked to.
  • The first time a host builds a Link to a merchant’s product, category or catalog, an approval of that host for that merchant may be made. Until the host is approved, they cannot see the Link ID that has been assigned to the newly created Link.
  • The code the host embeds on their web site is as follows:
    < !—For more information go to http://www.nexchange.com—>
    < !—The following 2 lines MUST NOT BE CHANGED to ensure proper crediting—>
    < IMG BORDER=‘0’ SRC=‘http://www.nexchange.net/img.asp?LinkID=xxxx’>
    < a href=‘http://www.nexchange.net/route.asp?LinkID=xxxx’>
    < !—Substitute your own text or image below—>
  • There are several points to note here:
    • The image src (img.asp) is actually an ASP program that returns a single transparent pixel. This is used to track impressions (how many times the link was displayed on the host site).
    • The route.asp page is a page that routes the customer to the shopping page. As additional servers are added, this will become very important for load balancing.
    • The ‘xxxx’ for the LinkID=‘xxxx’ is the Link ID assigned to the Link in the Link Generator.

This, along with many other examples of software-based technical disclosure in the patent specification, supports the Federal Circuit’s conclusion that the DDR patent claims “specify how interactions with the Internet are manipulated to yield a desired result” and “recite an invention that is not merely the routine or conventional use of the Internet.” (DDR at pp. 22-23).  In other words, the DDR patent claims, while relating to a business challenge, are simply not directed to an abstract idea under the Alice test.

So why all the purported confusion surrounding software patents, business method patents, and the differences there between?  After more than two decades in the IP field, I believe it comes down to a fundamental misunderstanding (and sometimes willful disregard to advance an ideology) of the true nature of “software.”

By way of the briefest of explanations, the execution of a typical software program illustrates that software implemented processes perform rapid activation and deactivation of transistors.  Software defined instructions operate on the information stored within transistor elements.  A software program in a modern computer can perform at least hundreds of millions of such operations per second.  In essence, software instructions literally, but temporarily, reconfigure electronic pathways and transform computing hardware to perform real, useful, and physical activity.

When an algorithm is implemented “purely in software,” it necessarily controls hardware components to carry out computerized actions.  I was struck by Professor Crouch’s Halloween report on his 9 year old daughter’s amazingly insightful viewpoint on how software actually transforms computers into different machines and provides very different experiences.  In discussing the differences between using Microsoft Word and playing her WarriorCat game, she explained – “Sure, the box is the same in both situations.  But, Microsoft Word obeys me and the game thwarts my moves. I see them as very different.  Its brain changes.”

Reducing software code to “just math” or sweeping it away as an abstraction is an inaccurate reading of patent case law that could jeopardize the future of innovation in this country.  The vast majority of companies that obtain software patents are manufacturing companies that integrate software into products they manufacture to deliver valuable new advancements.  These inno­va­tions power technologies ranging from modern smartphones to advanced robotic manufacturing, fly-by-wire aircraft systems, artificial retinas, driverless cars, GPS, medical and diagnostic tools, just to scratch the surface.

The past few years have been a time of unprecedented change to patent law.  Clearly there will be many more Section 101 cases to come that land on both sides of the abstract idea line (whatever and wherever that line may be).  While we’re just at the early stages of a post-Alice world, in my view the DDR decision forges a sensible path on software patentability.  With so much at stake in terms of America’s role as an innovation leader and the incredible economic impact that the IT industry fuels, let’s hope that more decisions follow the path of DDR.

Bart Eppenauer is the Managing Partner of the Seattle office of Shook Hardy & Bacon.

Allison, Lemley & Schwartz on Patent Litigation

By Jason Rantanen

In 1998, John Allison and Mark Lemley published a groundbreaking empirical study of patent litigation, Empirical Evidence on the Validity of Litigated Patents.  Allison and Lemley’s focus in that article was on written, final validity decisions by either district courts or the Federal Circuit from 1989 through 1996.  The basic study design philosophy was to look at patent case outcomes; that is, what was the final outcome for patents that were litigated.  That study is still widely cited.

Working with Dave Schwartz, Allison and Lemley recently completed an updated (and much expanded) version of their 1998 study.  The results of that study are being published in several articles, but the one that links most closely with the earlier study is Understanding the Realities of Modern Patent Litigation.

Their undertaking in this project is truly quite impressive.  The authors expanded their scope to all available decisions (not just those that were published in the U.S.P.Q., as in the earlier study) for utility patent infringement suits filed in 2008 and 2009, and personally coded the relevant case information from the docket sheets, district court opinions, briefs, and Federal Circuit decisions for hundreds of cases.  As in the earlier study, the record unit they used were patent cases, with only final decisions for a given patent being counted; in other words, where there was more than one decision in a case, they reported the last final decision on the validity of the patent.  Thus, if there was a final Federal Circuit decision, it superceded a previous district court decision; if there was a remand and subsequent final decision by the district court, it superceded the Federal Circuit ruling, and so on.  Within this set of cases, Schwartz and Lemley coded information about the cases while Allison coded patent-specific information.

Study Findings

The vast majority of patent cases still settle: Out of the roughly 5,000 patent infringement suits filed in 2008 and 2009, only 290 patents went to trial.  All together, less than 10% of the patent suits filed in these years resulted in any merits decision (that is, a summary judgment ruling or trial).  The remainder settled before that point (although, the authors note, there are a small number of cases still pending that may add another 2-3% to the number of suits resulting in a merits decision).

