Tag Archives: Subject Matter Eligibility

EasyWeb => Easy 101 Invalidation

EasyWeb v. Twitter (Fed. Cir. 2017) (nonprecedential opinion)

In this case, the appellate court affirmed summary judgment that all of the asserted claims of five EasyWeb patents are ineligible under the Mayo/Alice interpretation of 35 U.S.C. 101 and therefore invalid.

Representative Claim 1 of U.S. Patent No. 7,685,247 is directed to a message-publishing-system that “accepts messages in multiple ways, such as by fax, telephone, or email” then verifies the message as being sent from an authorized sender, converts the message to a web format, and publishes the message on the Internet.  Although claim 1 is directed to a computer system, it includes a functionally claimed software component:

A message publishing system (MPS) operative to process a message from a sender in a first format, comprising:

a central processor;

at least one sender account;

at least one storage area configured to store at least a first portion of the message;

and software executing in the central processor to configure the processor so as to:

  1. identify the sender of the message as an authorized sender based on information associated with the message in comparison to data in the sender account, wherein the identification is dependent upon the first format;
  2. convert at least a second portion of the message from the first format to a second format; and
  3. publish the converted second portion of the message so as to be viewable in the second format only if the sender has been identified as an authorized sender.

Following the now standard two-step eligibility analysis, the court first found the claim directed toward an abstract idea.

Claim 1 merely recites the familiar concepts of receiving, authenticating, and publishing data. As we have explained in a number of cases, claims involving data collection, analysis, and publication are directed to an abstract idea.

Of import here for the abstract idea finding is that the claim simply uses generic computer technology rather than improving-upon the technology or designing particularized components.

Moving to step-two, the court looked – but could not find – an “inventive concept” beyond the claimed abstract idea sufficient to “transform the nature of the claim’ into a patent-eligible application.” (quoting Alice).

Although EasyWeb argues that an inventive concept arises from the ordered combination of steps in claim 1, we disagree. Claim 1 recites the most basic of steps in data collection, analysis, and publication and they are recited in the ordinary order. In sum, all the claims are directed to the abstract idea of receiving, authenticating, and publishing data, and fail to recite any inventive concepts sufficient to transform the abstract idea into a patent eligible invention.

Its decision is not quite correct, the Federal Circuit does not find abstract ideas simply because a claim involves “data collection, analysis, and publication.”  However, when (as here), the claim is directed toward these activities at a high level of abstraction, then the Alice/Mayo approach easily fits.

Analytically, the decision adds further weight to the theory that steps 1 and 2 are closely linked and are highly likely to correlate with one another.

No real consensus yet on CBM Sunsetting

Once initiated, CBMs are identical to post-grant reviews (PGR) – allowing for patents to be challenged on any patentability grounds.  As implemented, this includes 101 and 112 challenges in addition to the more traditional obviousness and novelty grounds.   PGRs, however, are limited to only AIA-patents and must be filed within a 9-month window from issuance.  Those caveats have severely limited the number of PGR petitions filed thus far.   For CBMs, the AIA-patent restriction and 9-month window are both eliminated.  However, the statute creates a subject-matter limitation that restricts CBMs to only non-technological financial-services business method patents.

Another feature of the CBM program is that it is “transitional” – i.e., it sunsets in 2020 and no petitions will be accepted after that date.

Last week, I hosted a quick anonymous survey on the transitional Covered Business Method Review program — asking whether the CBM program should be allowed to sunset or somehow extended.  240 Patently-O readers responded with results shown in the chart below.  About 44% of responses favored ending of the program outright — allowing it to sunset.  About 29% favored extending the program as-is, with the narrow financial-services scope.  The remaining favored extension and expansion: 17% would expand the scope to include all information processing patents, and the remaining 10% would extend the program to include all patents.  This final option would essentially mean ending the 9-month window for PGR filing.

CBMSunset

 

The survey also offered (but did not require) an explanation of the answer.  A variety of themes emerge from that explanation. The following are a few examples.

For patent challengers, the key response is that “it works” as a mechanism for cancelling patents, and could be extended to other technology areas.  

  • CBM is a big success addressing one of the most abused categories of patents. Extend it to the very worst and most abused patents by including all of information processing and it can help clean up the system and make it stronger.
  • Business methods are not the only abstract processes being patented by the Office Patent. A majority of all information processing methods (even those outside of the Business arts) suffer from encompassing non-statutory abstract processes without reciting subject matter that amounts to anything significantly more than said abstract processes.

The historic problem associated with poor business method examination quality has now been fixed. 

  • It was intended to handle a temporary problem in a specific area.  State Street caused a flood of applications in an area that was new to the USPTO.  Now skills and databases have developed and the stats show that there is no particular need for either expanding or extending CBM.  Permanently singling out a particular subject matter for extra scrutiny could cause other countries to do the same in other areas.
  • If the goal was to clean up shoddy and overly broad patents and applications, then most all of the necessary work should be done by then.  There are existing mechanisms in place that should be forcing quality such that this becomes redundant and therefore unnecessary.
  • It was a political sop to begin with and should be allowed to expire per the legislation and the underlying political agreement.  It’s argument was to take care of “low-hanging fruit”, patents of old vintage, issued when the Office’s resources in this area were low.  8 years is more than enough time to pick that fruit.
  • CBM petitions are declining because most of the patents intended for consideration have already been undone.

Patents need to be strengthened, not weakened. 

  • The patent systems is already nearly dead.  Make patent owners in all areas feel the pain of having their patent rights trampled over by a kangaroo administrative court.
  • Broad restrictions on patentability are harming U.S. competitiveness in the areas of its greatest strength.  China and the EU are poised to eat our lunch, and we are serving it up to them.
  • A terrible idea from the outset.
  • It (CBM) deprives some of the best technological innovators the chance to protect their valuable property.  Abandon CBM, and instead seek recourse to the traditional approaches (102, 103 and 112) to rid the patent landscape of those patents that don’t rise to the level of technological innovation.

The PTAB process is either corrupt or incompetent. 

  • It has been abused by petitioners and PTAB has taken it too far.
  • Go back to district court litigation. The present scheme is a disaster.
  • The USPTO is turning into a mini-court system. That is not its competency. It needs to focus on technology, granting patents to those inventions that meet the basic statutory criteria, and leave the legal hair-splitting to courts.
  • This is a corrupt Review that benefits a specific class of infringers and is detrimental to the development of new technology.

The approach should be ended because it violates the constitutional rights of patent owners.

  • Unconstitutional.
  • AIA has overstepped its boundaries on constitutional grounds as patents are private rights.
  • All patent owners are entitled to due process, and that includes the right of access to a court of law before their patents are summarily cancelled by a political, the end-justifies-the means, so-called court.

Of course, there are other responses as well (perhaps more below in the comments).

The bottom line here, as you might expect, is that there is not yet any consensus on whether to extend the CBM program.  My own general framework begins with the recognition that CBM does no longer adds much value post Alice/Mayo and with district court eligibility determinations being done on the pleadings.  However, I would like to see the empirical evidence.   The point of creating legislation that sunsets is that it effectively places the burden of proof on anyone wanting to continue the program.  That work has not yet been done.

 

Step one: Find the Gist (Do not Construe)

In Blue Spike v. Google, the patentee has asked the Supreme Court to further elucidate its test for eligibility under Mayo, Alice, and Myriad with the following three questions presented.

  1. May patentable subject matter under § 101 properly be assessed by over-generalizing patent claims to a “gist”?
  2. May a district court properly assess patentability under § 101 prior to authoritatively construing the patent’s claims?
  3. May a district court adjudicating a motion for judgment on the pleadings on § 101 patentability grounds properly consider questions of patent enablement under 35 U.S.C. § 112?

We have an interesting case here where the district court expressly stated its approach to Mayo/Alice Step 1 is to distill the claimed invention to its “gist” and ask whether that gist is an abstract idea.

In its lawsuit against Google, Blue Spike asserted five related patents: U.S. Patent Nos. 7,346,472 (the “’472 Patent”), 7,660, 700 (the “’700 Patent”), 7,949,494 (the “’494 Patent”), 8,214,175 (the “’175 Patent”), and 8,712,728 (the “’728 Patent”).  Looking at asserted claim 1 of the ‘472 patent as an example: the claim requires comparing a query signal with a reference signal.  The process involves creating an “abstract” (essentially a hash or digital fingerprint) of each signal that uses “perceptual qualities” of each signal, and then comparing those abstracts.

The district court dismissed the case on the pleadings – holding that the asserted claims were all invalid as a matter of law for effectively encompassing an abstract idea.  On appeal, the Federal Circuit affirmed without opinion.

