Patently-O Law Blog

Sponsored by MBHB LLP
America's leading patent law blog
Updated: 6 hours 19 min ago

Throwback Thursday: 1993 Patent Application Pendency

Thu, 12/04/2014 - 05:14

1993 USPTO Annual Report

 

The chart above comes from the USPTO’s 1993 annual report.  Back then, applications received a first action on the merits within eight months of filing and appplications issued/abandoned in under 20 months (on average).

Williamson v. Citrix: Means-plus-function, presumptions, and “nonce” words

Wed, 12/03/2014 - 15:33

By Jason Rantanen

This opinion is notable because it involves an emerging split in the Federal Circuit’s  jurisprudence on “X plus function” claim language.  At the heart of the split is the presumption that arises from the non-use of the word “means” in a claim.  Under the majority’s ruling in this case, that burden is extremely difficult to overcome; a holding that furthers the tension with the Federal Circuit’s recent decision in Bosch v. Snap-On.

Williamson v. Citrix Online, LLC (Fed. Cir. 2014) Download Opinion
Panel: Moore,* Linn (author), Reyna (dissenting)

The patent in this case is part of the bankruptcy estate of the @Home Corporation, a late 1990’s venture to provide cable internet and later, a content portal.  (Those of you who were online in the late 1990’s may remember the company or the multi-billion dollar merger of @Home and Excite in 1999).    Shortly after the dot-com bubble burst, @Home collapsed and entered bankruptcy proceedings.  The plaintiff in this case, Richard Williamson, acts as trustee for the At Home Bondholders’ Liquidating Trust and has brought a series of patent infringement suits against major technology companies in an effort to recover assets for the debt holders.

Patent No. 6,155,840 describes and claims “[a] system for conducting distributed learning among a plurality of computer systems coupled to a network.”  Williamson brought an infringement suit against an array of defendants, including Citrix, Microsoft, Adobe, Cisco, and IBM.  At the district court, the defendants obtained a favorable claim construction at the district court on three key terms, two in independent claims 1 and 17 and one in independent claim 8, leading to a stipulation of noninfringement of claims 1-7 and 17-24 and of invalidity due to indefiniteness of claims 8-12.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit reversed the district court’s claim constructions for both groups of claims.  The reversal as to the first group (1-7 and 17-24) is not particularly noteworthy.  There, the majority concluded that the district court erroneously imported an extraneous limitation into the claims: the claim element called for “a graphical display representative of the classroom” and the district court construed this as requiring a “pictorial map illustrating an  at least partially virtual space in which participants can interact, and that identifies the presenter(s) and audience member(s) by their locations on the map.”  “While the specification discloses examples and embodiments where the virtual classroom is depicted as a “map” or “seating chart,” nowhere does the specification limit the graphical
display to those examples and embodiments.”  Slip Op. at 10.  The proper construction  is “a graphical representation of an at least partially virtual space in which participants can interact.”

Judge Reyna disagreed in part.  In his view, “the specification and prosecution history make clear that the ‘graphical display representative of a classroom’ terms are properly construed as requiring a visually depicted virtual classroom.”  Dissent at 2 (emphasis added).  Judge Reyna reached this conclusion based on the specification and prosecution history’s distinguishing of the invention from the prior art based on the presence of this additional element.  [Given Judge Reyna’s views, it sounds like these claims may be invalid under the majority’s claim construction].

The Section 112 Issue: The more significant portion of the opinion involves the second group of claims, which implicate issues of claim construction, functional language, and indefiniteness.  The district court construed the element “distributed learning control module for…” as being a § 112, ¶ 6 [now § 112(f)] means-plus-function element.  Because there was no corresponding structure for the claimed function disclosed in the specification, the claim was indefinite.  (I’ve highlighted the relevant section of the claim in the image above).

On appeal, the majority concluded that it was error to treat “distributed control module” as a means-plus-function claim term.  Under the court’s precedent, the failure to use the word ‘means’ in a claim limitation creates a strong presumption that 35 U.S.C. § 112, ¶ 6 does not apply.  And rebutting this presumption requires meeting a very high standard: “it must be demonstrated that ‘skilled artisans, after reading the patent, would concluded that [the] claim limitation is so devoid of structure that the drafter constructively engaged in means-plus-function claiming.’ Inventio AG v. ThyssenKrupp Elevator Ams. Corp., 649 F.3d 1350, 1357 (Fed. Cir. 2011).’ ” Slip Op. at 13 (my emphasis added). “A claimed expression cannot be said to be devoid of structure if it is used “in common parlance or by persons of skill in the pertinent art to designate structure, even if the term covers a broad class of structures and even if the term identifies the structures by their function.” Lighting World, 382 F.3d at 1359–60.

Applying this “devoid of structure” standard, the majority concluded that the presumption was not rebutted.  There are at least some meanings of “module” that connote structure.  “The district court, in characterizing the word “module”
as a mere nonce word, failed to appreciate that the word ‘module’ has understood dictionary meanings as connoting either hardware or software structure to those skilled in the computer arts.”  Slip Op. at 14.  In addition, the full term, “distributed learning control module,” is part of a structure, “distributed learning server,” and interconnects and intercommunicates with that server.  “These claimed interconnections and intercommunications support the conclusion that one of ordinary skill in the art would understand the expression “distributed learning control module” to connote structure.”  Id. at 16.  The specification, too, suggests that “distributed control module” is not “devoid of structure.”