More indefiniteness challenges: One notably change from the 1998 study was the dramatically grater number of indefiniteness challenges.  Out of the 555 summary judgment motions brought on validity issues by either the patent challenger or the patent holder, 176 decided summary judgment motions involved the issue of indefiniteness, a dramatic increase from the 1998 study.  And the authors observed a less substantial, but still noticeable, increase in summary judgment decisions based on patentable subject matter (26), a category that has likely continued to experience growth.  For context, there were 149 decided summary judgment motions on obviousness and 154 on anticipation.

Many arrows in the challenger’s quiver: In terms of the success rates on motions for summary judgment of invalidity, challengers tended to lose on individual issues: with the exception of patentable subject matter challenges, the percentage of successful summary judgment motions of invalidity was 20% or below for each individual issue (102, 103, indefiniteness, enablement, written description).  But, the overall rate of invalidation on summary judgment was 30% and the overall rate at which patent challengers successfully won on invalidity was 42%.  This is an example of what Lemley has called the “fractioning” of patent law; that is, the idea that a patentee must win every issue in a case while the accused infringer must prevail on only one issue; a particular challenge with patent law and its multiple grounds for invalidation.

Overall, patent challengers tend to win: Overall, patent holders tended not to win in cases that went to a definite merits resolution.  Overall, patentees won only about 26% of the time (164/636 definitive merits rulings).  In addition to invalidity, patent holders lost on frequently-brought motions for summary judgment of noninfringement 54% of the time (257/473) and infrequently obtained summary judgment on more rarely-brought motions for summary judgment of infringement (41/128).  Thus, although patentees had a fairly high success rate at trial (winning on 59% of patents when juries made the decision and 64% when the bench did), the 1-2 punch of summary judgment followed by trial meant that most patent cases that went to judicial resolution were resolved in favor of the patent challenger.

I’ve only covered some of the data presented in the paper and barely scratched the surface of the authors’ analysis.  If you’re interested in reading more, the article can be downloaded directly from the Texas Law Review’s website or via ssrn: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2442451 

The New Role for Post Grant Review Proceedings (PGR)

by Dennis Crouch

It has now been just over 18-months since we started filing patent applications under the new first-to-file patent system mandated by the America Invents Act (AIA) of 2011.  And, slowly but surely, FTF patents are now beginning to issue.  Those new patents also bring us into a new era of Post-Grant-Review-Proceedings (PGR).

My expectation is that PGR will quickly prove itself as an incredibly powerful tool for challenging patents. Importantly, PGR proceedings allow a third party to challenge the validity of a patent on any of the validity grounds that could be raised in court as a defense under 35 U.S.C. 282 – these include novelty, obviousness, written description, enablement, indefiniteness, utility, and subject matter eligibility. This list represents a major expansion of challenge-justifications over inter partes review (IPR) proceedings or reexaminations. These same doctrines have already been available for covered-business-method review (CBM) proceedings and have been used successfully if only on a narrow class of patents (those covering financial business methods).

Two recent PGR proceedings have been filed.  In one case, LaRose Indus. has challenged Patent No. 8,684,420 that covers the popular children’s “Rainbow Loom.”  Although the patent claims a 2010 priority date, the particular application was filed as a continuation in July 2013 and, at least according to the petitioner, added new mater to the claims at that point.  The second case PGR case involves Patent No. 8,598,291 that covers a liquid formulation of a particular nausea control drug used by chemotherapy patients. The petition argues that the claims fail the requirements of written description, enablement, and definiteness.

The most important limitation on the PGR process is the relatively short 9-month window for filing a PGR petition. Namely, the petition must be filed within 9-months of the patent issuance.  This puts some pressure on parties to monitor competitor patents and patent families.  It also provides patent owners at least some incentive to hold-off asserting their patent until after that window has closed (unless the patentee would welcome the review).  I suspect that the set-up in the LaRose Rainbow Loom market will be fairly common. The patentee (Choon) had previously sued LaRose on a previous patent and so LaRose has been closely monitoring the continuation applications.

= = = = =

In thinking about how soon the AIA cases will come on-board, I created the chart below. The chart provides some information on the timing of patent issuance — showing the percentage of patents issued with 18-months of filing and 36-months of filing respectively.  A big caveat for this particular chart is that it looks at the actual application filing date and does not consider the priority date that will typically control whether a patent will be examined under the AIA. Thus, even at the three-year date (March 2015), I would expect that significantly less than half of the recently issued patents would be FTF patents.

You’ll note the trend beginning in FY2011 of issuing more patents more quickly.  I largely attribute the change to two initiatives pushed by David Kappos during his term as PTO Director that resulted in (1) more funding to hire more examiners; and (2) a greater allowance rate.  Those factors have continued through the succeeding interim leadership terms of Terry Rea, Peggy Focarino, and now  Michelle Lee.


Hearing on Ohio Bill to Protect Against Frivolous Patent Suits.

The story here explains that the bill got a hearing and that, if passed, Ohio would join ten other states with these bills. The story states:  “HB 573 outlines information in patent infringement claim letters that can be used against senders in legal proceedings and enables targets of such letters to file civil suits if claims have no merit.”

I’ve got an article coming out showing how 285 can be used against lawyers of patentees…

YODA: You Own Devices Act

A magical aspect of intellectual property is in the way that rights can pervade a system without the need for the rights-holder to physically engage with the supply chain. Someone may have personal property rights in their chattel, but IP rights control aspects of how that chattel can be used or transformed.  For example, although I own my computer, there are certain ways I might use my computer that would infringe patents or copyrights held by others. In this framework, IP rights can be thought of as a form of regulation – albeit with increased private involvement.