In its decision, the district court expressly “distill[ed] the gist of the claim[s]” and found that the gist of the claims is to “model, on a computer, ‘the highly effective ability of humans to identify and recognize a signal’ [using a method that] mirrors the manner in which the human mind undertakes the same task.” (quoting the patent specification).   Essentially, the court found, all of the claims are directed to the abstract idea – “the idea of comparing one thing to another.”  Moving on from there, the court recognized the computer implementation, but found no inventive concept in that implementation.  The patentee argues here that the court erred in its gist analysis, and compounded that error by failing to construe the claims prior to the gisting process:

[M]any trial courts have adopted the practice of reducing patent claims to a highly general “gist,” then assessing that gist to determine whether it is so abstract as to be unpatentable. Because distillation to a “gist” inherently abstracts from a patent’s specific claims, this approach builds in a bias towards invalidity. . . . Deciding eligibility before claim construction exacerbates the tendency noted above to ignore a patent’s specific claims and over-generalize its “gist.”

The petition also spends substantial time discussing the Federal Circuit’s new status quo of issuing a substantial number of no-opinion judgments under Rule 36:

[T]he Federal Circuit appears unwilling to shoulder the responsibility for clarifying the Alice/Mayo analysis. That court’s use of summary Rule 36 affirmances seems to be both commonplace and increasing. This is particularly true in cases concerning patentable subject matter under § 101. One recent report identified a dozen Federal Circuit appeals raising this issue decided by Rule 36 affirmances in 2016 alone. . . . [P]recedential opinions in § 101 cases are important not just for trial courts reviewing issued patents, but also for the PTO’s examiners who must determine whether to issue patents in the first place. When the Federal Circuit fails to write a written opinion, it fails to provide the USPTO with necessary examples to use in granting patent applications.

In this particular case, the R.36 judgment is not a law violation (since the case arose from the district court rather than the PTO) but should also not be an excuse for failing to properly resolve the case – certainly the issues raised are not resolved and there is need for explanatory precedent.

[Blue Spike Petition (April 6 2017)]

 

Broad Estoppel After Failed IPR: What Prior Art “could have been found by a skilled searcher’s diligent search?”

by Dennis Crouch

Douglas Dynamics v. Meyer Prods (W.D. Wisc 2017) [2017-04-18 (68) Order re post IPR invalidity defenses].US06928757-20050816-D00003After Douglas sued Meyer for infringing its U.S. Patent No. 6,928,757 (Snowplow mounting assembly), Meyer petition for inter partes review — alleging that several of the claims were invalid.  Although the “director” iniated the review, the PTAB eventually sided with the patentee – reaffirming the validity of the claims.

Back at the district court, Douglass asked the court to apply the estoppel provisions that of Section 315(e)(e):

The petitioner in an inter partes review … that results in a final written decision under section 318(a) . . . may not assert . . . in a civil action arising [under the patent laws] . . . that the claim is invalid on any ground that the petitioner raised or reasonably could have raised during that inter partes review.

35 U.S.C. § 315(e)(2).  The question for the district court here, was the scope of estoppel – what constitutes grounds that were “raised or reasonably could have [been] raised” during the IPR.  Here, the court took a position for fairly strong estoppel:

If the defendant pursues the IPR option, it cannot expect to hold a second-string invalidity case in reserve in case the IPR does not go defendant’s way. In many patent cases, particularly those involving well-developed arts, there is an abundance of prior art with which to make out an arguable invalidity case, so it would be easy to have a secondary set of invalidity contentions ready to go. The court will interpret the estoppel provision in § 315(e)(2) to preclude this defense strategy. Accordingly, the court will construe the statutory language “any ground that the petitioner . . . reasonably could have raised during that inter partes review” to include non-petitioned grounds that the defendant chose not to present in its petition to PTAB.

In Shaw Industries Group, Inc. v. Automated Creel Systems, Inc., 817 F.3d 1293 (Fed. Cir.), the Federal Circuit wrote in dicta that no estoppel should apply to grounds that were petitioned, but not instituted.  The Wisconsin court here suggested some potential problems with that outcome, but decided to follow the CAFC’s lead, writing:

So until Shaw is limited or reconsidered, this court will not apply § 315(e)(2) estoppel to [petitioned but] non-instituted grounds, but it will apply § 315(e)(2) estoppel to grounds not asserted in the IPR petition, so long as they are based on prior art that could have been found by a skilled searcher’s diligent search.

 

What this means for the defendant here is that the only 102/103 arguments that it gets to raise are ones already deemed total failures by the PTAB – and thus are unlikely winners before a district court.

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Of some importance, the PTAB’s final written decision was released in November 2016.  For estoppel purposes, that final decision is all that is required for estoppel to kick-in. However, the case currently on appeal to the Federal Circuit — already giving the defendant its second bite at the apple.

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Supreme Court: Challenging Quick-Look Eligibility Denials

by Dennis Crouch

Broadband ITV v. Hawaiian Telecom (Supreme Court 2017)

A newly filed petition for writ of certiorari offers a substantial challenge to the quick-look eligibility decisions that have been so popular among district courts.  The challenge here is especially focused on no-evidence eligibility decisions that serve as a substitute for an obviousness determination.

In the case, the claims of BBiTV’s U.S. Patent No. 7,631,336 have been repeatedly upheld as non-obvious before a Hawaii district court ruled them ineligible on summary judgment.  In its 103 analysis, the Hawaii court also denied summary judgment of obviousness – finding questions of material fact regarding whether (1) elements of the claims were found in the prior art or (2) PHOSITA would have been motivated to combine those elements.  In its simultaneous 101 decision, however, the court determined as a matter of law that those same elements were “well-understood, routine, conventional activities previously known to the industry” that lack the “inventive concept” required by Alice.  The decision was (as is now common) affirmed without opinion by the Federal Circuit.

The petition challenges the decision and the newly-popular approach of using eligibility as a shortcut to more difficult and fact-intensive obviousness analysis. The three three questions:

1. Evidence for Underlying Factual Findings: Whether the statutory presumption of validity set forth in 35 U.S.C. § 282 applies to claims challenged under 35 U.S.C. § 101, as set forth by this Court in Microsoft Corp. v. i4i L.P., 564 U.S. 91 (2011), when the ultimate legal conclusion relies upon underlying findings of fact, such as whether the additional novel and non-obvious elements of the claims are merely well-understood, routine, and conventional or whether they add an inventive concept.

2. Standard for Summary Judgment: Whether, unlike every other area of law involving motions for summary judgment, as set forth by Fed. R. Civ. P. 56 and Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986), and its progeny, a district court may resolve material underlying fact disputes against the non-movant party on a summary judgment motion for lack of patent-eligibility under § 101.

3. Not All Abstraction Are Abstract: Whether the judicially-created exception for “abstract ideas” broadly includes any abstraction of a claim (including novel business practices or methods of organizing human activities) or only “fundamental” and “long-standing” (i.e., pre-existing) practices and methods, as recognized by this Court in Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. 593, 611 (2010) and Alice Corp. Pty. v. CLS Bank Int’l, 134 S. Ct. 2347, 2356- 57 (2014).

The questions begin with the implicit understanding that, although a question of law, eligibility decisions are based upon a set of factual determinations that should be treated like any other factual determination by the court.  This approach is directly contrary to the approach often taken these days that follows Judge Mayer’s concurring opinion in Ultramercial, Inc. v. Hulu, LLC, 772 F.3d 709 (Fed. Cir. 2014).

An important legal question here is how close the link should be between obviousness and eligibility.  Post-KSR and Alice, there does appear to be substantial connection between the obviousness analysis associated with combining-old-elements and the eligibility analysis of elements that are “well-understood, routine, and conventional.”  The two should often correlate, the court here may have the opportunity to explain the differences both in doctrine and procedure.

Read the petition here: [LINK]

Amicus Briefs in support of the Petition are due by May 17, 2017.

 

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Unwired Planet v. Huawei: An English Perspective on FRAND Royalties

FRONDGuest Post by Professor Jorge L. Contreras

In the latest decision by the UK High Court of Justice (Patents) in Unwired Planet v. Huawei ([2017] EWHC 711 (Pat), 5 Apr. 2017], Mister Justice Colin Birss has issued a detailed and illuminating opinion regarding the assessment of royalties on standards-essential patents (SEPs) that are subject to FRAND (fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory) licensing commitments.  Among the important and potentially controversial rulings in the case are:

  1. Single Royalty: there is but a single FRAND royalty rate applicable to any given set of SEPs and circumstances,
  2. Significance of Overstep: neither a breach of contract nor a competition claim for abuse of dominance will succeed unless a SEP holder’s offer is significantly above the true FRAND rate,
  3. Global License: FRAND licenses for global market players are necessarily global licenses and should not be limited to a single jurisdiction, and
  4. Soft-Edge: the “non-discrimination” (ND) prong of the FRAND commitment does not imply a “hard-edged” test in which a licensee may challenge the FRAND license that it has been granted on the basis that another similarly situated licensee has been granted a lower rate, so long as the difference does not distort competition between the two licensees.