“Module” is a ‘nonce” word: Dissenting Judge Reyna would have agreed with the district court that the language triggered Section 112, para. 6.  “Module” is simply a substitution for “means”; the effect is the same, as the claim limitation follows the term with “for” and three functions performed by the “distributed learning control module”:

This claim limitation is in the traditional means-plus-function format, with the minor substitution of the term “module” for “means.” The claim language explains what the functions are, but does not disclose how the functions are performed.[] In this case, the term “module” is a “nonce” word, a generic word inherently devoid of structure.

Dissent at 5.  In support of this conclusion that “module” is tantamount to “means,” Judge Reyna cites sources recognizing that terms such as  “module for” may invoke Section 112, para 6, including the Manual of Patent Examining Procedure.  Furthermore, the majority’s citation of sources indicating that “module” can connote hardware, software, or both does not provide structure: “It refers only to a “general category of whatever may perform specified functions.”  Id. at 6, quoting Bosch v. Snap-On.  None of the addition material relied on by the majority provides any structural significance.

The Intra-Circuit Split: Setting aside the issue of whether the Federal Circuit’s current algorithmic approach to indefiniteness of functional language conflicts with  Supreme Court precedent, an issue that Dennis and I have written about, this opinion reflects one of two different approaches to interpreting “X plus function” language in claims. (When “X” is something other than “means” or “step.”).

The majority’s holding in this case is an extension of a line of cases applying a very high threshold for “X plus function” language to trigger application of § 112, ¶ 6.  To rebut the presumption in these cases, the “X” must simply “connote” structure to a person of ordinary skill in the art (and arguably under the way the standard is applied in Williamson, merely be capable of connoting structure).  Put another way, the presumption is only rebutted if the claim term is “devoid” of structure.

The Federal Circuit’s recent opinion in Bosch v. Snap-On, which Dennis wrote about in October, reflects the second approach, which applies a less-strict threshold for   rebutting the presumption.  In Bosch, the court described the analysis as asking “if the claim language, read in light of the specification, recites sufficiently definite
structure to avoid § 112, ¶ 6…The question is whether the claim language names
particular structures or, instead, refers only to a general category of whatever may perform specified functions.”  Bosch at 7 (emphasis added).  There, the court concluded that “program recognition device” and “program loading device” did lack sufficient structure; the term “device” was a “nonce” word.  The result was the opposite of Williamson: § 112, ¶ 6 was triggered and, because there was no corresponding structure the specification, the claims were indefinite.

For purposes of direct comparison, I’ve pasted the statements of the law from these two cases below.

From Williamson v. Citrix:

In Personalized Media Commc’ns, LLC v. International Trade Commission, 161 F.3d 696 (Fed. Cir. 1998), and again in DePuy Spine, Inc. v. Medtronic Sofamor Danek, Inc., 469 F.3d 1005 (Fed. Cir. 2006), we stated that the failure to use the word “means” in a claim limitation created a rebuttable presumption that 35 U.S.C. § 112, para. 6 did not apply. See Personalized Media, 161 F.3d at 703–04; DePuy Spine, 469 F.3d at 1023. This presumption is “a strong one that is not readily overcome.” Lighting World, Inc. v. Birchwood Lighting, Inc., 382 F.3d 1354, 1358 (Fed. Cir. 2004). To rebut this strong presumption, it must be demonstrated that “skilled artisans, after reading the patent, would conclude that [the] claim limitation is so devoid of structure that the drafter constructively engaged in meansplus-function claiming.” Inventio AG v. ThyssenKrupp Elevator Ams. Corp., 649 F.3d 1350, 1357 (Fed. Cir. 2011). A claimed expression cannot be said to be devoid of structure if it is used “in common parlance or by persons of skill in the pertinent art to designate structure, even if the term covers a broad class of structures and even if the term identifies the structures by their function.” Lighting World, 382 F.3d at 1359–60.

From Bosch v. Snap-On:

Although both “program recognition device” and “program loading device” are presumed not to invoke § 112, ¶ 6, we must next turn to the issue of whether this “strong” presumption against means-plus-function claiming is overcome. See Lighting World, Inc. v. Birchwood Lighting, Inc., 382 F.3d 1354, 1358 (Fed. Cir. 2004). In undertaking this analysis, we ask if the claim language, read in light of the specification, recites sufficiently definite structure to avoid § 112, ¶ 6. Inventio, 649 F.3d at 1357. The question is whether the claim language names particular structures or, instead, refers only to a general category of whatever may perform specified functions. See Laitram Corp. v. Rexnord, Inc., 939 F.2d 1533, 1536 (Fed. Cir. 1991) (“[t]he recited structure tells only what the means-for-joining does, not what it is structurally”). In the latter case, § 112, ¶ 6 then commands a construction of the limitation as referring to specification identified corresponding structures and their equivalents.