Ordinarily, when someone purchase goods, the purchase comes with all rights to use that good. However, the sale of goods with underlying IP rights certainly does not pass all rights in the IP.  The exhaustion (first-sale) doctrines of copyright and patent laws provide some linkage by giving the purchaser of goods certain use-rights to the underlying intellectual property. However in the computer-related fields required end-user-license-agreements (EULAs) have now become the industry standard for limiting ownership rights — especially for digitally delivered media. Rather than “owning” the media, in many cases these contracts purport to only give users a limited and personal license.  The common law tradition is to strike-down substantial use restrictions as effectively being unreasonable restraints on the market. However, it seems that the underlying IP rights have served as a basis for courts to favor “freedom of contract” over the traditional unreasonable-restraint-of-trade doctrines.

Representative Blake Farenthold (R-TX) has proposed a partial fix in his bill known as YODA: the You Own Device Act.  The key provision focuses on copyright law and would add the following to Section 109 of the Copyright Act:

(1) IN GENERAL.—Notwithstanding section
106 or section 117, if a computer program enables any part of a machine or other product to operate, the owner of the machine or other product is entitled to transfer an authorized copy of the computer program, or the right to obtain such copy, when the owner sells, leases, or otherwise transfers the machine or other product to another person. The right to transfer provided under this subsection may not be waived by any agreement.

The EFF has praised the bill, but has also called for particular digital-first-sale rights and rights to access and modify software stored on your devices, and

Studying the Mongrel: Why Teva v. Sandoz Won’t Solve Claim Construction

Guest post by Heather F. Auyang, Senior Counsel at LTL Trial Attorneys in San Francisco, California. The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the views or opinions of LTL Trial Attorneys.

This is the Teva-update to last summer’s Patently-O Guest Post titled “Why Lighting Ballast Won’t Solve Claim Construction” (https://patentlyo.com/patent/2013/07/guest-post-why-lighting-ballast-wont-solve-claim-construction.html), which discussed two then-recently published empirical studies – a study of “close cases” (analyzing all post-Markman claim construction cases where the Federal Circuit panel was split) and a study of “reversals” (analyzing all post-Phillips claim construction cases in which the Federal Circuit reversed the district court).   Updates to both studies have now been published in a sequel article, which provides further explanation and answers to some of the questions that were raised in this very forum last year.  The past year’s data is unsurprising – it is exactly what the models provided by the original studies predicted, and it confirms, yet again, that changing the standard of review will not have a particularly beneficial effect on claim construction predictability or consistency. This conclusion is based on two key facts shown by the data:  (1) that Federal Circuit judges remain divided on how to approach the task of claim construction, and (2) that when district courts are reversed, it’s almost always because they have misapplied settled claim construction principles.  In fact, giving more deference to district courts will likely exacerbate, rather than fix, problems with claim construction.

The close cases study (of 105 cases) continues to show that each Federal Circuit judge who has participated in more than five close cases falls into a distinct camp.  Judges Wallach, Linn, Clevenger, and Moore “go broad” in over 66% of close cases (Judge Rader was also in this group); Judges Bryson, Prost, Mayer, Schall, and Dyk “go broad” in between 47% and 55% of close cases; and Judges Newman and Lourie “go broad” in under 31 percent of close cases.

As pointed out last year, if the goal is to make claim construction more predictable, a good place to start would be to ensure that all the Federal Circuit judges are following the same rules of claim construction.  This data clearly shows that they are not.  While any given judge in any given opinion can cite the same agreed-upon rules, the rules are not preventing significant differences in approach among the judges.  Last year’s post and article posited that some judges are expressly or implicitly following an “actually invented” standard that other judges reject.  Whatever the explanation, until these differences are ironed out, tinkering with other issues – like deference to district courts – is unlikely to be productive.

The reversals data (based on 153 cases) is even more relevant to the question of deference than is the close cases data, since it deals directly with the relationship between the Federal Circuit and the district courts.  Focusing on reversals makes sense because this dataset, presumably, includes the cases whose results would change if the Supreme Court determines that district courts should get more deference in claim construction.  Accordingly, these are the decisions that should be studied before one concludes that the current standard of de novo review should be changed.  As it turns out, the reversals data suggests that the high reversal rate is caused by district court error, not Federal Circuit arbitrariness. If that’s the case, why in the world are people advocating more deference to district courts?

The reversals study coded for whether the Federal Circuit decision was in a broadening or a narrowing direction.  The result for the 11-month period since the last study was a broadening rate of 87.5%, even higher than the previously-reported overall broadening rate of 72.5%.  In other words, in cases where district courts are “getting it wrong,” according to the Federal Circuit, they are systematically interpreting the claims too narrowly.  As pointed out last year, these narrowing interpretations typically enable district courts to grant summary judgment of non-infringement (or encourage the parties to enter such a stipulation), and thereby permit the Federal Circuit to review the claim construction issue without going through the trouble and expense of a trial.  In the year since then, we have not heard any other plausible explanation.  Last year’s post and article also challenged any advocate of deference to provide one or more examples from the “reversals” cases that (1) would have come out differently under a deference regime, and (2) should have come out differently.  We haven’t heard anything on that either.