Background

This case began in 2014 when Unwired Planet, a U.S.-based patent assertion entity, sued Google, Samsung and Huawei for infringement under six UK patents (corresponding actions were filed in Germany).  Unwired Planet claimed that five of the asserted patents, which it acquired from Ericsson in 2013 as part of a portfolio comprising approximately 2000 patents, were essential to the 2G, 3G and 4G wireless telecommunications standards developed under the auspices of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI).  Because Ericsson participated in development of the standards at ETSI, any patents shown to be SEPs would necessarily be encumbered by Ericsson’s FRAND commitment to ETSI.

The UK proceedings involved numerous stages, including five scheduled “technical trials” which would determine whether each of the asserted patents was valid, infringed and essential to the ETSI standards.  During these proceedings Google and Samsung settled with Unwired Planet and Ericsson (which receives a portion of the licensing and settlement revenue earned by Unwired Planet from the patents), leaving Huawei as the sole UK defendant.  By April 2016 three of the technical trials had been completed, resulting in findings that two of the asserted patents were invalid and that two were both valid and essential to the standards.  These findings are currently under appeal. The parties then agreed to suspend further technical trials.  In October 2016 a “non-technical” trial began regarding issues of competition law, FRAND, injunction and damages.  Hearings were concluded in December 2016, and the court’s opinion and judgment were issued on April 5, 2017.

A. The High Court’s Decision – Overview

The principal questions before the court were (1) the level of the FRAND royalty for Unwired Planet’s SEPs, (2) whether Unwired Planet abused a dominant position in violation of Section 102 of the Treaty for the Formation of the European Union (TFEU) by failing to adhere to the procedural requirements for FRAND negotiations outlined by the European Court of Justice (CJEU) in Huawei v. ZTE (2014), and (3) whether an injunction should issue in the case.  In the below discussion, Paragraph numbers (¶) correspond to the numbered paragraphs in the High Court’s April 2017 opinion.

B. FRAND Commitments – General Observations

Justice Birss begins his opinion with some general observations and background about the standard-setting process and FRAND commitments.  A few notable points emerge from this discussion. (more…)

Eligibility: Get Technical or Get Denied

Dennis Crouch

The principle that patent prosecutors are following today is in the headline: Get Technical or Get Denied.  The following is a case-in-point.

Nonprecedential decision today in Clarilogic v. FormFree Holdings affirming that the claims of FormFree’s U.S. Patent No. 8,762,243 are ineligible under 35 U.S.C. § 101 as directed to an abstract idea.   [Decision: clarilogic] The patent is directed toward a credit reporting scheme.  The gist – according to the court:

In brief, the … system seeks a potential borrower’s financial information from a third party, applies an “algorithm engine” to the data, and outputs a report. . . . the logic rules applied by the engine are received “from government entities or particular users.”

Claim 1 is drafted as a seven step method as follows :

1. A computer-implemented method for providing certified financial data indicating financial risk about an individual, comprising:

(a) receiving a request for the certified financial data;
(b) electronically collecting financial account data about the individual from at least one financial source,
(c) transforming the financial account data into a desired format;
(d) validating the financial account data by applying an algorithm engine to the financial account data to identify exceptions, wherein the exceptions indicate incorrect data or financial risk;
(e) confirming the exceptions by collecting additional data and applying the algorithm engine to the additional data,
(f) marking the exceptions as valid exceptions when output of the algorithm engine validates the exceptions; and
(g) generating, using a computer, a report from the financial account data and the valid exceptions,
wherein the financial account data comprises at least one of real-time transaction data, real time balance data, historical transaction data, or historical balance data; and the algorithm engine identifies a pattern of financial risk; the method is computer implemented, and steps (c), (e), and (f) are executed via the computer or a series of computers.

The Supreme Court’s atextual reading of 35 U.S.C. 101 has created a set of subject matter excluded from patentability – including abstract ideas.  The two step eligibility framework under Alice/Mayo first asks whether the claims are “directed to” an abstract idea and then, if so, asks whether the claims include “something more” beyond the abstract idea such as an “inventive concept” that is “sufficient to transform the nature of the claim into a patent eligible application.”  Quoting Alice.  These issues have generally been treated as questions of law amenable to judgment by a court even at the pleading stage of a lawsuit.

Step 1: The claims are directed to an abstract idea because their focus is “on collecting information, analyzing it, and displaying certain results of the collection and analysis.” (quoting Elec. Power Grp., LLC v. Alstom S.A., 830 F.3d 1350 (Fed. Cir. 2016).   Here, the court suggests the claims might have passed the test if the “algorithm engine” had been further identified or explained, but simply “claiming an algorithm does not alone render subject matter patent eligible.”

Step 2: The requisite ‘something more,’ does not include recitation of the use of a generic computer.  Here, FreeForm argues that its invention uses algorithms to transform data in parallel fashion to the way that Diehr used an algorithm to transform rubber.  On appeal, however, the Federal Circuit disagreed:

In contrast to Diehr, claim 1 recites a method that changes the way electronic information is displayed via an unknown and unclaimed process. Absent any limitation to how the data are changed, there is little, if any, transformative effect. Data are still data.

The problem, according to the court, is that the patent simply does not reach any inventive “technical manner” in which the “data is gathered, analyzed, or output.”

 

Holding the Line on Anticipation against Eligibility Encroachement

Nidec Motor v. Zhongshan Broad Ocean Motor (Fed. Cir. 2017)

In a short and tidy opinion, the Federal Circuit has reversed a PTAB anticipation decision in an inter partes review – holding that the Board’s decision “is not supported by substantial evidence.”

At issue is claim 21 of Nidec’s U.S. Patent No. 7,208,895, which claims a “permanent magnet rotating machine and controller assembly configured to perform the method of claim 12.”  Claim 12, in turn is a motor control-method that involves calculating  two different phase currents:

The method disclosed in the ‘895 Patent relates to vector control of a permanent magnet machine in the rotating frame of reference. The claimed novel feature requires “combining” calculated Q-axis and d-axis currents to produce an “IQdr current demand” in the rotating frame of reference, which can later be further manipulated and back-transformed into the three phase currents in the stationary frame of reference that drive the motor. Combining the Q-axis and d-axis currents to produce a unitary IQdr demand occurs prior to the back-transformation process.

Appellant Brief.

My reading of the single prior art reference (Kusaka, U.S. Patent No. 5,569,995) is that it also uses the same inputs to achieve a three-part motor-control output, but does not particularly disclose that the transformation happens by first combining the inputs and then transforming the combination into the three-part output.  In its opinion, the Federal Circuit found this analysis compelling:

Because Kusaka does not disclose a signal in the rotating frame of reference, it does not disclose an IQdr demand.

Reversed.

Abstract Idea Creep: The decision approach here is important because it holds the line against encroachment of eligibility issues (Section 101) into the anticipation analysis.  Notably, the identified inventive step here is essentially requiring a two-step mathematical transformation (with IQdr intemediary) rather than a single-step transformation done in the prior art.  Of course, the claims themselves do not indicate how the combination occurs occurs – just requiring “combining” the inputs. I expect that a number of courts thinking about the eligibility analysis would see that step as lacking sufficient concrete inventiveness.

Remand? The court reversed, but did not indicate any remand.  That suggests to me that the case is over with the patentee winning the IPR.

Claim Scope: I’m still somewhat confused about whether the claim structure used here is proper under the law.  35 USC 112 states that “A claim in dependent form shall be construed to incorporate by reference all the limitations of the claim to which it refers.” In my mind, one element of claim 12 is that it is a “method” and claim 21 is a “machine . . . configured to perform the method.”  As such, claim 21 cannot itself meet the method limitation of claim 12.

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12. A method of controlling a permanent magnet rotating machine, the machine including a stator and a rotor situated to rotate relative to the stator, the stator having a plurality of energizable phase windings situated therein, the method comprising:

calculating an IQr demand from a speed or torque demand;
calculating a dr-axis injection current demand as a function of a speed of the rotor; and
combining the IQr demand and the dr-axis injection current demand to produce an IQdr demand that is compensated for any torque contribution of dr-axis-current.
21. A permanent magnet rotating machine and controller assembly configured to perform the method of claim 12.

Intellectual Ventures: XML Patent Invalid

by Dennis Crouch

Intellectual Ventures v. Capital One (Fed. Cir. 2017)

In parallel decisions, the Federal Circuit has affirmed two lower court judgments that Intellectual Ventures patents are ineligible under 35 U.S.C. § 101. This post discusses the Capital One decision and leaves Erie for later.[1]

Collateral Estoppel Following Partial Summary Judgment: An initial issue is that of collateral estoppel.  In a parallel still-pending case, a SDNY district court found IV’s Patent No. 6,715,084 ineligible under Section 101.[2]  That decision was a partial summary judgment – not yet final judgment – since other patents are still at issue.  Still, the MD district court in Capital One found that the prior invalidity decision collaterally estopped IV from arguing validity in this case. On appeal, the Federal Circuit affirmed the preclusion – finding that, under 4th Circuit law, a sufficiently complete partial-summary-judgment of invalidity is sufficient to preclude a patentee from asserting a patent in a parallel case.  This outcome contradicts the Federal Circuit’s prior decision in Vardon Golf (issue preclusion does not flow from partial summary judgment prior to final judgment).[3] However, the Federal Circuit distinguished that case by noting that Vardon Golf was based on 7th Circuit law rather than 4th Circuit law at issue here.

