Federal law has allowed for third party requests for reexamination of an issued patent on the basis on prior art since the 1980s. Under the America Invents Act of 2011 (AIA), three review processes replaced what was then known as “inter partes reexamination.” These three review proceedings enable a “person” other than the patent owner to challenge the validity of a patent post-issuance: (1) “inter partes review,” §311; (2) “post-grant review,” §321; and (3) “covered-business-method review” (CBM review). As an alternative to or in connection with a patent litigation, an interested third party, an accused infringer, or any “person,” can request one of these types of reviews.
Return Mail sued the US Postal Service (part of
the US Federal Government) for infringing its mail processing patent and Postal
Service petitioned for CBM review under the AIA. The PTO agreed that the
patent claimed ineligible subject matter, and cancelled the claims. On appeal,
the Federal Circuit affirmed. Now, the Supreme Court has reversed – holding
that the Government is not a person under the statute and therefore cannot petition
for AIA review.
Justice Sotomayor led the conservative majority joined by Chief
Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh.
Justice Breyer wrote in a dissent that was joined by Justices Ginsberg and
The majority here started with its presumption that
congressional statutes are not intended to bind or be directed to U.S.
Government activity. Here, the court looked and did not find sufficient textual
language to overcome that initial presumption. In particular, the word
“person” is used many times in the Patent Act (at least 18 times) and in
several different ways. There is basically no indication that this
particular use of “person” was designed to include the U.S.
Government. The majority also noted the awkwardness:
excluding federal agencies from the AIA review proceedings avoids the
awkward situation that might result from forcing a civilian patent owner (such
as Return Mail)
to defend the patentability of her invention in an adversarial, adjudicatory
proceeding initiated by one federal agency (such as the Postal Service) and
overseen by a different federal agency (the Patent Office).
The dissent argued that the government-not-a-person presumption is rather weak and was overcome by the Patent Act. In particular, the majority notes that Federal agencies are authorized to apply for patent protection — even though the statute states that a “person” shall be “entitled to a patent.” See 35 U. S. C. §§ 207(a)(1) and 102(a)(1).
Carissa T. Howard is an intellectual property attorney with over 16 years of experience, Carissa’s practice is focused in federal court intellectual property litigation, patent prosecution, trademark prosecution, intellectual property counseling, and contract drafting. She also has experience in intellectual property licensing and preparing due diligence, infringement and validity opinions. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-288-2213
There has been a nagging question regarding the status of the on-sale bar ever since passage of the AIA in 2011. The Supreme Court has unanimously answered the question in the negative in the slip opinion in Helsinn Healthcare v. Teva No. 17–1229. Argued December 4, 2018—Decided January 22, 2019. See opinion here: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/18pdf/17-1229_2co3.pdf
Justice Thomas wrote for the unanimous court to affirm the Federal Circuit ruling and the summary of same is here. Even a “secret sale” can trigger the bar. The Court framed the issue:
“We granted certiorari to determine whether, under the AIA, an inventor’s sale of an invention to a third party who is obligated to keep the invention confidential qualifies as prior art for purposes of determining the patentability of the invention. 585 U. S. ___ (2018). We conclude that such a sale can qualify as prior art.”
“Held: A commercial sale to a third party who is required to keep the invention confidential may place the invention “on sale” under §102(a). The patent statute in force immediately before the AIA included an on-sale bar. This Court’s precedent interpreting that provision supports the view that a sale or offer of sale need not make an invention available to the public to constitute invalidating prior art. See, e.g., Pfaff v. Wells Electronics, Inc., 525 U. S. 55, 67. The Federal Circuit had made explicit what was implicit in this Court’s pre-AIA precedent, holding that “secret sales” could invalidate a patent. Special Devices, Inc. v. OEA, Inc., 270 F. 3d 1353, 1357. Given this settled pre-AIA precedent, the Court applies the presumption that when Congress reenacted the same “on sale” language in the AIA, it adopted the earlier judicial construction of that phrase. The addition of the catchall phrase “or otherwise available to the public” is not enough of a change for the Court to conclude that Congress intended to alter the meaning of “on sale.” Paroline v. United States, 572 U. S. 434, and Federal Maritime Comm’n v. Seatrain Lines, Inc., 411 U. S. 726, distinguished. Pp. 5–9. 855 F. 3d 1356, affirmed.”
Posted by Henry M. Sneath, EsquireCo-Chair Litigation Practice Group and Chair of the IP Practice Group: Houston Harbaugh, P.C.401 Liberty Avenue, Pittsburgh, Pa. 15222. Sneath is also an Adjunct Professor of Law teaching two courses; Trade Secret Law and the Law of Trademarks and Unfair Competition at Duquesne University School of Law. Please contact Mr. Sneath at 412-288-4013 email@example.com.
When President Obama signed the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act, H.R. 1249, 112th Cong. (1st Sess. 2011), the patent false marking claims that had become so popular were essentially eliminated. Whereas before anyone could bring such a claim, regardless of whether they had actually suffered any injury, now only those who have “suffered a competitive injury” as a result of a violation of the marking statute have standing to sue. (See35 U.S.C. § 292). The America Invents Act not only prohibits persons who have not suffered a competitive injury from suing in the future, it also divests the standing of plaintiffs in pending false marking cases from continuing to pursue those claims.
In Rogers v. Tristar Products, Inc., 2011-1494, -1495, the Federal Circuit had to decide if that divestment included cases on appeal, as well as cases current pending in district courts. After considering the clear language in the newly amended 35 U.S.C. § 292—“The amendments made by this subsection shall apply to all cases, without exception, that are pending on, or commenced on or after, the date of the enactment of this Act”—the Federal Circuit determined that all cases must be dismissed, regardless of where they were pending or what procedural posture they may be in, unless the plaintiff could demonstrate that it had suffered a competitive injury.
The Federal Circuit rejected plaintiff’s assertion that he had a property right in maintaining such a claim or that the retroactive elimination of his claim violated the Due Process Clause. The Court found that Congress had a legitimate justification for eliminating these types of claims and rationally made the requirements retroactive.
The America Invents Act has effectively eliminated the nascent cottage industry of individuals suing companies for leaving expired patent numbers on its products. Companies no longer need to fear that they will be sued in such circumstances by individuals who likely have never used the products in question. Despite this, companies still need to be concerned about monitoring their products to make sure that they are appropriately marked. In the high stakes of patent litigation, defendants are still likely to look at whether they can bring false marking counterclaims if they are sued. As a competitor, it will be far easier (although by no means certain) to establish a competitive injury.
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Contact our Pittsburgh Intellectual Property, Data Security, Trade Secret, DTSA and Technology Attorneys at Houston Harbaugh, P.C. through IP Section Chair Henry M. Sneath at 412-288-4013 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Some posts herein were published by the law firm Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C. (PSMN®) which has merged with HoustonHarbaugh, P.C. and are used by permission. DTSALaw® is a federally registered trademark. See Firm Website at: www.hh-law.com