This year’s article – including fancy color charts analyzing Federal Circuit judge proclivities across broad/narrow, less spec/more spec, pro-patent/anti-patent, and pro-affirm/pro- reverse; and pie-charts and tables for the reversals data –  is What Reversals and Close Cases Reveal About Claim Construction at the Federal Circuit – The Sequel, 13 J. Marshall Rev. Intell. Prop. L. 525 (2014) (available at http://repository.jmls.edu/ripl/vol13/iss3/3/). The comments here on last year’s article were of a very high caliber; hoping for the same again this time!



Alice, Artifice, and Action – and Ultramercial

Guest post by Emily Michiko Morris, Associate Professor, Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law

Anyone familiar with recent Supreme Court patent jurisprudence was perhaps disappointed but certainly not surprised by the Court’s latest decision, Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank Int’l. The Court once again left many questions unanswered and failed to provide a clear rubric for identifying patentable subject matter. When viewed within the broader context, however, Alice fits nicely within what is actually a long-standing pattern in § 101 cases. IF Ultramercial v. Hulu follows this pattern after its now second GVR, the Federal Circuit may finally affirm that the internet-mediate advertising method at issue there is unpatentable subject matter.

In What Is “Technology”?, I explain that as unmethodical as patentable subject matter often seems, two surprisingly consistent concepts explain how courts identify patentable subject matter. The article dubs these concepts “artifice” and “action.”

Artifice refers to the well-recognized requirement that patentable subject matter be the product of human ingenuity, not nature. Less appreciated is the fact that artifice requires more than just changes in structural or other physical characteristics; to be patentable, a claimed invention must also function in some new, non-naturally occurring way. We can see this latter point illustrated in the purification line of cases as well as Myriad, Funk Brothers, and Chakrabarty.

Much more obscure but more relevant to Alice is the concept of action. Roughly defined, action is the requirement of active rather than passive utility through operating, behaving, performing, or otherwise actively doing something; that is to say, an invention must be “self-executing.” Inventions that display, transmit, or even store information may satisfy the action requirement, but works such as laws of nature, mathematical algorithms, and “abstract ideas” are (perceived as) merely informational or descriptive in value and therefore unpatentably inert. Moreover, as Alice explains, the abstract idea category is not “confined to ‘preexisting, fundamental truth[s].’” By definition any purely informational or descriptive content, whether naturally occurring laws of nature and mathematical algorithms or human-made financial and economic methods, fails the action requirement. As the Court in Diamond v. Diehr put it, such works simply do not “perform[ ] a function which the patent laws were designed to protect.”

To the extent different tests appear to govern natural products versus laws of nature and abstract ideas, then, artifice and action – and more importantly, the circumstances in which each are likely to be invoked – account for these differences. Artifice obviously plays its largest role in cases involving products or laws of nature, whereas action is most important in cases involving abstract ideas and laws of nature. Nonetheless, patentability under § 101 requires both artifice and action.

Both Alice and Bilski illustrate what role action plays under § 101. The methods in both Alice and Bilski involved hedging risk during business transactions by relying on intermediaries, but more importantly, both methods served solely to inform parties about when they can safely transact. The Alice and Bilski opinions describe this as the abstract concept of intermediated settlement, but really it is just information – information about risk. As such, both methods were unpatentably inactive under § 101.

And although Alice differs from Bilski in that Alice’s method was computer-implemented, the Court found both methods to be unpatentable. Like artifice, action is also a scalar characteristic. Just as artifice depends on an invention’s perceived degree of alteration from nature, action depends on an invention’s perceived degree of activity, and despite Alice’s computer-implementation, the method was still not active enough under § 101.

Indeed, both Alice and Mayo emphasize the scalar nature of patentability under § 101. Under Mayo’s two-step test, a court first determines whether a claim is directed to a law of nature, natural phenomenon, or abstract idea. As the Alice Court observed, however, all inventions are directed to one of the patent-ineligible concepts at some level. The second and pivotal step is therefore to determine whether the claim demonstrates an “inventive concept” – that is, does the claim add elements “sufficient” and “enough” to establish patentable subject matter.

And to see that a sufficient “inventive concept” requires sufficient action, one need only look at how the Court treats computer-mediated elements with regard to patentability under § 101. Computers are widely regarded as “technological,” but much computer technology is “information technology,” and computer use primarily to manipulate data or other information thus adds no patentable action. Computer implementation in Alice’s method followed exactly this pattern – as the Court noted, the computer served only to create and maintain “shadow” accounts, obtain data, adjust account balances, and issue automated instructions. Accordingly, whether Alice claimed its invention as a method, system, or medium, the invention failed to provide an adequate “inventive concept” because it did not demonstrate sufficient action.

Under an artifice-plus-action standard, then, Ultramercial’s internet-mediated advertising method fails § 101. Ultramercial claimed a method of distributing copyrighted content for free in return for viewing an advertisement. The method is purely an exchange of informational and expressive content and performs no action whatsoever, and the claim’s cursory reference to the internet does nothing to add a “sufficient inventive concept.”

This is not to say, of course, that computer-implemented methods are never patentable subject matter. The Alice Court pointed out the difference between computers used purely for information processing and computers used to effect improvements in “any other technology or technical field,” or improvements in the function of the computer itself. Diehr’s computer-assisted rubber-curing process, for example, was adequately “technological” and therefore patentable, whereas the computer-implemented methods in Benson and Flook yielded “simply a number” and were therefore unpatentable. Per the view of the patent system, information processing is simply not “technological.” Similarly, computer or storage media that are distinguishable only by their informational or expressive content alone been held unpatentable if the content has no “functional” relationship with the device. The variable role that computers and other tangible devices can thus play in an invention may be why the Supreme Court rejected the machine-or-transformation test as the sole test for methods under § 101.