The two additional patents at issue in Capital One (U.S. Patent Nos. 7,984,081; and 6,546,002) cover the editing of XML data.  A representative claim (claim 21) of the ‘081 patent is directed to an “apparatus for manipulating XML documents” and includes a processor along with operational elements (software?).  The patent claims use of a hierarchy of data structures for creating a dynamic document. At the top of the hierarchy is a “management record type” made-up of “primary record types” that are, in turn made up of “data objects” designated by “data components” of an XML document.  A user interface allows modification and modifies (in an undefined way) the underlying XML document.[4]

Alice Step 1: Reviewing these elements, the Federal Circuit found that “the patent claims are, at their core, directed to the abstract idea of collecting, displaying, and manipulating data.”  IV had argued that the claims offered “a concrete solution” to the problem of dynamically managing multiple sets of XML documents.   That view, according to the court, limits the patent to the XML technological environment but does not make it any less abstract since XML documents were already well known and used in routine business transactions.

Further, the inventor’s naming of the data structures with unique names does not overcome the fact that the limitations are directed to generic data types and “merely encompass the abstract idea itself of organizing, displaying, and manipulating data of particular documents.”

Alice Step 2: In applying step two of Alice, the court looked for whether the claims included something “significantly more” than merely describing the abstract idea and applying well-understood, routine, conventional activity.”  In considering the claims at issue, the court found “no inventive concept” beyond the aforementioned abstract idea.

[T]he Claims recite both a generic computer element—a processor—and a series of generic computer “components” that merely restate their individual functions—i.e., organizing, mapping, identifying, defining, detecting, and modifying. That is to say, they merely describe the functions of the abstract idea itself, without particularity. This is simply not enough under step two.

Repeating its prior statement regarding the inventor’s coined-terms, the court wrote: “The mere fact that the inventor applied coined labels to conventional structures does not make the underlying concept inventive.”

Invalid.

 

= = = = =

[1] Intellectual Ventures v. Erie Indemnity (Fed. Cir. 2017) affirming invalidity of U.S. Patent Nos. 6,510,434; 6,519,581; and 6,546,002 under 35 U.S.C. § 101 (eligibility).

[2] See Intellectual Ventures II, LLC v. JP Morgan Chase & Co., No. 13-cv-3777-AKH, 2015 WL 1941331, at *17 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 28, 2015) (“JPMC”).

[3] Vardon Golf Co. v. Karsten Manufacturing Corp., 294 F.3d 1330 (Fed. Cir. 2002).

[4] Claim 21.

An apparatus for manipulating XML documents, comprising:

a processor;

a component that organizes data components of one or more XML documents into data objects;

a component that identifies a plurality of primary record types for the XML documents;

a component that maps the data components of each data object to one of the plurality of primary record types;

a component that organizes the instances of the plurality of primary record types into a hierarchy to form a management record type;

a component that defines a dynamic document for display of an instance of a management record type through a user interface; and

a component that detects modification of the data in the dynamic document via the user interface, and in response thereto modifies a data component in an XML document.

= = = = =

As an aside, folks might be interested in looking back at the i4i XML Patent No. 5,787,449 that resulted in the $200 million verdict against Microsoft.

Eligibility: Explaining the IPO Legislative Proposal

by Dennis Crouch

Following Bilski, Prof. Rob Merges and I published a paper titled “Operating Efficiently Post-Bilski by Ordering Patent Doctrine Decision-Making” arguing, inter alia, that eligibility decisions are largely out of the normal bailiwick of PTO examiners.  As imagined by the Supreme Court, the eligibility doctrine really became too philosophical and policy based to be administrable.  Alice and Mayo were subsequently released and did not help the situation.  Under Dir. Lee, the USPTO did figure out a way to administer the test — by not following the test set-out by the Supreme Court.  Rather than looking for abstract ideas and laws of nature as imagined by the Supreme Court, examiners are guided to look specifically only for concepts that the courts have already identified as problematic.  Of course, as the number of court cases finding ineligible subject matter rises, the PTO’s approach has necessarily expanded as well.

The administration concern is one factor behind the IPO’s newly proposed legislative change to 35 U.S.C. 101.   For the IPO, though, the larger issue though is “revers[ing] the recent Supreme Court rulings and restore the scope of subject matter eligibility to that intended by Congress in the passage of the Patent Act of 1952.”

IPO Steps Up: Proposes Statute to Overturn Mayo and Alice

In a newly published whitepaper, the IPO explains its proposed legislative amendment. [PDF20170207_ipo-101-tf-proposed-amendments-and-report]

Following an explanation rejected by the Supreme Court in its eligibility doctrine, IPO explains that the traditional subject matter exceptions including abstract ideas and laws of nature were part of the pre-1952 “invention” requirement.  That requirement was eliminated in the 1952 Act in a way that, according to the IPO, should have opened the door to broad subject matter jurisprudence.  As the organization sees it, the Supreme Court began to go off track in the 1970s – a path revived in recent years.

With this avenue of legal argument rejected by the courts, the IPO sees itself forced to appeal to Congress for a more direct statement of broad subject matter eligibility.

The IPO’s proposed amendment is as follows:

101 Inventions patentable.

101(a) ELIGIBLE SUBJECT MATTER: Whoever invents or discovers, and claims as an invention, any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereto, shall be entitled to thereof, may obtain a patent for a claimed invention thereof therefor, subject only to the exceptions, conditions, and requirements set forth in this Title of this title.

101(b) SOLE EXCEPTION TO SUBJECT MATTER ELIGIBILITY: A claimed invention is ineligible under subsection (a) if and only if the claimed invention as a whole, as understood by a person having ordinary skill in the art to which the claimed invention pertains, exists in nature independently of and prior to any human activity, or exists solely in the human mind.

101(c) SOLE ELIGIBILITY STANDARD: The eligibility of a claimed invention under subsections (a) and (b) shall be determined without regard as to the requirements or conditions of sections 102, 103, and 112 of this Title, the manner in which the claimed invention was made or discovered, or the claimed invention’s inventive concept.

In describing the 101(a) amendment, the IPO explains that, in the amended structure “utility [is] the sole basis of eligibility.”  The requirement that the entitlement to a patent is “subject only to the exceptions and conditions set forth in this Title” is, according to the IPO, intended “to foreclose the development of any future ‘judicial exceptions” to section 101.” and to recognize that the “only exceptions to the entitlement to a patent … are those defined in the statute.”  The IPO statement does not consider the impact of other already-existing non-statutory exceptions such as double-patenting, but presumably those will disappear unless a sufficient statutory hook is found.

Proposed 102(b) includes a very narrow exception to eligibility.  I would suggest that there is almost nothing on earth that provably “exists in nature independently of and prior to any human activity” leaving the only actual exception that the invention “exists solely in the human mind.”  On this second exception, IPO writes:

This ineligibility criterion … makes eligible any claim limitation that requires some external involvement with the physical world or any representation thereof (e.g., data in a computer).
. . . [However] ideas that do not have physical or tangible aspects . . . are not patentable.

The IPO does not indicate whether the exception would be triggered if a single embodiment of the invention could conceivably exist solely in a human mind.  I expect that it would.

According to the IPO, 101(c) is designed to ensure that eligibility is not determined based upon the novelty, obviousness, or definiteness of a patent claim.  I would suggest that the language does not quite achieve the purpose suggested.  A more effective revision might state instead that “eligibility of a claimed invention. . . shall be determined without regard to its novelty, obviousness, or definiteness, or lack thereof.”

I compliment the IPO on taking this major step and beginning a conversation on legislative fixes to the eligibility doctrine.

I agree with the IPO members that the current situation is quite problematic both because the lines are so unclear and because they are ruling-out many inventions that should qualify in my conception.  That said, I believe that the provision likely goes too far.  I would suggest that the proposal take at least two further steps: (1) include a third exception to eligibility derived from the printed matter doctrine; and (2) include a new 102(d) that expressly defines the scope of the utility doctrine so that it becomes clear what work will be going on there.  It should be clear from the statute that ordinary works of authorship, for instance, are not patent eligible.

Supreme Court Update: Are Secondary Indicia of Invention Relevant to Eligibility?

by Dennis Crouch

The Supreme Court is on recess until Feb 17.

I don’t know if my end-of-April prediction will hold true, but I do expect Neil Gorsuch to become a Justice on the United States Supreme Court.  As a 10th Circuit Judge, Gorsuch never decided a patent case, but does have a handful of interesting IP cases.