***

The real problem in my mind, however, is less the split over the strength of the presumption against triggering Section 112(f) when the words “means” (or “step”) are not used, and more the conflict with Nautilus.  Even if Section 112(f) is not triggered, the claim could still be indefinite under the “reasonable certainty” standard for indefiniteness.  In other words, the presumption simply goes to whether or not Section 112(f) is triggered; it does not address the deeper question of what happens when Section 112(f) is not triggered.

*The panel originally included former Chief Judge Rader.  Upon his retirement, Judge Moore was appointed to join the panel.

Federal Circuit Continues to Support Claiming Pharmaceutical Function

Wed, 12/03/2014 - 12:30

by Dennis Crouch

Par Pharma v. TWI Pharma (Fed. Cir. 2014)

In a strong opinion, the Federal Circuit has overturned a lower court summary judgment that Par’s megestrol formulation patent claims are obvious.  (U.S. Patent No. 7,101,576).  The case is interesting because it further solidifies the appellate court’s stance that functional claim limitations should be given their full weight and merit even when serving as the point-of-novelty of the invention.

As with many drug-related patents, Par’s claims include limitations regarding the effect of the drug. Here, the real benefit of Par’s formulation is that it is equally effective if administered in both a “fed” and “fasted” state.  During prosecution (and in response to an obviousness rejection), par added the follow food-effect limitation: “wherein after a single administration … there is no substantial difference in the Cmax of megestrol when the formulation is administered to the subject in a fed versus a fasted state.”  The remainder of the claim involves a series of specific dosages and particle size limitations to be used in the drug administration.

At trial, the district found the claims obvious based upon a combination of prior art references. Notably, the prior art was not shown to teach the food-effect limitation. However, the district court determined that the wherein clause deserved no weight in the obviousness analysis because it was simply describing a result inherent to the formulation.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit has vacated that finding — noting that the district court “incorrectly applied our law on inherency in the context of obviousness.”

Inherency: The traditional approach to inherency is with reference to the prior art — even when not expressly disclosed by the prior art, a feature will be deemed inherent to the prior art if “the natural result flowing from the operation as taught would result in the performance of the questioned function.” Hansgirg v. Kemmer, 102 F.2d 212, 214 (C.C.P.A. 1939).  In the obviousness-combination context, the question is whether the non-disclosed limitation is the natural result of the combination of reference.  In re Oelrich, 666 F.2d 578, 581 (C.C.P.A. 1981) (“[M]ere recitation of a newly discovered function or property, inherently possessed by things in the prior art, does not distinguish a claim drawn to those things from the prior art.”).  The Federal Circuit here writes “the limitation at issue necessarily must be present, or the natural result of the combination of elements explicitly disclosed by the prior art.”

Of importance, however, the “natural flow” must be proven with clear and convincing evidence and may not be established by probabilities or possibilities or expectation.

In reviewing the evidence presented in this case, the appellate panel found that the challenger had failed to present sufficient evidence of inherency.   In particular, althought the evidence presented showed that the combination would improve the food-effect, there was no evidence presented that the food effect was substantially eliminated as required by the claims.

While it may be true that a reduction in particle size [as disclosed in the prior art] naturally results in some improvement in the food effect, the district court failed to conclude that the reduction in particle size naturally results in “no substantial difference” in the food effect.

On remand, the district court will likely consider further evidence with regard to inherency.

The case here also ties-in with Mayo v. Prometheus.  Following that decision, the claimed food-effect as a result of the particular administration would be seen as an unpatentable law of nature.  The question then is whether that claimed function can serve as the point of novelty sufficient to overcome the prior art.

 

Guest Commentary by Prof. Peter Menell: Appellate Review of Patent Claim Construction and Institutional Competence

Tue, 12/02/2014 - 15:27

Guest commentary by Peter S. Menell.  Professor Menell is Koret Professor of Law and at UC Berkeley School of Law and Director of the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology. Professor Menell filed an amicus brief along with Professors Jonas Anderson and Arti Rai in Teva Pharmaceuticals USA Inc. v. Sandoz Inc., 13-854. That brief can be accessed at: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id= 2457958.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard argument six weeks ago in Teva Pharmaceuticals USA v. Sandoz, a case addressing the scope of appellate review of claim construction rulings. While less headline-grabbing than recent cases addressing the patentability of business methods, computer software, and DNA, Teva nonetheless confronts a critical issue that has long plagued the patent adjudication system.

Nearly two decades ago, the Supreme Court sought to promote more effective, transparent patent litigation through its ruling in Markman v. Westview Instruments that “the construction of a patent, including terms of art within its claim, is exclusively within the province of the court.” While carefully avoiding characterizing claim construction as a pure question of law, the court nonetheless removed interpretation of patent claims from the black box of jury deliberations by holding that the Seventh Amendment right of trial by jury did not extend to patent claim construction and that trial judges were better equipped than juries to resolve the mixed fact/law controversies inherent in construing disputed patent claim terms. The decision ushered in a new patent adjudication era in which judges construe patent claims before trial through a process that has come to be known as a “Markman” hearing.

