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The US Patent and Trademark Office and the US Copyright Office recently announced that some new tools are available to practitioners and interested individuals and companies to help individuals be better aware of recent patent applications and to help explain the fair use doctrine.
The USPTO, in partnership with Reed Technology and Information Services, created an alert system (the Patent Application Alert Service) that allows individuals to receive email alerts whenever a patent application publishes that contains certain keywords. After signing up for the service, a user can set “alerts” based on keywords found in the title, abstract, description, drawings, claims, CPC classification, applicant, inventor, or assignee fields (or combination of these fields). The system then sends out weekly emails whenever an alert criteria has been satisfied.
This system will enable individuals and companies to be better aware of what their competitors are attempting to patent, as well as to keep abreast of changes in the field. The USPTO also hopes that this service will lead to better patents being issued because interested individuals in the relevant fields can monitor patent applications and help identify prior art for pre-issuance submission to the USPTO.
The US Copyright Office has also been busy, creating a Fair Use Index, which is a searchable database of court opinions indexed by category and type of use. The Index currently has decisions reaching back to 1841 and provides a link to the opinion, the relevant court information, the type of medium (photograph, text, etc.), and the outcome. The US Copyright Office created the Index to help the public understand the contours of the fair use doctrine as applied to copyright law. While useful for the public, the Index will also be a useful resource for practitioners.
Last week, the US Patent and Trademark Office expanded its website to include a section to help individuals and companies to respond when receiving demand letters from patent holders. As one of our colleagues, Gene Quinn, over at IPWatchdog.com notes, this resource (albeit in “Beta” form) is fairly one-sided and offers some problematic advice to those who receive demand letters.
Much of the advice on the USPTO’s website is fairly generic, but the overall tenor of the advice seems to ignore that legitimate patent owners with legitimate and valid patents often send these demand letters to stop individuals and companies from infringing their patents. Indeed, that is one of the fundamental rights that comes with owning a patent—the ability to stop others from using your invention.
Instead, the fundamental assumption on the USPTO’s website seems to be that only patent trolls send demand letters. For instance, the USPTO suggests that one response is to simply ignore a demand letter because some patent owners send these demand letters to mislead or intimidate the recipients into paying for licenses that they do not need. While the USPTO notes that this approach carries some risk, that advice is buried at the end. Oddly, the USPTO never suggests that one option after receiving a demand letter is to simply stop infringing the patent.
The USPTO also downplays the importance of consulting with an attorney to help understand the risks and to respond to the patent owner in an appropriate manner. Patent law is not a simple subject, and most individuals simply do not have the expertise or knowledge to determine whether they are infringing, whether the patent is valid and enforceable, and what the risks may actually be.
In my years of practice, I have noticed that many individuals do not understand what the scope of a patent is unless they have significant prior experience with patents. They tend to look at the description of the invention in the specification or the drawings, rather than the claims, when trying to assess their exposure. As patent practitioners know, it is the claims that truly matter (although the specification is important to understanding those claims), and those claims are often far broader then the particular embodiments disclosed in the specification. In addition, claims are not written in a format that is simple to understand, or there are statements made during the prosecution of the patent that are important to understanding their scope, which compounds the problem. Thus, there is a very real risk that individuals will drastically underestimate the risk that they infringe unless they receive competent legal advice.
While hiring an attorney may be an expensive proposition, the consequences of not doing so may be far greater. A typical patent infringement lawsuit can easily cost more than $500,000 to defend, even where the amount at issue is small (and can cost tens of millions of dollars when significant amounts are at issue). And, once a lawsuit begins, it can be very hard for a defendant to unilaterally stop it. If an individual is truly infringing, an attorney can help the client understand the risks and suggest ways of resolving the matter before litigation begins, which potentially can save an individual hundreds of thousands of dollars. Simply ignoring a demand letter can be the last thing an accused infringer should do unless there is a very good reason for doing so because ignoring the demand letter starts to lay the groundwork for a finding of willful infringement, which potentially entitles the patent owner to triple damages and an award of its attorneys’ fees and costs.
The problem of extortionate patent trolls is very real, and I have represented numerous companies that have been the targets of these kinds of trolls. It is extremely frustrating to explain to a client the financial costs and distractions that come with defending a meritless lawsuit brought by patent troll and the fact that there often is no simple way to make the lawsuit disappear without paying some amount of money to the troll. That being said, I’ve also represented legitimate companies with patents on innovations they developed that help give them a competitive edge in the marketplace. They have spent significant time and resources in developing these innovations and bringing them to market and understandably want to protect those investments. The USPTO’s blanket advice to individuals and companies that might receive a demand letter is not particularly helpful and understates the real risks and costs that are at issue. It is somewhat disturbing that an office that is charged with issuing valid patents and supporting innovation would put out such incomplete and unbalanced advice. Hopefully, the USPTO will present more balanced and useful advice when this website moves out of its “beta” stage.