There are a few petitions filed that we have not discussed here: 

 In its newest petition, DataTreasury takes 101 for a new spin by taking the 101/103 analysis to its next logical level.  If we are going to include a 103 analysis as part of the eligibility doctrine then lets go whole hog.  Thus, DataTreasury asks: whether a court must consider secondary indicia of invention as evidence in its eligibility analysis? In the case, the Federal Circuit had affirmed the PTAB judgment without opinion under R.36. A second eligibility petition is found in TDE Petroleum Data Solutions, Inc. v. AKM Enterprise, Inc., dba Moblize, Inc. TDE asks the court to “please reconcile Diehr and Alice.” (I’m not literally quoting here).  The patent at issue (No. 6,892,812) claims a four-step process of “determining the state of a well operation.” (a) store several potential “states”; (b) receive well operation data from a plurality of systems; (c) determine that the data is valid by comparing it to a threshold limit; and (d) set the state based upon the valid data.

In Wi-LAN v. Apple, the patentee revives both Cuozzo and Markman claim construction arguments – this time focusing on “whether claim terms used to define the metes and bounds of an invention are generally given their “plain and ordinary meaning,” or are redefined (limited) to match the scope of the exemplary embodiments provided in the specification.”

duPont v. Macdermid asks whether summary judgment of obviousness is proper because of the factual disputes at issue.  Similarly, in Enplas v. Seoul Semiconductor, the petitioner argues that a finding of anticipation by the PTAB must be supported by findings each and every element of the subject patent claim is disclosed in the prior art.  In Enplas, the Federal Circuit affirmed the PTAB on a R.36 Judgment Without Appeal — it difficult for the petitioner to point to the particular deficiencies.

 

=== THE LIST===

1. 2016-2016 Decisions:

  • Design Patent Damages: Samsung Electronics Co. v. Apple Inc., No 15-777 (Total profits may be based upon either the entire product sold to consumers or a component);  GVR order in parallel case Systems, Inc. v. Nordock, Inc., No. 15-978.  These cases are now back before the Federal Circuit for the job of explaining when a component

2. Petitions Granted:

3. Petitions with Invited Views of SG (CVSG): 

4. Petitions for Writ of Certiorari Pending:

  • Claim Construction: Wi-LAN USA, Inc., et al. v. Apple Inc., No. 16-913 (“plain and ordinary meaning”)
  • Is it a Patent Case?: Boston Scientific Corporation, et al. v. Mirowski Family Ventures, LLC, No. 16-470 (how closely must a state court “hew” federal court patent law precedents?) (Appeal from MD State Court)
  • Anticipation/Obviousness: Google Inc., et al. v. Arendi S A.R.L., et al., No. 16-626 (can “common sense” invalidate a patent claim that includes novel elements?) (Supreme Court has requested a brief in response)
  • Anticipation/Obviousness: Enplas Corporation v. Seoul Semiconductor Co., Ltd., et al., No. 16-867 (“Whether a finding of anticipation under 35 U.S.C. § 102 must be supported by findings that each and every element of the subject patent claim is disclosed in the prior art?”)
  • Anticipation/Obviousness: E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company v. MacDermid Printing Solutions, L.L.C., No. 16-905 (summary judgment of obviousness proper)
  • Jury Trial: Oil States Energy Services, LLC v. Greene’s Energy Group, LLC, et al., No. 16-712 (“Whether inter partes review … violates the Constitution by extinguishing private property rights through a non-Article III forum without a jury.”) [oilstatespetition]
  • Jury Trial: Nanovapor Fuels Group, Inc., et al. v. Vapor Point, LLC, et al., No. 16-892 (Can a party forfeit a properly demanded trial by jury without an explicit, clear, and unequivocal waiver?)
  • Is it a Patent Case?: Big Baboon, Inc. v. Michelle K. Lee, No. 16-496 (Appeal of APA seeking overturning of evidentiary admission findings during reexamination – heard by Federal Circuit or Regional Circuit?)
  • LachesMedinol Ltd. v. Cordis Corporation, et al., No. 15-998 (follow-on to SCA); Endotach LLC v. Cook Medical LLC, No. 16-127 (SCA Redux); Romag Fasteners, Inc. v. Fossil, Inc., et al, No. 16-202 (SCA Redux plus TM issue)
  • Eligibility: TDE Petroleum Data Solutions, Inc. v. AKM Enterprise, Inc., dba Moblize, Inc., No. 16-890 (Please reconcile Diehr and Alice)
  • Eligibility: DataTreasury Corporation v. Fidelity National Information Services, Inc., No. 16-883 (secondary indicia as part of eligibility analysis).
  • Eligibility: IPLearn-Focus, LLC v. Microsoft Corp., No. 16-859 (evidence necessary for finding an abstract idea)

5. Petitions for Writ of Certiorari Denied or Dismissed:

(more…)

Trading Technologies: User Interface for Stock Trading

Before writing more about Trading Technologies v. CQG, I will first note that TT is my former client and I personally filed the original complaint in this very case 12 years ago (2005).  Although TT is no longer my client, I am bound by and respect the rules of professional ethics and the duties owed to former clients.  

The new non-precedential opinion from the Federal Circuit affirms the district court ruling that TT’s asserted claims are patent eligible.

The patent claims here cover a computerized method and system used for trading stocks and similar products.  When buying and selling stocks, speed and accuracy are both critically important and in this invention, TT created a Graphical-User-Interface design (and operational software) that helps traders buy and sell stock more quickly and more accurately. See U.S. Patents No. 6,772,132 and No. 6,766,304.

The court writes:

It is not disputed that the TTI System improves the accuracy of trader transactions, utilizing a software implemented programmatic [method]. For Section 101 purposes, precedent does not consider the substantive criteria of patentability. For Section 101 purposes, the claimed subject matter is “directed to a specific improvement to the way computers operate,” Enfish, for the claimed graphical user interface method imparts a specific functionality to a trading system “directed to a specific implementation of a solution to a problem in the software arts.” Id.

The opinion is authored by Judge Newman and joined by Judges O’Malley and Wallach.  The court’s opinion is a short and interesting read:

Precedent has recognized that specific technologic modifications to solve a problem or improve the functioning of a known system generally produce patent-eligible subject matter. … [I]neligible claims generally lack steps or limitations specific to solution of a problem, or improvement in the functioning of technology.

For some computer-implemented methods, software may be essential to conduct the contemplated improvements. Enfish… Abstraction is avoided or overcome when a proposed new application or computer-implemented function is not simply the generalized use of a computer as a tool to conduct a known or obvious process, but instead is an improvement to the capability of the system as a whole.

We reiterate the Court’s recognition that “at some level, all inventions . . . embody, use, reflect, rest upon, or apply laws of nature, natural phenomena, or abstract ideas.” Alice, quoting Mayo. This threshold level of eligibility is often usefully explored by way of the substantive statutory criteria of patentability, for an invention that is new, useful and unobvious is more readily distinguished from the generalized knowledge that characterizes ineligible subject matter. This analysis is facilitated by the Court’s guidance whereby the claims are viewed in accordance with “the general rule that patent claims ‘must be considered as a whole’.” Alice, quoting Diamond v. Diehr.

As demonstrated in recent jurisprudence directed to eligibility, and as illustrated in the cases cited ante, the claim elements are considered in combination for evaluation under Alice Step 1, and then individually when Alice Step 2 is reached. Applying an overview of this evolving jurisprudence, the public interest in innovative advance is best served when close questions of eligibility are considered along with the understanding flowing from review of the patentability criteria of novelty, unobviousness, and enablement, for when these classical criteria are evaluated, the issue of subject matter eligibility is placed in the context of the patent-based incentive to technologic progress.

 

The patents are also currently being challenged on 101 grounds in CBM proceedings before the USPTO.  Although I feel that it should have a direct impact, it is unclear to me whether this decision will impact the PTO proceedings addressing the identical question.  (For instance, the court here holds that the patent covers a technological invention – and CBM proceedings can only proceed for non-technological inventions.) Patentees may also consider petitioning the court to make this decision precedential.

Supreme Court 2017 – Patent Preview

by Dennis Crouch

A new Supreme Court justice will likely be in place by the end of April, although the Trump edition is unlikely to substantially shake-up patent law doctrine in the short term.

The Supreme Court has decided one patent case this term. Samsung (design patent damages).  Five more cases have been granted certiorari and are scheduled to be decided by mid June 2017. These include SCA Hygiene (whether laches applies in patent cases); Life Tech (infringement under 35 U.S.C. § 271(f)(1) for supplying single component); Impression Products (using patents as a personal property servitude); Sandoz (BPCIA patent dance); and last-but-not-least TC Heartland (Does the general definition of “residence” found in 28 U.S.C. 1391(c) apply to the patent venue statute 1400(b)).