Notwithstanding this shift, the transparency that the Supreme Court sought has only been partially achieved and the quality of claim constructions falls short on evidentiary and analytical rigor. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit’s sharply divided 1998 en banc decision in Cybor Corp. v. FAS Technologies held that claim construction is purely a legal issue subject to de novo appellate review, downplaying the Supreme Court’s more nuanced description of claim construction as a “mongrel practice.”

The Cybor decision dissuaded district judges from holding evidentiary hearings regarding the meaning of disputed claims and discouraged judges from explaining their reasoning. As several district judges have candidly acknowledged, why go through all of that trouble if the Federal Circuit is going to construe the terms de novo on appeal? Claim construction reversal rates and consternation among district (and some Federal Circuit) judges rose precipitously following Cybor. And although the Federal Circuit has twice revisited this issue en banc since Cybor and reversal rates have subsided (but not as a result of more transparent records), the controversy has festered, leading to the Supreme Court’s review.

Why the Fuss?

Patent law requires that claim terms be construed from the standpoint of persons of ordinary skill in the technical art using the patent specification and prosecution history (intrinsic evidence) as well as pertinent scientific and technical sources (extrinsic evidence) where necessary as of the time of the patent filing.

Federal district judges are thus thrust into challenging, but not unfamiliar, territory. As in other areas of their docket — such as products liability, toxic torts or even criminal cases turning on forensics — in which they are called upon to resolve factual disputes about scientific and technological matters, judges have at their disposal a familiar toolbox — presentation of evidence and expert testimony. And when district courts assemble a record and explain their reasoning, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a)(6) provides that their determinations “must not be set aside unless clearly erroneous, and the reviewing court must give due regard to the trial court’s opportunity to judge the witnesses’ credibility.”

Patent claim constructions add a few additional twists to this well-established general judicial framework. Even if a district judge found that a patent claim term meant “X” to skilled artisans as of the effective patent filing date, the court would still have to construe the term to mean “Y” if the intrinsic evidence established that the patentee intended such a specialized meaning. Furthermore, many disputes about patent claim meaning turn not on meaning within the technical art but rather on claim drafting conventions. Thus, courts must pay special attention to the intrinsic evidence. But the understandings of skilled artisans will be pertinent in many claim constructions, and such subsidiary factual determinations should be subject to deference under general judicial rules as well as trial judges’ proximity to the extrinsic evidence.

For these reasons, the Supreme Court should adopt a hybrid appellate standard for claim construction: Factual determinations underlying claim construction rulings should be subject to the “clearly erroneous” standard of review, while the Federal Circuit should retain de novo review over the ultimate claim construction decision. In this manner, district court judges, in their capacity as fact-finders, could better surmount the distinctive challenges posed by the technical, mixed fact/law controversies inherent in patent claim construction. The Federal Circuit would ensure that trial judges’ constructions comport with the intrinsic evidence supporting the patents.

Parsing the Supreme Court Argument

The Teva argument began with a colloquy regarding what constitutes a “subsidiary fact” and how it relates to the ultimate claim construction determination. Midway through Teva’s opening argument, Justice Samuel Alito expressed doubt that departing from the de novo standard was worth the candle. He noted that a recent empirical study could not find any case in which a shift from the de novo standard to clear error review of factual determinations would have affected the appellate review outcome.

In an unintended manner, Justice Alito’s query highlights the reason de novo review of factual determinations raises serious concerns for a justice system. The study to which he refers does not and cannot establish the “fact” that it is purported to prove. Its analysis — which is not revealed or scrutinized in the Supreme Court colloquy — boils down to the following logic: (1) three-judge panels of the Federal Circuit will be better than a single generalist district court judge at applying the appellate court’s rules of claim construction; and (2) because most claim construction reversals (77.1 percent) are unanimous, a shift to a clear error standard would not change the outcome of any cases. The first point ignores the distinctive role of judges in fact-finding, a pillar on which our court system is based. The second point does not prove that no cases would come out differently. It also overlooks the norm that appellate judges rarely dissent unless they disagree on legal questions.

More fundamentally, according greater deference to trial courts through clear error review would encourage district judges to use focused evidentiary hearings (in conjunction with the technical tutorials that are common) to substantiate the basis for their claim constructions, thereby promoting more systematic, well-founded claim construction analysis. Contrary to the study to which Alito referred, we have reason to expect clearer substantive analysis, more settlements following claim construction and trial, more effective appellate review, and fewer reversals and remands in a parallel universe in which Rule 52(a)(6) applies to claim constructions — not business as usual in the Cybor regime.

The Court also probed how deference on subsidiary facts would affect uniformity in patent interpretation. At a basic structural level, it is difficult to see how to achieve such uniformity to the extent that claim construction has a factual component. Under Blonder-Tongue Labs., Inc. v. Univ. of Ill. Found., 402 U.S. 313 (1971), the Federal Circuit’s interpretation of a patent in one case cannot be asserted offensively by the patentee in a later infringement action against other defendants to the extent that there are disputed factual underpinnings. At most, that prior adjudication can bar the patentee from seeking an alternative interpretation under judicial estoppel principles. Because the patent system has no mechanism for conclusively establishing patent scope with regard to all potential infringers where subsidiary factual disputes exist, the certainty that flows from appellate interpretations is not ironclad, as subsequent defendants can potentially bring new evidence or more effective advocacy to bear on claim meaning. Nonetheless, district courts routinely consider prior interpretations of patent claim terms in conducting claim construction. Moreover, concerns about the clarity of patent claims are more appropriately addressed through improvements to the patent prosecution process, post-grant review and reexamination, consolidation of claim construction through multi-district litigation, and adjustments to substantive claim construction jurisprudence.