In an opinion issued Novartis AG v. Lee (No. 2013-1160, -1179) yesterday, the Federal Circuit clarified the standards for how much additional time the USPTO should add to the term of an issued patent under 35 U.S.C. § 154(b) when a patentee requests a continued examination.
When Congress changed the effective term of a patent from 17 years after issuance to 20 years after filing, it provided that extensions would be granted in certain circumstances where the delay in issuing the patent was due to the USPTO’s actions or inactions. The rules governing this extension are set forth in 35 U.S.C. § 154. In general, the term of a patent will be extended by one day for each day after three years of examination (subject to some exclusions), or when there are delays due to an interference, secrecy order, or successful appeal.
At issue in this appeal was the proper application of the provisions of 35 U.S.C. § 154(b)(1)(B)(i), which exclude “any time consumed by continued examination of the application requested by the applicant under section 132(b).” With respect to two patents, Novartis requested continue examination under § 132(b). The USPTO Director refused to grant any extensions for the time from the request until issuance of the patents.
Novartis first argued that § 154(b)(1)(B)(i) does not apply if the request for continued examination occurs more than three years after the filing of the application. The Federal Circuit rejected this argument because the purpose of the statute and the other aspects of the statutory structure did not support it. The Court did acknowledge that the language was unclear, but ultimately concluded that Novartis’s position was incorrect.
Novartis next argued that the § 154(b)(1)(B)(i) exclusion only applies to the time from the request to the notice of allowance (not to the date of issuance). The Federal Circuit agreed. The allowance to issuance time period is not related to the continued examination and involves time spent in the office of publication, not with the examiner. The Court felt it inappropriate to not credit the patentee with any delays caused during that part of the process. To the extent that there are any unusual delays relating to the examination after allowance, the USPTO can make appropriate adjustments where appropriate.
While this decision is not likely to affect many patents, practitioners should be aware of this change in these circumstances to make sure that the USPTO is properly calculating any extensions that are due to the patentee.
On April 15, Thomson Reuters published a very interesting article that should be read by attorneys who represent clients in preparing and filing patent applications. The article can be found here. The article reports that at least three cases have been filed by publishers and copyright holders of scientific, technology and medical journals (American Institute of Physics and John Wiley & Sons Ltd.) against law firms for using copyrighted materials as part of the patent application process. The law firms have been accused of “wrongly using copyrighted works to promote their business interests.” In particular, the article reports that the plaintiffs are not complaining about copies being submitted to the USPTO, but rather, they are objecting to the fact that law firms made and kept additional copies of the copyrighted materials. The law firms have responded by arguing that, inter alia, copies made during the course of the representation constitute fair use. We will continue to monitor these cases.
Today, the Federal Circuit is hearing oral argument in Abbott Laboratories v. Cordis Corp. (12-1244) on an interesting issue of whether parties can subpoena documents or testimony in an inter partes re-examination proceeding before the USPTO under 35 U.S.C. § 24.
Cordis sued Abbott Labs and Boston Scientific alleging infringement of two patents. After the filing of the lawsuit, both defendants initiated separate inter partes re-examination proceedings before the USPTO, which were merged. During this merged proceeding, Abbott Labs and Boston Scientific asserted that the patents were obvious and, therefore, invalid under 35 U.S.C. § 103(a). In support of this assertion, Abbott and Boston Scientific submitted affidavits from experts supporting their position.
In response, Cordis attempted to serve subpoenas through the district court seeking evidence relevant to the question of obviousness. Cordis also filed a petition with the USPTO requesting that the Director of the USPTO clarify the USPTO’s rules with respect to the service of subpoenas under 35 U.S.C. § 24 in inter partes re-examinations.
Abbott Labs filed a motion to quash the subpoenas, arguing that (1) the inter partes re-examination procedures prohibit discovery, (2) 35 U.S.C. § 24 does not authorize the issuance of subpoenas because inter partes re-examinations are not “contested cases” within the meaning of the statute, (3) Cordis required USPTO permission before serving the subpoenas, and (4) the subpoenas were vexatious, untimely, and threatened to reveal confidential information.