Big news is that the Supreme Court granted writs of certiorari in the BPCIA dispute between Sandoz and Amgen.   The BPCIA can be thought of as the ‘Hatch Waxman of biologics’ – enacted as part of ObamaCare.   The provision offers automatic market exclusivity for twelve years for producers of pioneer biologics.   Those years of exclusivity enforced by the FDA – who will not approve a competitor’s expedited biosimilar  drug application during the exclusivity period.   The statute then provides for a process of exchanging patent and manufacturing information between a potential biosimilar producer and the pioneer – known as the patent dance.  The case here is the Court’s first chance to interpret the provisions of the law – the specific issue involves whether the pioneer (here Amgen) is required to ‘dance.’ [Andrew Williams has more @patentdocs]

A new eligibility petition by Matthew Powers in IPLearn-Focus v. Microsoft raises eligibility in a procedural form – Can a court properly find an abstract idea based only upon (1) the patent document and (2) attorney argument? (What if the only evidence presented supports eligibility?).  After reading claim 1 and 24 (24 is at issue) of U.S. Patent No. 8,538,320, you may see why the lower court bounced this. Federal Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling without opinion under Federal Circuit Rule 36 and then denied IPLF’s petition for rehearing (again without opinion).

1. A computing system comprising:

a display;

an imaging sensor to sense a first feature of a user regarding a first volitional behavior of the user to produce a first set of measurements, the imaging sensor being detached from the first feature to sense the first feature, the first feature relating to the head of the user, and the first set of measurements including an image of the first feature, wherein the system further to sense a second feature of the user regarding a second volitional behavior of the user to produce a second set of measurements, the second feature not relating to the head of the user; and

a processor coupled to the imaging sensor and the display, the processor to:

analyze at least the first set and the second set of measurements; and determine whether to change what is to be presented by the display in view of the analysis.

24. A computing system as recited in claim 1, wherein the system capable of providing an indication regarding whether the user is paying attention to content presented by the display.

=== THE LIST===

1. 2016-2016 Decisions:

  • Design Patent Damages: Samsung Electronics Co. v. Apple Inc., No 15-777 (Total profits may be based upon either the entire product sold to consumers or a component);  GVR order in parallel case Systems, Inc. v. Nordock, Inc., No. 15-978.  These cases are now back before the Federal Circuit for the job of explaining when a component

2. Petitions Granted:

3. Petitions with Invited Views of SG (CVSG): 

4. Petitions for Writ of Certiorari Pending:

  • Is it a Patent Case?: Boston Scientific Corporation, et al. v. Mirowski Family Ventures, LLC, No. 16-470 (how closely must a state court “hew” federal court patent law precedents?) (Appeal from MD State Court)
  • Anticipation/Obviousness: Google Inc., et al. v. Arendi S A.R.L., et al., No. 16-626 (can “common sense” invalidate a patent claim that includes novel elements?) (Supreme Court has requested a brief in response)
  • Civil Procedure – Final Judgment: Johnson & Johnson Vision Care, Inc. v. Rembrandt Vision Technologies, L.P., No. 16-489 (Reopening final decision under R.60).
  • Anticipation/Obviousness: Enplas Corporation v. Seoul Semiconductor Co., Ltd., et al., No. 16-867 (“Whether a finding of anticipation under 35 U.S.C. § 102 must be supported by findings that each and every element of the subject patent claim is disclosed in the prior art?”)
  • Post Grant Admin: Oil States Energy Services, LLC v. Greene’s Energy Group, LLC, et al., No. 16-712 (“Whether inter partes review … violates the Constitution by extinguishing private property rights through a non-Article III forum without a jury.”) [oilstatespetition]
  • Eligibility: IPLearn-Focus, LLC v. Microsoft Corp., No. 16-859 (evidence necessary for finding an abstract idea)
  • Post Grant Admin: SightSound Technologies, LLC v. Apple Inc., No. 16-483 (Can the Federal Circuit review USPTO decision to initiate an IPR on a ground never asserted by any party)
  • Is it a Patent Case?: Big Baboon, Inc. v. Michelle K. Lee, No. 16-496 (Appeal of APA seeking overturning of evidentiary admission findings during reexamination – heard by Federal Circuit or Regional Circuit?)
  • LachesMedinol Ltd. v. Cordis Corporation, et al., No. 15-998 (follow-on to SCA); Endotach LLC v. Cook Medical LLC, No. 16-127 (SCA Redux); Romag Fasteners, Inc. v. Fossil, Inc., et al, No. 16-202 (SCA Redux plus TM issue)
  • Eligibility and CBM: DataTreasury Corporation v. Fidelity National Information Services, Inc., No. 16-883 (I have not seen the petition yet, but underlying case challenged whether (1) case was properly classified as CBM and (2) whether PTAB properly ruled claims ineligible as abstract ideas) (Patent Nos. 5,910,988 and 6,032,137).

5. Petitions for Writ of Certiorari Denied or Dismissed:
(more…)

Has the Academy Led Patent Law Astray?

Prof Jonathan Barnett (USC) has released his new article arguing that we’ve gone too-far — that those arguing for dramatic changes to the patent system did so with “little to no supporting evidence.” [READ IT HERE]. Barnett argues that

Depropertization of the patent system—yields three potential efficiency losses. First, depropertization impedes efficient resource allocation by shifting the pricing of technology assets from the relatively informed marketplace to relatively uninformed judges and regulators. Second, depropertization distorts markets’ organizational choices by inducing entities to undertake innovation and commercialization through vertically integrated structures, rather than contractual relationships now clouded by the prospect of judicial re-negotiation. Third, depropertization may facilitate oligopsonistic efforts to depress royalties on patent-protected inputs, resulting in wealth transfers to downstream entities and discouraging innovation by upstream R&D suppliers.

In the article, Barnett primarily focuses on the idea of a patent thicket and whether these patent thickets have inhibited downstream innovation.  Barnett concludes: “Without a secure expectation of injunctive relief and compensatory damages, false prophecies of too many patents may result in too little innovation.”  Of course this conclusion also rests upon weak empirical ground.

 

Guest Post: TC Heartland and Statutory Interpretation

By: Michael Risch, Professor of Law, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law

After the certiorari grant in TC Heartland, Dennis solicited a blog post from anyone who thought the case was not a slam dunk. Always the contrarian, I took him up on the offer. In a prior blog post at my own blog, Written Description, I detail some of the history of the statute and highlight why I think that Fourco does not necessarily answer the question. Colleen Chien and I flesh out the history and interpretation a bit more in our article, which we’ve blogged about here in the past.

I should note that the outset that I favor TC Heartland’s position from a policy point of view. I’ve long said in a variety of venues (including comment threads on this very blog) that there are significant problems with any system in which so much rides on where the case is filed. And I think that’s true whether you think they are doing a great or terrible job in the Eastern District of Texas.

Now, on to the interpretive issues. In general, I favor the application of longstanding original norms of statutory interpretation unless there’s good reason to depart from them (see, e.g., my new paper on reasonable royalties). I think this is doubly true where no one ever challenged the original interpretation (see, e.g. the ridiculous claims that common law copyright grants a performance right to sound recordings, despite the fact that no one ever thought so in the history of common law copyright). But in this case, I don’t think one can simply rely on the fact that no one challenged VE Holdings for 25 years. After all, the Supreme Court just overturned our understanding of design patent damages despite a tacit understanding that was more than 100 years old. As I noted here, this bothered me a bit given my general views, but I also think it was the correct statutory interpretation.

But, as I noted in my prior blog post, I don’t think one can just say “Fourco controls.” As I noted there: “Stonite and Fourco were statutory interpretation problems…. [T]his is a statutory interpretation problem. But the statute in Fourco is different from the statute today and has been amended twice since. We cannot rely on a supposed ‘rule’ about a statute that no longer exists.”

Instead, we have to return to first principles. In Stonite, the court clearly held that the patent venue statute was a special statute, to be specially applied differently than the general venue statute.  After Stonite, the general venue statute was amended. But let’s look at the statutes of the time. Right out of Fourco:

Section 1400 is titled “Patents and copyrights,” and subsection (b) reads:

“(b) Any civil action for patent infringement may be brought in the judicial district where the defendant resides, or where the defendant has committed acts of infringement and has a regular and established place of business.”

Section 1391 is titled “Venue generally,” and subsection (c) reads:

“(c) A corporation may be sued in any judicial district in which it is incorporated or licensed to do business or is doing business, and such judicial district shall be regarded as the residence of such corporation for venue purposes.”

The court ruled that not enough changed since Stonite: we still had two separate venue tracks, and the patent statute was separate. The question now: is there a way for Congress to have changed this? could it have done so unintentionally? Let’s look at the 1988 change to 1391(c):

“For purposes of venue under this chapter, a defendant that is a corporation shall be deemed to reside in any judicial district in which it is subject to personal jurisdiction at the time the action is commenced.”

There is a key change here: 1391(c) no longer talks about a “separate” track where corporations can be sued “for venue purposes.” Instead, it says that “for purposes of venue under this chapter…” the definition of resides has now been set (emphasis added). The question is whether the Fourco precedent means that Congress had to do more than this to change the meaning of 1400(b) (which is in the same chapter). In VE Holdings, the Federal Circuit said no, it didn’t – that the plain language modified 1400, and, essentially, that Congress had said there were no more tracks here.