Back to Basics

The Teva case poses a fundamental question going to the heart of the American justice system. Should factual determinations underlying patent claim construction be subject to substantially less deference (or more distrust) than the factual determinations made in every other area of federal adjudication? In view of the Supreme Court’s efforts over the past decade to bring patent adjudication more in line with general civil litigation principles, it is difficult to see why the Court would make an exception here. Combining deferential review of factual findings with de novo review of the overarching claim construction determination — focused on ensuring that claim construction comports with the intrinsic evidence and that the trial court followed generally applicable rules of claim construction — would enhance the quality of claim constructions, produce a more capacious and transparent appellate record, and provide the appropriate appellate safeguard.

Patent Reform: Impact of Alice on Business Method Patents

Tue, 12/02/2014 - 09:27

Jim Bessen has a short essay in The Atlantic titled: What the Courts Did to Curb Patent Trolling—for Now.   In the essay, Bessen includes the following chart of  showing how the USPTO has slowed-down issuance of business method patents following Alice. Notably, software patents in general have not seen the same slowdown.

The point here, according to Bessen is that, although the Supreme Court has done some work, there is still plenty of room for Congressional action to further reduce or eliminate patents covering software.

Both sides of the debate have considerably increased their lobbying activity over the past few weeks as Republicans formulate their legislative strategy for 2015.

Brilliant New Book on Ethics in Prosecution 2015 Edition Out Now!

Mon, 12/01/2014 - 08:10

By David Hricik

Proud to announce that the 3rd edition of Patent Ethics: Prosecution that I co-authored with Mercedes Meyer is now available here!  This edition adds a massive amount of new material to deal with the new PTO ethics rules and the fast-moving, roller coaster world of ethical issues in patent practice!

From the description:

Patent Ethics: Prosecution (2015 Edition), by David Hricik and Mercedes Meyer, is an essential guide to the ethical issues arising in the course of the patent prosecution process. By providing relevant rules and case law, it allows practitioners to identify ethical problems before they arise and to address them most effectively when they do. Patent Ethics: Prosecution is one of two volumes on patent ethics — the second focuses on litigation — and is the first of its kind to combine the United State Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) rules with commentary by the authors, which distills the authors’ own experience and expertise in patent prosecution into effective practice strategies.

The 2015 Edition is particularly relevant considering the significant ramifications with the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) repealing its existing rules, the USPTO Code of Professional Responsibility, and replacing them with the new USPTO Rules of Professional Conduct. Furthermore, the 2015 Edition also comprehensively discusses ethical issues of major concern for patent law practitioners such as:
•   The increase in malpractice claims based upon patent prosecution as well as recent significant verdicts of $30 million and $70 million.

•   The USPTO’s Office of Enrollment and Discipline’s vigorous enforcement efforts, continued persistence in asserting a broad view of its jurisdiction, and resulting increase in the volume of case law and other authorities.

•   The troublesome issue of best mode and the America Invents Act.

•   The various ethical issues surrounding patent agents.

The 2015 Edition features new analysis of current client conflicts in patent practice, including when prosecution and opinion work become “adverse” to a client, the conflicts of interest created by the AIA’s approach to the best mode, and duty of candor post-Therasense. It also includes an updated PTO Code completely annotated with OED decisions on each provision.

Makes a perfect Christmas present, too!  Buy one for every lawyer in your firm!  Heck, buy two so they have one at home!

USPTO’s Swelling Examiner Rolls

Sun, 11/30/2014 - 18:38

Count of USPTO Employees by Fiscal Year

In FY2014, the USPTO swelled to over 12,000 employees.  This represents a 50% increase in less than a decade.  As the chart above indicates, the bulk of the increase (and indeed, the bulk of employees overall) is in patent examiners.  Today, the number of patent examiners is approaching 9,000 and Director Lee expects to continue to hire more examiners through the next year.

The idea here is to take control of the 1.1 million application backlog to ensure that patents are either issued or rejected early in the process.  A major question is what will the USPTO do with the excess employees once the backlog comes down.

USPTO Backlog

Tue, 11/25/2014 - 23:29

The backlog of pending cases generally has two major inputs: (1) how many applications are filed and (2) how fast the USPTO is at examining those applications.  The USPTO is operating faster than ever, but we also have more applications than ever.  I expect that the figures here will drop dramatically in FY2016.