And while the discussion here focuses mostly on business methods, note that the Mayo two-step test as stated in Alice covers all patent-ineligible abstract ideas, laws of nature, and even phenomena of nature – all are subject to the same requirement that a claimed invention add “enough” to constitute a patentable inventive concept. For claims directed to phenomena of nature, “enough” means artifice and meeting the age-old test of “markedly different characteristics from any found in nature.” For abstract ideas, laws of nature, mathematical algorithms, mental processes, and all other forms of information, “enough” means action and demonstrating function beyond merely informing.

As simple as artifice and action may sound, however, patentable subject matter clearly remains a difficult and ambiguous issue. The difficulty lies in the scalar quality of both artifice and action and deciding where along these spectra any given new invention falls. The requisite degree of artifice and action has also varied over time as the liberality of patentable subject matter has waxed and waned, creating yet further uncertainty. Most significantly, where the line between patentable and unpatentable lies along the spectrum is entirely unclear. There are no bright-line rules and no magical claim elements that can guarantee patentability under § 101.

The Court has often (but not always, as our host Jason Rantanen has pointed out) expressed a preference for a “functional” approach to patent law, however: that is, a preference for standards over hard and fast rules. As stated in Bilski’s rejection of the machine-or-transformation test, to do otherwise would “make patent eligibility ‘depend simply on the draftsman’s art.’” True, the artifice-plus-action standard requires courts to make many judgment calls about where along the spectrum of artifice and action any given invention must fall before it can be considered patentable technology, but standards are often vague. Besides, patent law frequently must address these kinds of line-drawing exercises. The non-obviousness, utility, enablement, and even written description requirements all force courts to make judgment calls.

Compounding the difficulty is the fact that § 101 determinations are in the end based on nothing more than intuition. As I and a number of others have noted, none of the pragmatic justifications commonly cited in support of § 101, such as preemption and disproportionality explain how patentable subject matter determinations are actually made or, more importantly, why. Thus, although artifice and action consistently appear in patentable subject matter, the combination does not necessarily reflect the most efficient or “correct” way to define patentable subject matter. Rather, the combination merely reflects an underlying intuition about what constitutes technology. (In Intuitive Patenting, a companion article to What Is “Technology”?, I argue that there simply are no more objective bases on which to make these determinations.) Unfortunately, patentable subject matter’s intuitive nature leaves courts effectively unable to specify how they reached their determinations. This often leads to language that sounds more like non-obviousness, novelty, or utility than to § 101, but in the end, artifice and action are better explanations for these otherwise perplexing references.

Federal Circuit: To Satisfy the Written Description Requirement, a patent “must at least describe some species representative” of the accused product.

By Dennis Crouch

AbbVie v. Janssen Biotech and Centocor Biologics (Fed. Cir. 2014)

This decision is important in the way that it confirms a strong Post-Ariad Written Description requirement – especially with regard to genus-species claim situations. The decision also includes a key (but preliminary) discussion on the preclusive effect of PTAB decisions and also attempts to justify Federal Circuit decisions that extend beyond questions necessary for the judgment. Hal Wegner has already classified this opinion – written by Judge Lourie – as “unnecessary judicial activism.”

In 2013, Abbot Labs spun-off AbbVie as a separate company with a focus on biopharmaceutical research and a current Market Cap of $90 Billion US (ABBV). In the split, AbbVie obtained ownership of a number of valuable patents. In this case, AbbVie asserted various claims of U.S. Patent Nos. 6,914,128 and 7,504,485. These patents broadly cover antibodies that can bind to and neutralize activity of human interleukin 12 (IL-12). These antibodies have been found useful in the treatment of autoimmune disorders, including psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis.

A key asserted claim is listed as follows:

29. A neutralizing isolated human antibody, or antigen-binding portion thereof that binds to human IL-12 and disassociates from human IL-12 with a Koff rate constant of 1×10−2s−1 or less, as determined by surface plasmon resonance.

A jury found the claim invalid for lacking a sufficient written description, lacking enablement, and also for obviousness. AbbVie appealed the §112(a) claims (WD & enablement) and, as for obviousness, AbbVie argued that that issue should never have been decided by the district court since it had already been fully litigated during the prior interference contest. On appeal, the court affirmed – agreeing that the patent was properly held invalid for lack of written description and that the collateral estoppel did not apply to the obviousness question because the interference proceeding was not sufficiently “final” at the time of the complaint filing.

Written Description: In Ariad, the Federal Circuit confirmed that the written description requirement is separate and distinct from that of enablement and that it serves an important role of ensuring that the patent is based upon an actual describable invention and that the patent scope does not overreach beyond the scope of the inventor’s contribution.

Written Description
– Genus-Species: By design, patent claims generally cover a set of a variety of potential embodiments. Likely, most claims cover an infinite variety of potential embodiments each involving a minor tweak in one way or another. The courts have never required that all potential embodiments be disclosed – however, the written description doctrine has been applied to invalidate patent claims that do not disclose a sufficient representative sample of embodiments. This is generally known as part of a genus-species problem – with the operative question here being how many different species (embodiments) of an invention must be described in a patent document before the applicant can properly claim rights to the genus of all related species. A key case on point is Regents of the University of California v. Eli Lilly & Co., 119 F.3d 1559 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (Lourie, J.) that was also affirmed in Ariad Pharm., Inc. v. Eli Lilly & Co., 598 F.3d 1336, 1355 (Fed. Cir. 2010) (en banc; Lourie, J.) (“[No] bright-line rules govern[] the number of species that must be disclosed to describe a genus claim, as this number necessarily changes with each invention, and it changes with progress in a field.”). Rather than simply listing various embodiments, the usual approach is to also describe common structural features of the species.