And that, I think, is the core question here. This is not a Supreme Court policy. This is the Court interpreting the statute. What did Congress do? In Stonite and Fourco, the Court said that Congress intended two separate tracks. The Federal Circuit says that in 1988, Congress merged those tracks by changing the definition of “venue” “under this chapter.”

The only other information we have is that in 2011, more than 20 years after VE Holdings, Congress expanded 1391 again. Section 1391(a) says the section applies to all civil actions “except as otherwise provided by law” (and as we detail in our article, the legislative history is clear that this referred to a list of statutes compiled by the ALI, and 1400 is not among them.) Further, 1391(c) expanded from “under this chapter” to “all venue purposes.” In other words, knowing that the Federal Circuit had interpreted 1391(c) and 1400 to be in a single track, Congress further expanded 1391 even more broadly and did nothing to clarify that no, really, “resides” in 1400(b) was really intended to continue to have the narrow definition. We know from many other contexts, in patent law and otherwise, that Congress is fully capable of correcting erroneous court interpretations, and the agglomeration of cases in Texas was known in 2011. Indeed, the AIA was passed in close proximity, and it included special provisions to deal with filings in Texas, but never once attempted to clarify that VE Holdings interpretation was wrong. For Congress to have expanded the venue statute and pass the AIA without addressing this point is particularly salient.

I, frankly, have no idea how this statutory interpretation issue will or even should come out. I don’t think this is a statutory slam dunk either way. TC Heartland is represented by outstanding lawyers who make outstanding arguments to the contrary. And the Court even granting cert. says something. You could dismiss all I’ve written with a wave of the hand: Fourco stands for the proposition that 1400(b) is separate and the current 1391(c) is no different in structure than the 1391(c) that faced the court then. I am troubled by this argument, but I can see how others might reasonably embrace it.

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Supreme Court Patent Cases: Post Sale Exhaustion

by Dennis Crouch

Substantive Patent Law: Newly filed petition in Merck & Cie v. Watson Labs raises a core substantive patent issue – does the on sale bar apply to secret sales? The defendant asks:

Whether the “on sale” bar found in § 102(b) applies only to sales or offers of sale made available to the public, as Congress, this Court, and the United States have all made clear, or whether it also applies to non-public sales or offers of sale, as the Federal Circuit has held.

The Merck petition is focused on pre-AIA patents.  The PTO (and patentees) are arguing more forcefully that the AIA certainly intended to exclude secret sales from the scope of prior art in cases now pending before the Federal Circuit.

The second new substantive patent law case is Google v. Arendi that challenge’s the Federal Circuit’s limitations on the use of common sense in the obviousness analysis.  In its decision, the Federal Circuit limited KSR to combination patents and held that “common sense” cannot be used to supply missing limitations.  Google argues that the Federal Circuit’s approach is contrary to the broad and flexible obviousness analysis required by KSR.  Patentees bristle term “common sense” – they see an overly flexible analysis as providing opportunities to invalidate patents without evidence.  The question: “Did the Federal Circuit err in restricting the Board’s ability to rely on the common sense and common knowledge of skilled artisans to establish the obviousness of patent claims?”

As these new petitions were being filed, the Supreme Court has also denied the pending obviousness, anticipation, and eligibility petitions.  In addition, Cooper v. Square has also been denied.

Civil Procedure: In J&J v. Rembrandt, the defendant J&J won at trial. However, Rembrandt later learned that J&J’s expert had testified falsely and the Federal Circuit ordered the case re-opened under R.60(b)(3) that empowers district courts to revisit final judgments after a showing of “fraud …, misrepresentation, or misconduct by the opposing party.”  The various circuits follow different standards and procedures for analyzing process and J&J has asked the Supreme Court to reconcile these (in its favor).  Another CivPro petition was also filed by Eon Corp that questions whether an appellee needed to file a R.50 JMOL motion to overturn a jury verdict that was based upon a faulty legal conclusion by the district court (here claim construction).  The Question Presented is:

Whether the Federal Circuit erred in ordering entry of judgment as a matter of law on a ground not presented in a Rule 50 motion in the district court, even though the ground presented a purely legal question.

Both J&J and Eon are only marginally patent cases, the core procedure case now pending is TC Heartland that would substantially upset the status quo of patent lawsuit concentration in E.D. Texas. Briefing continues in TC Heartland. In recent weeks a set of seven amici briefs were filed on the top side.

Next week Supreme Court conference includes review of the most likely-to-be-granted petition of Impression Products, Inc. v. Lexmark International, Inc. that focuses on important questions of post-sale exhaustion of patent rights.  The setup – If I buy a used product that was made and sold by the patentee, do I still need to worry that I might get sued for patent infringement?  The Federal Circuit says yes. The Supreme Court is likely to add some caveats to that.  The US Government (Obama Administration via DOJ) has argued that the case should be reviewed and that the Federal Circuit’s position should be rejected. Both parties then filed supplemental responsive briefs.  Lexmark’s best argument here is that these principles are well settled and that Congress can take on the role of tweaking them if needed.

Upcoming Supreme Court Oral Argument: Life Tech (export of components) set for December 6, 2016.

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Federal Circuit’s Internal Debate of Eligibility Continues

Amdocs v. Openet (Fed. Cir. 2016)

In the end, I don’t know how important Amdocs will be, but it offers an interesting split decision on the eligibility of software patent claims.  Senior Judge Plager and Judge Newman were in the majority — finding the claims eligible — with Judge Reyna in dissent.  One takeaway is that the Federal Circuit continues to be divided on the issues.  By luck-of-the-panel in this case, the minority on the court as a whole were the majority on the panel (pushing against Alice & Mayo).  Going forward, the split can be reconciled by another Supreme Court opinion, a forceful Federal Circuit en banc decision, or perhaps by future judicial appointments by President Trump.  I expect 2-3 vacancies on the court during Trump’s first term.

In a 2014 post I described the Amdocs district court decision invalidating the claims.  The four patents at issue all stem from the same original application relating to a software and network structure for computing the bill for network communications usage.   One benefit imparted by the invention is associated with its physically distributed architecture that “minimizes the impact on network and system resources” by allowing “data to reside close to the information sources.” According to the majority opinion, “each patent explains that this is an advantage over prior art systems that stored information in one location, which made it difficult to keep up with massive record flows from the network devices and which required huge databases.”  The nexus with the tated benefit is difficult to find in many of the claims themselve.  See Claim 1 below, which was taken as representative of the asserted claims of Amdocs ‘065 patent:

1. A computer program product embodied on a computer readable storage medium for processing network accounting information comprising:

computer code for receiving from a first source a first network accounting record;

computer code for correlating the first network accounting record with accounting information available from a second source; and

computer code for using the accounting information with which the first network accounting record is correlated to enhance the first network accounting record.

You’ll note that the claim is an almost pure software claim — requiring “computer code” “embodied on a computer readable storage medium.”  The code has three functions: (1) receiving a network accounting record; (2) correlating the record with additional accounting information; and (3) using the accounting information to “enhance” the original network accounting record.  The claim term “enhance” is construed narrowly than you might imagine as the addition of one or more fields to the record.  An example of an added field would be a user’s name that might be added to the accounting record that previously used a numeric identifier.   The court also found that the term “enhance” should be interpreted as requiring that – and doing so in a “a distributed fashion … close to their sources” rather than at a centralized location.  This narrow interpretation of the term “enhance” do not flow naturally from the claim language, but do turn out to be crucial to the outcome.

In reviewing the claim, the court noted that “somewhat facially-similar claims” have been alternatively invalidated as abstract ideas and found eligible.  Compare, for example, Digitech with Enfish and DDR.   Here, the court wrote that the claims are “much closer” to the ones found eligible.  I might rewrite their opinion to say that the judges in the majority prefer the decisions finding eligibility over those invalidating software patent claims.

The two recent Supreme Court cases of Alice and Mayo spell out the court’s two-step framework for determining whether a patent is improperly directed to one of the excluded categories of abstract ideas, natural phenomena, and laws of nature.  Briefly, the court first determines whether “the claims at issue are directed to one of those patent-ineligible concepts.”  If so, the decision-maker must then determine whether any particular elements in the claim “transform the nature of the claim into a patent-eligible application.”  This second step requires consideration of additional elements both individually and in combination in search for an “inventive concept . . . sufficient to ensure that the patent in practice amounts to significantly more than a patent upon the [ineligible concept] itself.” [Quoting Mayo and Alice throughout].

In making its eligibility conclusion in Amdocs, the appellate majority focused on the claim requirement (as construed) that processing be done in a distributed fashion.  According to the court, “enhancing data in a distributed fashion” is “an unconventional technological solution . . . to a technological problem (massive record flows which previously required massive databases).”  Remember here though that we are not talking about patenting a distributed system, but rather patenting a “computer program product embodied on a computer readable storage medium” used to implement the features.