Vail 2015

Mon, 11/24/2014 - 20:03

I will be part of the faculty of the Intellectual Property Law Program at the National CLE Conference in Vail, Colorado January 7-11, 2015,  www.cleandski.com.  I hope to see you there. For a $100 discount, use the promo code FACULTYINSIDER. – Dennis

Stays Pending Review

Fri, 11/21/2014 - 15:17

In Versata v. Callidus, the Federal Circuit holds that the erred by refusing to stay litigation to await the outcome of an CBM post-grant review proceedings.  Generally, stays of litigation are given to the discretion of the district court judge and reviewed only for abuse of discretion. However, the AIA provides that Federal Circuit review on this issue is de novo when the justification for a stay is CBM review.

Versata filed its lawsuit in 2012 — alleging infringement of three different patents. U.S. Patent Nos. 7,904,326; 7,908,304; and 7,958,024.  More than one year later, in August 2013, Callidus filed three petitions for CBM post-grant review respectively challenging the asserted patents (although not all claims of all of the patents).  Then, in March of 2014 the PTAB instituted its CBM review for each patent — finding that each challenged claim was most likely unpatentable as abstract under 35 U.S.C. 101.  In April 2014 Callidus filed three new CBM petitions that challenge all of the remaining asserted claims in the patents.  In May 2014, the district court granted a stay of proceedings as to the ‘326 infringement action but denied it as to the other two patents and prepared to move forward for a October 2015 trial date.  Callidus then filed for interocutory appeal of the stay denial.  And finally, while awaiting appeal, the PTO acted on the second-round of petitions and agreed that all of the claims are likely invalid under Section 101.  The CBM reviews are still ongoing, but Callidus would like the district court to stop its proceedings and wait for the PTAB to finalize its results.

The AIA provides statutory guidance for dealing with stays of litigation in light of CBM reviews. In particular, the AIA provides that the judge should consider:

(A) whether a stay, or the denial thereof, will simplify the issues in question and streamline the trial; (B) whether discovery is complete and whether a trial date has been set; (C) whether a stay, or the denial thereof, would unduly prejudice the nonmoving party or present a clear tactical advantage for the moving party; and (D) whether a stay, or the denial thereof, will reduce the burden of litigation on the parties and on the court.

AIA § 18(b)(1).  The AIA also provides for immediate interlocutory appeal of decisions on stays pending CBM review and de novo review on appeal.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit has reversed – finding that the CBM review as a good chance of greatly simplifying the issues in the case.  Of notable importance, the court found that, although the relevant time for judging a stay is as of the motion filing, the court may (and did) take judicial notice of the ongoing PTAB proceedings.

 

Looking at Inter Partes Reviews

Fri, 11/21/2014 - 07:53

Since the new procedure launched in 2011, third parties have filed more than two thousand requests for Inter Partes Review.

IPR Filings

In their new University of Chicago Law Review essay, Professor Brian Love and Shawn Ambwani explore some of the results from these past two years. See Inter Partes Review: An Early Look at the Numbers81 U Chi L Rev Dialogue 93 (2014) [Essay].

Love, who tends to favor a strong post-issuance review regime, suggests that (based upon the initial numbers) the regime is doing its job:

Though it would be premature to make sweeping claims about IPR at this time, so far IPR appears to be a powerful shield for those accused of patent infringement (and those who anticipate that they may soon be). Compared to requests for inter partes reexamination, petitions for IPR are currently granted at a similar rate, but once instituted, they result in the elimination of every challenged claim about twice as often, reach a final decision almost twice as quickly, and make accused infringers almost twice as likely to win motions to stay co-pending litigation. In its attempt to create a formidable avenue for administratively challenging issued patents, Congress appears to have hit the mark—but only time will tell for sure.

Looking particularly at NPEs, the article reports that IPR-challenges of patents being elsewhere asserted by NPE are more likely to be instituted (as compared with the population), but less likely to result in cancellation of claims.

Over the next year, the number of results will grow tremendously and we will have a better understanding of the process and its merits. In addition, I suspect that the results will vary over time as Office hones its approach and the composition and leadership of the PTAB changes.

 

Notes from the Patent Public Advisory Committee Meeting

Thu, 11/20/2014 - 10:57

by Dennis Crouch

  1. Notice has been prepared for Subject-Matter-Eligibility Guidance, but the USPTO and White House is reviewing that notice based upon Ultramercial and will be released “as soon as we can.”  Will provide an avenue for written and verbal comments from the public.
  2. RCEs Backlog is again under control.
  3. Average pendency (filing-to-issuance) is 38 months for FY2014.  Only about 11 months of that represents time where the PTO is waiting on applicant responses.  Track-One (the fast-track) applications are averaging 16-months to issuance/abandonment.
  4. 1.1 million utility applications are in the pipeline (not counting provisional or PCT applications) has remained relatively steady.  The number of applications awaiting a first action on on the merits has dropped to about 600,000. These figures are major accomplishments considering that more applications are being filed than ever before.
  5. Patent examiner attrition rate is low <5%.  This means that the USPTO needs to take steps to make sure that more experienced examiners continue to do an excellent job.
  6. Interviews continue to rise – about 30% of applications involve an interview prior to the initial disposal (marked by an allowance, abandonment, RCE).
  7. USPTO along with the IP5 is rolling out a “Global Dossier” for patent applications filed in the various countries with the hope of facilitating the sharing of information between offices. Expected in FY2015.
  8. PTAB now has over 200 judges – up from 80 in 2010 with a goal of hiring 60 more judges in FY2015.  About half of judge time is spent on ex parte appeals.
  9. Of the 161 IPRs with final written decisions, in 63% all challenged and instituted claims were found unpatentable while in only 16% of cases were all claims found patentable.
  10. The backlog of ex parte appeals remains over 25,000 pending cases. Most of these have been waiting 18-months or more.
  11. In FY2014, the USPTO collected $3.17 billion in user fees.  The USPTO’s IT Department (OCIO) has a budget of $670 million.
  12. USPTO Expects that Congress will address patent reform as well as trade secret reform.

