A recent decision from the Federal Circuit provides a boon for patent owners who are interested in filing suit against infringers but are concerned that their claims may be too broad to survive an invalidity attack. The decision in In re Takana (Case No. 2010-1262, April 15, 2011), allows a patent owner to file a reissue application before the US Patent and Trademark Office and add narrower claims to patent solely as a hedge against a potential invalidity challenge in future litigation.
A reissue application requires the patent owner to offer to surrender his or her patent and reopen the prosecution and amend the claims if the proposed changes were the result of an error and made without deceptive intent:
Whenever any patent is, through error without any deceptive intention, deemed wholly or partly inoperative or invalid, by reason of a defective specification or drawing, or by reason of the patentee claiming more or less than he had a right to claim in the patent.
The Patent Office determined that the patent owner could not simply add a dependent claim to his patent through the reissue process. The Federal Circuit disagreed and concluded that the patent owner’s desire to add a narrower dependent claim to his patent was an error–claiming less than he could have claimed during prosecution–and was not done with a deceptive intent. It found nothing improper with the reason for adding the narrower claim was a concern that a potential infringer might be able to invalidate the broad, original claims.
The decision creates a real opportunity for patent owners that want to enforce their patents through litigation, but are concerned that the claims were too broad as they were drafted to survive an invalidity attack. As with any such opportunity, there are drawbacks, however. A patent owner must offer to surrender the patent and reopen the prosecution of the patent. There is always the possibility that an examiner will discover a new reason the calls into question the validity of the patent. There are no guarantees that the surrendered patent will be allowed again. In addition, the patent statute provides for intervening rights that protect the public when a patent owner changes its patent after it has issued (either through reissue or reexamination). These intervening rights may grant absolute and equitable protections for products that were on sale before the patent owner added the new claims. Thus, a patent owner may not be able to enforce the patent against currently-selling products. Intervening rights generally provide fewer protections to future products, though.
This decision presents new opportunities for patent owners and an ability to correct older patents that contain novel ideas that may have been inartfully claimed.