Rather than taking Alice/Mayo steps in turn, the majority accepted “for argument’s sake” that the claims were directed to abstract ideas. However, the claim adds “something more” beyond an abstract idea.  Here, the court notes that the claims require “distributed architecture—an architecture providing a technological solution to a technological problem. This provides the requisite ‘something more’ than the performance of “well-understood, routine, [and] conventional activities previously known to the industry.”

Despite being the stated “unconventional” idea of using a distributed architecture, the court noted that the patent may still fail on anticipation or obviousnesss grounds.

Writing in dissent, Judge Reyna offered several different arguments. First, Reyna argue that the court’s skipping of Alice/Mayo Step 1 helped lead to an incorrect result. If you do not define the abstract idea at issue, how do you know whether the claim includes something more?  Reyna also argued that the “distribution architecture … is insufficient to satisfy Alice step two” because the limitation is not actually found in the claims and, even as interpreted provide only a functional result.  Reyna does note that the specification provides sufficient description of a distributed architecture, but that the claims themselves lack the requisite detail.

The specifications disclose a distributed system architecture comprising special-purpose components configured to cooperate with one another according to defined protocols in a user-configurable manner for the purpose of deriving useful accounting records in a more scalable and efficient manner than previously possible. The disclosed system improves upon prior art systems by creating a specific “distributed filtering and aggregation system . . . [that] eliminates capacity bottlenecks” through distributed processing. ’ The disclosed system is patent eligible. But the inquiry is not whether the specifications disclose a patent-eligible system, but whether the claims are directed to a patent ineligible concept.

[Read the opinion here]

There’s No Such Thing as a Content Based Unconstitutional Condition

I asked my former student Zachary Kasnetz to write this post on his forthcoming article explaining the Federal Circuit’s errors in its en banc Tam decision. A draft version of his article is available online: ssrn.com/abstract=2864016. – DC

By Zachary Kasnetz

I would like to thank Professor Crouch for this opportunity to share my views on the Federal Circuit’s decision in In re Tam, 808 F.3d 1321 (Fed. Cir. 2015) (en banc), in advance of the Missouri Law Review’s publication of my article.  This post discusses some of the arguments I make as to why the court erred in holding Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act facially unconstitutional.

Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act prohibits registration of any mark that “may disparage . . . persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt or disrepute.”  15 U.S.C. 1052(a).  It has long been controversial and commentators have largely  agreed that it is unconstitutional.  See In re Tam, 808 F.3d at 1334 n.4 (citing commentary).  Tam held: (1) Section 2(a) was a content-based and view-point based restriction on speech; (2) it regulated the expressive, not commercial aspects of Tam’s mark; (3) it actually regulated speech; (4) registration was not a subsidy or government speech; and (4) could not pass strict or intermediate scrutiny.  The holding and reasoning are flawed regarding the numbers 1, 2, and 4.[1]

First, the Court reasoned backwards.  First, the court should have decided whether Section 2(a) actually regulated speech at all and then whether it was a government speech or a subsidy.  If the answer to that question was no, then whether Section 2(a) was content and viewpoint-based and whether it impacted the commercial or expressive aspects of Tam’s mark would have been irrelevant.  Government speech and subsidies are not “exempt” from First Amendment scrutiny as the majority claims: they don’t implicate the First Amendment at all because they do not abridge any speech.  See Rust v. Sullivan, 500 U.S. 173, 193 (1991); Pleasant Grove v. Summum, 555 U.S. 460, 467 (2008).

Second, Section 2(a) only impacts the commercial aspects of Tam’s speech because a trademark is “a form of commercial speech and nothing more.”  In re Tam, 808 F.3d at 1376 (Reyna, J., dissenting) (quoting Friedman v. Rogers, 440 U.S. 1 (1979)).  All benefits of registration are commercial in nature, i.e., they make it easier to enforce the mark.  Registration has no impact on Tam’s ability to express any ideas or messages.  Cf. Author’s League of Am. v. Oman, 790 F.2d 220, 223 (2d Cir. 1986).  As Judge Reyna dryly pointed, the majority held that “Mr. Tam’s speech, which disparages those of Asian descent, is valuable political speech that the government may not regulate except to ban its use in commerce by everyone but Mr. Tam.”  Id. at 1378.  There is no First Amendment right to government assistance in preventing others from expressing ideas or views.  Cf. Davenport v. Wash. Educ. Ass’n, 551 U.S. 177, 188-90 (2008).

Therefore, the only basis for the majority’s opinion is the unconstitutional conditions doctrine, under which the government may not condition an important benefit on the surrender of an important constitutional right, even if it could withhold the benefit entirely.  The doctrine is notoriously incoherent and inconsistent in its application.  Tam’s basic holding is that Section 2(a) is an unconstitutional condition because it is a content and viewpoint based regulation/restriction/burden on speech.  But there’s no such thing as a content-based unconstitutional condition.

A condition’s constitutional permissibility turns on the relationship between the condition and the government program at issue.  See, e.g., USAID v. Alliance for Open Soc’y Int’l, Inc., 133 S. Ct. 2321, 2329 (2013).  The more “germane”, i.e., reasonably related to the goals of program, a condition is, the more likely it is to be constitutional.  See Sullivan, Unconstitutional Conditions, 102 Harv. L. Rev. 1413, 1420-21 (1989).  Any condition on a government benefit or participation in a government program implicating the First Amendment necessarily draws content-based distinctions: the question is whether that distinction is reasonably related to the program’s goals.  According to the majority, the goals of federal trademark law are (1) protecting the rights of mark holders and (2) preventing consumer deception and confusion.  If we accept that this is correct, the constitutionality of Section 2(a) turns on its relation to those goals.  The majority believes it is “completely untethered” those purposes.  In re Tam, 808 F.3d at 1354.  I disagree.

Trademarks allow consumers to quickly identify the source and quality of goods or services.  Therefore, trademark law conditions registration on a mark meeting certain requirements, including that it not be disparaging.  Certain kinds of marks are better at this than others, lying across the spectrum of distinctiveness from arbitrary or fanciful to generic.  Given the massive amount of information bombarding consumers, I argue that marks communicating other information or messages are less effective.  The government has an interest in ensuring that “the stream of commercial information flows cleanly as well as freely.”  Va. Bd. of Pharmacy v. Va. Citizen’s Consumer Council, Inc., 425 U.S. 758, 771–72 (1976)).  Disparaging marks, by definition, communicate more than the source and quality the good or service they attach to.  By denying the benefits of federal registration, Section 2(a) mildly incentivizes the selection of more effective marks.  Thus, it is reasonably related to trademark law’s goals.  Moreover, it only likely affects the choice of marks: it is not trying to “leverage [a government benefit] to regulate speech outside of the program itself.”  USAID v. Alliance for Open Soc’y Int’l, Inc., 133 S. Ct. at 2329 (2013).

Trademark law draws many distinctions between different marks based on their content.  As a far as I know, the constitutionality of the ban on registering trademarks containing “the flag or coat of arms of the United States, or of any State or municipality, or of any foreign nation,” 15 U.S.C. § 1052(b), has never been questioned.  Nor has the ban on those containing “a name, portrait, or signature identifying a particular living individual . . , or the name, signature, or portrait of a deceased President of the United States during the life of his widow, . .”  Id. at § 1052(c).  The government has never been required to show that such marks would actually be confusing or insufficiently distinctive despite the fact that this provision obviously singles out a category of potential trademarks based solely on their content.

Does Section 2(a) Actually Impact Speech?

I am also extremely skeptical that denying registration to disparaging marks actually has a chilling effect on speech.  The majority fears that Section 2(a) chills potential selection of disparaging marks, but the real issue isn’t whether trademark choice is being affected, but whether “ideas or viewpoints” will be suppressed.  Simon & Schuster v. Members of N.Y. State Crime Victims Bd., 502 U.S. 105, 116 (1991).  But trademarks are “commercial speech and nothing more.”  Friedman v. Rogers, 447 U.S. at 562.  Consider Tam.  If he had known that there was a real possibility that he would have been unable to register THE SLANTS because it was disparaging he would have chosen not to create his music or would not have made music intended to express pride in his Asian heritage?  I doubt it and I have not seen any evidence to support such a claim.  Perhaps he would have chosen a different name for his band, but again I’m skeptical.  Thus, Section 2(a) is “exceedingly unlikely” to suppress or chill expression of any ideas and viewpoints.  See Lyng v. Int’l Union, UAW, 485 U.S. 360, 365 (1988).

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The author is an Associate at Growe Eisen Karlen Eilerts in St. Louis.  He earned his J.D. from the University of Missouri in May 2016 and his B.A. from the University of Maryland in 2012.

[1] Assuming arguendo, that I am wrong about numbers 1, 2, and 4, I agree that Section 2(a) could not pass strict or intermediate scrutiny.  I also agree that placement on the register does not turn Tam’s purportedly disparaging message into government speech.