Issue Preclusion in Relation to a Larger Patent Portfolio

Wed, 11/19/2014 - 12:21

By Dennis Crouch

One risk of claim construction is potential for inconsistent judgments between different district court judges who each are required to construe disputed claim terms.  In e.Digital v. Futurwei (Huawei), the district court cut this knot by applying the doctrine of collateral estoppel (issue preclusion) to preclude the patentee from seeking a construction that varied from that of a prior court.  On appeal, the Federal Circuit has largely affirmed — however, the appellate panel rejected the notion that collateral estoppel applies to the construction of identical terms found in a second asserted patent since that second-patent was not at issue in the prior case and had material differences. [Read the Court Decision]

Due process generally requires Courts to allow parties a chance to make their case. However, the doctrine of collateral estoppel blocks parties from re-litigating issues that had already been finally decided.  Generally, the issue being precluded must have been actually litigated by the party being precluded and necessarily decided as part of a valid final judgment.  Because claim construction is an interlocutory decision and subject to modification, preclusion does not kick-in until a final judgment is awarded.

Here, a prior Colorado Court construed the terms of e.Digital’s U.S. Patent Nos. 5,491,774. The ‘774 patent covers a handheld audio recorder/player. All of the asserted claims require  “a flash memory module which operates as the sole memory of the received processed sound electrical signals” (sole memory limitation).  The patentee argued that this sole-memory-limitation should not rule-out the use of microprocessors that also require RAM to operate.  The Colorado district court disagreed and held that the claims excluded any device with RAM. Under the arguably narrow construction it was clear that the accused infringers did not actually infringe and the parties stipulated to a dismissal of the case.

In the present action against Huawei, e.Digital asserted both the ‘774 patent and Patent No. 5,839,108.  Although the ‘108 patent is not an official ‘family member’ (e.g., not a continuation, CIP, or divisional), it does cover the same basic device and includes the identical sole memory limitation.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit found that, despite the identical limitation, it was improper for the district court to rely on issue preclusion to bar the patentee from litigating construction of the sole memory limitation term with respect to the ‘108 patent.

The ’108 patent . . . presents a separate claim construction issue. The ’108 patent is not related to the ’774 patent, but does disclose a purported improvement to the ’774 patent. While the ’108 patent may incorporate by reference the ’774 patent as prior art, it does not change the fact that the patents are not related. The ’108 patent discloses a separate invention, includes a distinct prosecution history, and is supported by a different written description—including Figures 3 and 4 which clearly depict RAM. These distinctions reinforce the well understood notion that claims of unrelated patents must be construed separately. Texas Digital Sys., Inc. v. Telegenix, Inc., 308 F.3d 1193, 1211 (Fed. Cir. 2002) (citing Abbott Labs. v. Dey, L.P., 287 F.3d 1097, 1104 (Fed. Cir. 2002)) (explaining that a claim of an unrelated patent “sheds no light on” the claims of the patent in suit). Because the asserted patents are not related, the ’108 patent requires a new claim construction inquiry and the court therefore erred in applying collateral estoppel to the ‘108 patent.

The holding here is partially based upon the fact that the two patents are not formally related according to the rules of priority.  However, the court added – in dicta – that issue preclusion might not apply even if they had been related.

To be clear, our decision that collateral estoppel cannot apply to the construction of a claim in one patent based on a previous claim construction of an unrelated patent is not an invitation to assume the opposite is always justified. That is, a court cannot impose collateral estoppel to bar a claim construction dispute solely because the patents are related. Each case requires a determination that each of the requirements for collateral estoppel are met, including that the issue previously decided is
identical to the one sought to be litigated. A continuation-in-part, for instance, may disclose new matter that could materially impact the interpretation of a claim, and therefore require a new claim construction inquiry.

The point here is that issues involving a related but previously un-asserted patent ‘might’ be subject to issue preclusion based upon whether the new patent requires consideration of arguments and facts that are distinct from the already issued patent.

Going forward, this case offers some considerations for patent portfolio management both at the filing/prosecution stages as well as the assertion stage.  This case, coupled with other prior Federal Circuit decisions provide value in splitting-up larger patents into smaller component patents and in potentially holding-back some patents from initial rounds of litigation.