Prior to oral argument on the motion to quash, the USPTO denied Cordis’s petition, concluding that no discovery is permitted in inter partes re-examinations. The district court then granted Abbott’s motion to quash, agreeing with the USPTO and finding that an inter partes re-examination is not a “contested case” for purposes of the statute. Cordis appealed to the Federal Circuit, which is hearing oral argument today on the issue.
It will be interesting to see how the Federal Circuit rules and whether it allows parties to inter partes re-examinations to engage in this form of limited discovery.
While most people are familiar with patents for inventions, many do not realize that an individual can obtain a patent on new kinds of plants. In In re Walter F. Beineke, the Federal Circuit had to address what kinds of plants (in this case, trees) are eligible for patent protection. In a unanimous decision authored by Circuit Judge Dyk, the Court concluded that the applicant (Walter Beineke) was not entitled to a patent for white oak trees he discovered.
Beineke, a Professor Emeritus of Forestry and Natural Resources at Purdue University, discovered two large, hundred-year-old white oak trees in another’s front yard that appeared to display superior genetic traits than those of other white oaks (excellent timber quality and a strong central stem tendency). Beineke planted acorns from each of the trees and confirmed the superior traits of the trees. After years of studying these trees, he applied for plant patents on both trees.
The United States Patent and Trademark Office rejected his applications, finding that the trees were found in an uncultivated state, which was affirmed by the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences, finding that there was no evidence that the trees had been planted by a person. Beineke appealed, and the Federal Circuit affirmed the rejections, although for a slightly different reason.
The case centered around the proper interpretation of 35 U.S.C. § 161, which allows the Patent Office to issue plant patents to anyone who:
invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant, including cultivated sports, mutants, hybrids, and newly found seedlings, other than a tuber propagated plant or a plant found in an uncultivated state . . . .
The question was what level of human involvement is necessary to obtain a plant patent. Beineke argued that no human involvement is necessary, while the Patent Office argued that humans must play some role in the creation of the plant.
The Federal Circuit traced the history of the Patent Act, starting with the 1930 Act, which allowed plant patents. The Court noted that the statute and the courts applying it recognized that plant patents could not be granted for simply discovering a plant. There had to be some “exercise of the inventive faculty.”
In short, the provisions of the original 1930 Act, incorporated in the present plant patent statute, provided patent protection to only those plants (e.g., sports, mutants, and hybrids) that were created as a result of plant breeding or other agricultural and horticultural efforts and that were created by the inventor, that is, the one applying for the patent.
The Court then considered what effect, if any, the 1954 amendments had on the Plant Patent Act. One of the primary purposes of the amendments was to overrule a prior court decision and allow plant patents for newly found seedlings that were the result of human activity.
Taking all of this together, the Court found that Beineke was not entitled to a plant patent on either white oak tree. The Court concluded that Beineke discovered the white oaks by chance and that he could not demonstrate that the trees were the result of his (or anyone else’s) creative efforts. Given that the trees were over 100 years old when Beineke found them, they were also not “newly found seedlings” within the scope of the 1954 amendments.
Having made these determinations, the Court declined to address what is meant by “found in an uncultivated state” for purposes of § 161, leaving that question for another day and another case.
In Kappos v. Hyatt, 566 U.S. ___ (2012), decided on April 18, 2012, a unanimous Supreme Court affirmed a Federal Circuit decision that (a) a patent applicant faces no limitations on their ability to introduce new evidence in a Section 145 (35 U.S.C. § 145) proceeding beyond those already in place in the Federal Rules of Evidence and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, (b) the district court must take de novo factual findings of both new evidence presented on a disputed question of fact and the administrative record before the PTO, and (c) the district court may consider what weight to afford any new evidence taking into account whether the applicant had an opportunity to present the new evidence before the PTO.
In this case, Gilbert Hyatt (Respondent) filed a patent application that included 117 claims. The PTO’s patent examiner denied each of the claims for lack of an adequate written description pursuant to 35 U.S.C. § 112. Hyatt appealed the decision to the Board of Patent Appeals and Inferences (Board), and after receiving approval of 38 claims, Hyatt filed a Section 145 action in federal district court against the Director of the PTO (Petitioner). In support of his position that the patent application included an adequate written description, Hyatt included a written declaration with his submission to the district court setting forth the portions of the patent specification that, in his opinion, supported the claims that were deemed unpatentable by the Board. The district court refused to consider the declaration on the grounds that applicants are precluded from presenting new issues, at least in the absence of some reason of justice put forward for failure to present the issue to the PTO. The district court then applied a deferential substantial evidence standard under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) in reviewing only the PTO’s administrative record and subsequently granted summary judgment to the Director.