Here, AbbVie’s generic claim can be classified as a set of human antibodies defined functionally by their high affinity and neutralizing activity to the human IL-12 antigen. However, AbbVie did not disclose any structural features common to the members of the genus. Rather, AbbVie’s patent described only one type of structurally similar antibodies rather than antibies representative of the full scope of the genus.

In the decision, Judge Lourie focuses particularly on the alleged infringing antibodies and notes that:

[While] AbbVie’s patents need not describe the allegedly infringing [compound] in exact terms . . . [t]he patents must at least describe some species representative of antibodies that are structurally similar to [the accused compound].

Because the patent document lacked any such structural description, the court confirmed that the corresponding claims were invalid under 112(a).

Functional Patent Claims Are Inherently Vulnerable: In discussing the case, Judge Lourie was clear that one problem here is that the invention was described in terms of its function rather than its structure. Lourie writes:

Functionally defined genus claims can be inherently vulnerable to invalidity challenge for lack of written description support, especially in technology fields that are highly unpredictable, where it is difficult to establish a correlation between structure and function for the whole genus or to predict what would be covered by the functionally claimed genus.

With functional claims, the patentee must establish “a reasonable structure-function correlation” either within the specification or by reference to the knowledge of one skilled in the art. Of importance, the court is clear that functional claim limitations are patentable, but, in order to be patentable, they must be linkable to structure by PHOSITA. An interesting distinction though is that, unlike many written description issues, the linkage between the function and structure need not necessarily be found in the patent document itself.

Patent attorneys will also note that Judge Lourie’s reference to “highly unpredictable” arts is designed to refer primarily to bio-related sciences. We shall see whether the subsequent case law is so limited.

= = = =

Collateral Estoppel applies to preclude a court from re-deciding issues. Generally collateral estoppel only applies when the same issue was actually litigated and decided by a final and binding judgment in a way that was essential to the judgment. It is also generally true that collateral estoppel applies even when the first case is still pending on appeal – so long as the original court’s judgment was a final judgment being appealed.

Here, a prior interference proceeding between the parties had resulted in a determination that the AbbVie claims were not-obvious. Following the PTAB interference decision, Centocor filed a civil action under 35 U.S.C. § 146 that was pending at the time the present infringement litigation began. In the present appeal, the Federal Circuit held that the PTO decision should not be considered a “final judgment for the purposed of collateral estoppel” since the district court decision was still pending and during that case the parties have the opportunity to expand the factual record. The court left open the possibility that collateral estoppel would apply once the decision is final and that collateral estoppel may have applied if Centocor had appealed directly under § 141 instead of filing a civil action.

= = = =

Because AbbVie did not appeal the substance of the obviousness question, the collateral estoppel question fully decided the case. However, in its decision, the court offered an explanation for its reasons for going ahead and deciding the written description question.

AbbVie did not substantively challenge the district court’s holding of obviousness of the asserted claims. It might therefore be concluded that we could affirm that court’s obviousness holding and proceed no further. However, as an “inferior” court, we are well-advised to review more than one issue raised before us on appeal, lest higher authority find error in any basis for a more limited review. Cardinal Chem. Co. v. Morton Int’l, Inc., 508 U.S. 83, 97–98 (1993) (“[T]he Federal Circuit is not a court of last resort. . . . [Its] decision to rely on one of two possible alternative grounds (noninfringement rather than invalidity) did not strip it of power to decide the second question, particularly when its decree was subject to review by this Court.” (emphasis in original)); see also Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. v. Cadbury Adams USA LLC, 683 F.3d 1356 (Fed. Cir. 2012) (affirming invalidity based on anticipation and obviousness); Verizon Servs. Corp. v. Cox Fibernet Va., Inc., 602 F.3d 1325 (Fed. Cir. 2010) (same); Union Pac. Res. Co. v. Chesapeake Energy Corp., 236 F.3d 684 (Fed. Cir. 2001) (affirming invalidity based on indefiniteness and lack of enablement). Because the written description issue constituted the principal basis of AbbVie’s appeal to this court, we proceed to consider the written description issue rather than affirm merely on any procedural defect or omission relating to the obviousness issue.

In her concurring opinion, Judge O’Malley did not sign-on to the “thoughtful written description analysis” of the majority – finding it not “necessary or dispositive ot the outcome of the case.”

Opening of the Rocky Mountain Patent Office Raises Denver’s Profile as Center of Innovation

John Posthumus has been instrumental making the Denver Office of the USPTO a reality – having spent more than 1,000 pro bono hours on this effort. I asked him to write a guest post to commemorate the June 30 opening. D.C.

By John Posthumus

The opening of the Rocky Mountain Regional Satellite office in Denver on June 30 marks an unprecedented and historic moment for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Never in its history has the USPTO had a base of operations that extended beyond the Eastern Time zone. The USPTO has operated exclusively for more than 200 years in the Washington, D.C. area until July 2012, when the USPTO opened its first satellite office in Detroit.

