By Dennis Crouch
The AIA was passed back in 2011 and the changes have gradually been implemented through the patent system. We are finally at the point where most newly issued U.S. patents are post-AIA patents whose patentability is individually based upon the first-to-file provisions of re-drafted 35 U.S.C. § 102. We’re talking here about hundreds-of-thousands of patents interpreted under the new rules with millions on their way. As this huge stone is slowly building momentum, the PTO has faced a startup problem: The Agency must apply the new law even though it has almost no guidance from the courts as to how the new portions of the statute will be interpreted. Because the PTO interpretation is given no deference and because of the many drafting holes in the AIA, I expect that the PTO interpretation will be repeatedly found incorrect.
The only substantive area that has been thus-far decided by the Federal Circuit involves the recent Helsinn decision. In that case, the Federal Circuit rejected the PTO approach to on-sale prior art and ruled that a pre-filing sale whose existence was disclosed to the public counts as 102(a)(1) prior art even if the elements of the invention were not publicly disclosed (just the fact of the sale). In its incorrect interpretation of the statute, the PTO had judged the statute as only counting sales as public if the elements of the invention were also disclosed publicly.
There are many other potential examples of questionable language from the AIA first-to-invent provisions that will eventually come to a head:
- Effective Filing Date: In a patent claiming priority to a prior application, does the claim’s ‘effective filing date’ depend upon whether the relied-upon filing discloses and enables the claimed invention? Section 100(i) suggests that we look only to whether there is a claimed right for priority or benefit. This could impact many written description cases.
- On Sale: Does a purely private sale or offer to sell count as prior art? Helsinn reserves this question for a later date.
- Public Use: Does non-disclosing public use count as prior art? Helsinn suggests yes.
- Commercialization: Does non-disclosing commercialization of the invention by the patentee count as prior art?
- Otherwise available to the public: Under what conditions apart from the listed publications and uses will we consider an invention to be “otherwise available to the public?” How much further does this go beyond publication and public use? Is public knowledge of the existence of the invention sufficient, or must the public be made aware of the inventions elements and how to make and use the invention? Does the invention need to be discoverable in some way?
- Grace Period: What level of proof is required for the patentee to show its prior disclosure?
- Disclosure: For an inventor’s disclosure to trigger the grace period, must it enable the entire invention?
- Public Disclosure: What counts as a pre-filing ‘public disclosure’ under 102(b)(1)(B) sufficient to knock-out prior art? Is the publicness the same as 102(a)(1)?
- Changed Disclosure: For intervening third-party disclosures or patent applications that differ from an inventor’s disclosure, what scope (if any) is knocked-out from the scope of prior art? This may be different depending upon whether focusing on 102(b)(1)(a); 102(b)(1)(b); 102(b)(1)(c); or 102(b)(1)(d).
- Date of 102(a)(2) prior art: 102(d) modifies the 102(a)(2) prior art date for published applications and patents by looking to whether the application claims priority / benefit to a prior filing. Congress certainly intended that the priority date only counts if the priority filing disclosed the subject matter being relied upon in the rejection. However, the statute is not so clear and suggests instead that all we need is a proper claim of priority or benefit. .
These are a handful of examples, and more certainly exist.
I have some thoughts on how provisions of the statute should be interpreted – both as a matter of statutory interpretation and a matter of patent policy. My larger concern, however, is that we are still years away from seeing court decisions interpreting these elements in ways that settle the law. Up to now, for instance, there are not even any public PTAB decisions interpreting the new elements of 102(b). With the disposing of more than 500,000 patent applications per year, the office is likely to churn through millions before these issues go before the Federal Circuit. If the first case on point (Helsinn) is any indication, the Federal Circuit is likely to disagree with at least several of the PTO’s statutory interpretations – potentially creating swaths of improperly issued patents or improperly rejected applications depending upon whether the PTO interpretation is too broad or too narrow. Although temporary, we have the potential here of creating a real bubble that will give us another 20+ year headache in similar fashion to the PTO’s low-quality examination of software and business methods in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
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 MPEP 2152.02(d) (“The phrase ‘on sale’ in AIA 35 U.S.C. 102(a)(1) is treated as having the same meaning as ‘on sale’ in pre-AIA 35 U.S.C. 102(b), except that the sale must make the invention available to the public.”).