Hyatt appealed to the Federal Circuit, and a divided panel affirmed the district court’s decision that the APA imposed restrictions on the admission of new evidence in a Section 145 proceeding and that the district court’s review is not wholly de novo. The Federal Circuit granted rehearing en banc and vacated the grant of summary judgment. The Supreme Court granted certiorari following the ruling from the en banc court. The Director argued before the Supreme Court that a district court should admit new evidence in a Section 145 action only if the proponent of the evidence had no reasonable opportunity to present the evidence to the PTO in the first instance. Also, the Director argued that, when new evidence is introduced, the district court should overturn the PTO’s factual findings only if the new evidence clearly establishes that the agency committed error in its findings.
The Supreme Court began its analysis of the Director’s arguments by first reviewing the text of Section 145: “An applicant dissatisfied with the decision of the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences in an appeal under section 134(a) may, unless appeal has been taken to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, have remedy by civil action against the Director . . . . The court may adjudge that such applicant is entitled to receive a patent for his invention, as specified in any of his claims involved in the decision of the Board, as the facts in the case may appear, and such adjudication shall authorize the Director to issue such patent on compliance with the requirements of law.” The Supreme Court concluded that the plain text neither imposes unique evidentiary limits in district court proceedings nor establishes a heightened standard of review for factual findings by the PTO.
The Supreme Court next considered the Director’s argument that the statute should be read in light of traditional principles of administrative law under the APA. The Director argued that (a) the district court should defer to the PTO’s factual findings and (b) in line with the traditional rule that a party first must exhaust administrative remedies, the district court should consider new evidence only if the party did not have an opportunity to present the evidence to the PTO. The Supreme Court disagreed with the Director’s positions. First, the Director conceded that Section 145 proceedings are not limited in the same manner as judicial review of an agency decision under the APA, which is typically limited to the administrative record. The Supreme Court noted that the PTO cannot account for evidence that was not presented, and as a result, the district court must make its own findings de novo. Also, the Supreme Court determined that administrative exhaustion does not apply to Section 145 because, while administrative exhaustion avoids premature interruption of the administrative process, the PTO’s process is complete by the time a Section 145 proceeding occurs.
The Supreme Court then analyzed the evidentiary and procedural rules in effect at the time when Congress enacted Section 145 in 1952. The Supreme Court traced the history of Section 145 back to the 1836 Act, which established the Patent Office, and noted that the specific language in Section 145 originated in the 1870 Act. According to the Supreme Court, in 1878, the relevant provision of the 1870 Act was codified by Congress as Revised Statute § 4915 (R.S. 4915), which served as the immediate predecessor to Section 145. The parties agreed that R.S. 4915 and judicial interpretations of that statute provided the foundation for the understanding of Section 145. The Supreme Court analyzed the two primary cases describing the nature of R.S. 4915, and concluded that Congress intended that applicants would be free to introduce new evidence in Section 145 proceedings subject to the rules applicable to all civil actions and that, where new evidence is presented to the district court, a de novo finding would be necessary.
Finally, in agreeing with the Federal Circuit that the district court may decide what weight to afford an applicant’s newly admitted evidence, the Supreme Court noted that the proper means for the district court to accord respect to decisions of the PTO would be through the court’s broad discretion over the weight to be given to such new evidence in Section 145 proceedings.
When drafting a patent, there are a number of factors that a patent attorney needs to consider. I saw this post on the PresumptionofValidity blog that nicely summarizes some of them in a checklist form. With a little bit of planning before you file the application, you can avoid a number of costly and sometimes fatal mistakes. It’s well worth the read (as are a number of other articles on the blog).
Last month, the USPTO issued new rules and provided information that will be useful to trademark practitioners. In May 2011, the USPTO published the third edition of the TTAB Manual of Procedure (TBMP), which is the first update since 2004. The latest edition “incorporates all case law, statutory changes, and changes to the Trademark Rules of Practice and Federal Rules where applicable as of November 15, 2010.” The complete version can be downloaded here. Trademark practitioners before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) will need to review the changes and become familiar with these new rules.
In addition, building on its successful patent dashboard, the USPTO launched a trademarks dashboard. This dashboard, in the USPTO’s Data Visualization Center, provides up-to-date information about trademark filings at the USPTO, such as the average time to the first action, average total pendency of an application, number of applications, and other relevant statistics. This information will allow trademark attorneys to better inform their clients of the delays they may face in filing for a trademark. The USPTO now has three dashboards (patent, trademark, and policy and external affairs) that provide current statistics for the public, which builds on Director Kappos’ goal of providing more transparency about USPTO procedures.