While the Detroit office was a small step geographically speaking (Detroit is 525 miles from Washington, D.C.), the Denver office is a huge step toward a national presence by the USPTO. Its central U.S. location will provide unprecedented access to inventors and entrepreneurs in the western part of the country, satisfying an important Section 23 objective of the America Invents Act (AIA) – better connecting patent filers and innovators with the patent office. The Denver office is expected to have state-of-the-art video conferencing facilities available to applicants. Thus, a significant part of the U.S., and the entire Rocky Mountain region, will be able to travel to Denver to complete examiner interviews and return home the same day.

The opening of the Denver office will also enable the USPTO to recruit examiners and board judges from pools of talented individuals they cannot access in Alexandria, VA. Colorado, for example, is the second-most highly educated state in the nation, is among the top 10 for adults with degrees in science and engineering, has four major research universities, and is home to 24 federally funded research laboratories. The opening of the Denver office provides a great opportunity to recruit candidates that have recent and relevant technical and industry experience that they will bring to the examining and board judging roles. As a result, the Denver office is expected to provide better quality examinations and decrease the number of patent applications waiting for examination, and satisfy another criteria in Section 23.

The new office is also expected to improve recruitment of patent examiners, another Section 23 factor, because of Colorado’s favorable cost of living and quality of life factors. As Acting Director Michelle Lee stated recently, “In addition to creating jobs for intellectual property professionals throughout the region, the permanent Denver satellite office will be an indispensable resource for regional inventors, entrepreneurs and businesses.” The benefits of the new USPTO satellite office will extend beyond creating jobs. The opening of the office will also have a positive economic impact in the region. According to a study by the University of Colorado Leeds School of Business, the Denver-based office is expected to provide a $440 million economic impact to the region in the first five years of operation.

The Denver office also gives the USPTO an opportunity to think outside the box and presents an historic opportunity to set aside the baggage that comes from operating in one location for over 200 years. For example, the Denver satellite patent office could be used to run small-scale pilot projects in conjunction with local public/private partners, such as a one-month filing to issuance pilot or a collaborative examination by two examiners, that if successful could be scaled ultimately changing how the USPTO operates. In this regard, perhaps the most exciting prospects of the satellite offices are yet to come.

Teva v. Sandoz: Teva’s Opening Merits Brief

By Jason Rantanen

Teva recently filed its merits brief in Teva v. Sandoz (previous PatentlyO discussion here and here).  It’s main argument on the issue of claim construction is that claim construction involves making findings of fact and Rule 52(a)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure states that “[f]indings of fact, whether based on oral or other evidence, must not be set aside unless clearly erroneous.”   In support of the first part of this argument, the brief points to determinations about the perspective offered by a person of ordinary skill in the art and the use of extrinsic evidence to resolve ambiguities; these, the brief argues, are inherently factual determinations for which deference should be given to the district court.

A key issue will be whether these types of judicial determinations are actually factual findings, or whether they are something else.  Certainly reviewing courts make determinations about some types of historical evidence all the time – one need only look at Justice Breyer’s discussion of legislative history and Congressional intent in Aereo for recent example – without invoking deference.  These determinations aren’t limited to “purposivists”: Justice Scalia’s originalist approach to interpreting legal statutes, for example, involves looking to how the text would have been understood at the time it was issued, something that can involve historical linguistic research.  Figuring out whether the “facts” involved in claim construction are akin to something like legislative history or the historical determinations involved in an originalist approach, or instead are the type of “facts” encompassed by Rule 52 is central to the invocation of that rule.  Much of Teva’s brief seeks to tackle this challenge, arguing that the facts involved in claim construction are exactly the kinds of facts that are encompassed by Rule 52.

Of these arguments, I found the most compelling to be the point that even as  determinations such as the knowledge of a person of ordinary skill in the art are factual and reviewed with deference in one context (such as obviousness and enablement), they are reviewed without deference in claim construction.  It will be interesting to see how Sandoz responds.

One important tension that the brief fails to resolve, however, is the key question of how deference on factfinding plays into decisions about claim construction.  If the ultimate determination of the meaning of claim terms remains one of law, does that basically invite an obviousness-like determination wherein certain subsidiary issues – such as the knowledge possessed by a PHOSITA and content of extrinsic evidence – are reviewed with deference, but the reviewing court makes the final determination, weighing each of the various pieces of information, without deference?  Or is it something else?

The brief does seem to indirectly offer a vision of how deference to factual findings should work, but it strikes me as leaving no place for the other side of the mongrel practice: the legal component.  The vision offered by the brief appears in Part IV., on pages 53-54, where Teva argues that the Federal Circuit erred by not granting deference to the district court on the “understanding of Figure 1, of SEC technology,
and of the prosecution history.”  In other words, Teva’s view of deference manifests as the lens through which the interpreter of the legal doctrine looks at not just the extrinsic evidence (the SEC technology), but also the patent document itself and the prosecution history.  If this is the correct approach to deference – that the reviewing court must give deference to the district court’s interpretation of the patent document and prosecution history – it is hard for me to see anything left that isn’t entitled to deference.  (Maybe the ordinary meaning of the claims themselves?  But that’s “the ordinary meaning to a person of skill in the art,” so that doesn’t work.).  This “lens” approach to deference seems to go too far, in my mind, and is fundamentally at odds with the way other factual findings and deference work in patent law doctrines such as nonobviousness and enablement.

The brief also challenges the various rationales for reviewing factual issues in claim construction de novo: “Markman requires it” argument, the interpretation of legal documents is a question of law argument, and the uniformity argument.  It also  argues that allowing de novo review of facts on appeal produces poorer decisions and is costly to the patent system, citing to the reversal rate data.  (Although this latter point seems to depend heavily on how deference is actually implemented – it would seem that the de novo review of certain subsidiary elements of claim construction, alone, would have only a very marginal effect on decision quality and litigation cost).

You can download a copy of the brief here: Teva’s Opening Brief

Teva v. Sandoz: Standard of Review for Claim Construction(?)

By Jason Rantanen

While many eyes will be on the Supreme Court on Monday when it releases its decision in Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius, the term is over for patent cases.  Over the past few months, the Court issued an astonishing six patent law-related opinions (almost 10% of the Court’s docket), covering ground from claim definiteness (Nautilus) to the exceptional case standard in Section 285 (Octane, Highmark) to multi-actor infringement (Limelight) to the burden of proof in noninfringement declaratory judgment actions (Medtronic) to the ever-present patentable subject matter case (Alice).  Three of these opinions (AliceHighmark, and Limelight) resolved deep intra-circuit splits at the Federal Circuit.  Altogether, this term profoundly altered the landscape of patent law jurisprudence.  Perhaps more important than the substance of the Court’s opinions was the change itself: through opinions such as Nautilius and Alice, the court made it clear to participants that the law of patents can be a dynamic, changing thing, an organicness that forward-thinking patent attorneys and agents – even more than litigators – will be forced to grapple with.

I’ll be talking more about this year’s developments in patent law at the Wisconsin State Bar Association’s annual Door County Intellectual Property Academy in a few weeks, and the Supreme Court will certainly take center stage.  Dennis will be there as well.

For now, though, the next major event in patent law jurisprudence is likely to be the Court’s opinion in Teva v. Sandoz, in which the Petitioner posed the question:

Whether a district court’s factual finding in support of its construction of a patent claim term may be reviewed de novo, as the Federal Circuit requires (and as the panel explicitly did in this case), or only for clear error, as Rule 52(a) requires.

But this case is more complex than the (relatively) simple issue of deference in appellate review of claim constructions.  At the trial court level, the district judge did not simply construe the claim in a way unfavorable to Sandoz, the accused infringer.  Rather, the district judge rejected Sandoz’s argument that the claim term “Average Molecular Weight” was indefinite and construed the claim in Teva’s favor.  On appeal the Federal Circuit reviewed the issue of claim definiteness without deference and concluded that the term was indefinite (applying it’s pre-Nautilus standard of “not amenable to construction” or “insolubly ambiguous”).  

Herein lies the sticky part: If one takes the view that questions of claim definiteness and claim construction are effectively one and the same, then this case squarely presents a question about the appropriate standard of review for claim construction. This seems intuitive: both revolve around determining claim meaning.

But treating issues of claim definiteness and construction as if they are just different sides of the same coin runs into a glitch if there is a factual component: one issue (definiteness) arguably comes with a “clear and convincing” evidentiary standard while the other (claim construction) does not.  (While there is a canon that claims should be interpreted to preserve their validity, it’s  a weak one that only operates as a last resort.  See Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303, 1327 (Fed. Cir. 2005) (“While we have acknowledged the maxim that claims should be construed to preserve their validity, we have not applied that principle broadly, and we have certainly not endorsed a regime in which validity analysis is a regular component of claim construction.”).)  If different evidentiary standards are being applied to the factual components of each, then claim definiteness and claim construction must be separate issues.

If this logic is sound and claim definiteness and construction are distinct issues, then Teva v Sandoz is really only about the standard of review on the issue of claim definiteness, not about the standard of review of claim construction.  But the observation about evidentiary standards notwithstanding, it seems counterintuitive to say that the question of whether “a patent’s claims, viewed in light of the specification and prosecution history, inform those skilled in the art about the scope of the invention with reasonable certainty” is somehow different from how those skilled in the art would interpret the claims.  And Teva’s Brief, which I’ll summarize tomorrow, treats indefiniteness and claim construction as if they were the same thing.

How, then, could the Court escape this conundrum of different evidentiary standards for what is essentially the same determination, aside from concluding both are pure issues of law, a position that would be at odds with Markman and probably Nautilus?   First, the Court could conclude that indefiniteness does not implicate the clear-and-convincing evidence standard.  The Court went halfway there in Nautilus, observing that the “presumption of validity does not alter the degree of clarity that §112, ¶2 demands from patent applicants,” but left open the question of whether subsidiary issues of definiteness trigger the clear-and-convincing evidence standard.  A second possibility would be for the Court to implement a “clear-and-convincing” evidentiary standard for issues of fact in claim construction (although how that would work in a form other than the current pro-validity canon, I have no idea).

There are also some less-than-helpful options that would further churn up the muddy bottom of patent law. It’s entirely possible that the Court could issue an opinion solely addressing the issue of whether or not the appellate court must grant deference to district court factual findings on the issue of indefiniteness, and leave unanswered the question of whether deference is appropriate in the context of claim constructions.  Or, it could avoid discussing the appropriate evidentiary standards for claim construction and indefiniteness (as it did in Nautilus), instead leaving folks to ponder whether they are the same or different.

I’ll also make the observation that after the Court granted certiorari in this case, it issued Nautilus v. Biosig, which lowered the standard for finding claims indefinite.  Even if the Court were to reverse in this case – ruling that factual issues in claim construction and claim definiteness are entitled to deference – it would seem that the inevitable result would be a remand to the Federal Circuit, and then probably to the district court, to apply the new standard.