Moving Toward Unified European Patent Enforcement: Leaping Another Hurdle

Tue, 11/18/2014 - 11:45

Guest Post by Thomas Leonard of Kilburn & Strode LLP, London

The Advocate General for the CJEU has recommended Spain’s challenge to the Unitary Patent be thrown out.  Although not legally binding, it gives a good indication of what the Court will decide and brings the Unitary Patent closer than ever.  The most optimistic projections for implementation are 2016.

 

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has issued a press release detailing the Advocate General’s opinion in related cases C-146/13 and C-147/13 brought by Spain against the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union.

Spain had challenged the Parliament and Council decisions to proceed with implementing the Unitary Patent package without the full agreement of all member states of the EU.  Spain complained the choice of English, French and German was discriminatory against states having different official languages.  Spain also argued the implementation and use of “enhanced cooperation”, which avoids the need for a unanimous decision on the matter among the member states, was illegal.

The AG has, however, recommended that the Court dismiss Spain’s actions, reasoning the establishment of a Unitary Patent was good for harmonisation across the EU single market:

Spain’s actions against the European regulations implementing enhanced cooperation in the area of the creation of unitary patent protection must be dismissed.  The unitary protection conferred provides a genuine benefit in terms of uniformity and integration, whilst the choice of languages reduces translation costs considerably and safeguards better the principle of legal certainty

The AG also noted that the grant of Unitary Patents would be governed by the European Patent Convention, which has been in force since 1973.

The AG reaches this Opinion despite apparently noting that non EN/FR/DE language countries would be discriminated against.  Some sacrifices are clearly worth the “guarantees” the Unitary Patent will provide.

The Opinion is not legally binding.  Instead we must wait for the judgment of the court.  Nevertheless, the Court in most cases agrees with the Opinion, and so it gives us a good indication of what the Court will decide.

Meanwhile, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France and Sweden have ratified the Agreement on the Unified Patent Court.  The Agreement will come into force once 13 states, including France, Germany and the UK, have ratified it.

Patent Litigation Rates

Tue, 11/18/2014 - 11:23

One of the ongoing themes of patent reform advocates is that patent litigation is out-of-control and is overwhelming the business capabilities of operating companies.  In an interesting new paper, Ron Katznelson offers a partial rebut to that argument by showing that normalized patent litigation rates have remained fairly constant over the past century.

Ron Katznelson, A Century of Patent Litigation in Perspective (2014). Available at http://ssrn.com/abstract=2503140.

The chart below shows the number of patent lawsuits filed each year as a percentage of the number of patents in-force during the given year.  In the article, Katznelson explains some of the peaks and valleys, including the recent AIA-spike, the WWII dip,  the heightened activities of the 20s and 30s associated with the proliferation of aadio and electronic technologies, and even the 1935 egg incubator controversy.

Reissue Patent with Shifted Claim Focus Invalid: Not “clearly and unequivocally disclose[d] … as a separate invention.”

Mon, 11/17/2014 - 13:12

by Dennis Crouch

In Antares Pharma v. Medac Phama (Fed. Cir. 2014), the court has invalidated Antares’ reissue patent no. RE44,846 — finding that the reissued claims fail to comply with the “original patent” requirement of 35 U.S.C. 251.  This “original patent” requirement is roughly equivalent to both the written description requirement and the prohibition on new matter — all three basically require that the original patent specification disclose the particular invention now being claimed. Here, however, the court takes the requirement a major step further — indicating that the requirement is only satisfied if the newly claimed invention was described as the invention in the original disclosure.  The leading Supreme Court case on the topic is US Industrial Chem v. Carbide & Carbon Chem, 315 U.S. 668 (1942).  In that case, the Supreme Court held the asserted reissue invalid because claimed solution no longer required water even though the original specification had at least hinted that water was optional.  There, the court held that reissued claims must be “the same invention described and claimed and intended to be secured by the original patent.”   Under the Federal Circuit’s interpretation here, the requirement is that new or amended claims are only valid if the original specification “clearly and unequivocally disclose[s] the newly claimed invention as a separate invention.”  Going forward the biggest question is whether this requirement will also be extended to the written description requirement and new matter limitations.

Section 251 of the Patent Act creates the reissue process that allows a patentee to seek correction of errors in an original patent.  In the process, the patentee can broaden its patent scope, but only if the reissue application is filed within two-years of the original patent issuance. Further, a reissue application may not “recapture” scope that was surrendered during the original prosecution in order to obtain allowance nor may the reissue claim an invention that was not fully and expressly disclosed in the original written description.

Here, the patent covers the seeming torture device of a needle-assisted jet injector.  Soon after patent issuance, however, the patentee sought a reissue that removed the “jet injector” limitation and focused on novel safety features that were not originally claimed. The court writes:

The original specification here does not adequately disclose the later-claimed safety features to meet the Industrial Chemicals standard. The specification discussed only one invention: a particular class of jet injectors. . . . Although safety features were mentioned in the specification, they were never described separately from the jet injector, nor were the particular combinations of safety features claimed on reissue ever disclosed in the specification. Rather, the safety features were serially mentioned as part of the broader conversation: how to build the patented jet injection device.  . . . Nowhere does the specification disclose, in an explicit and unequivocal manner, the particular combinations of safety features claimed on reissue, separate from the jet injection invention. This does not meet the original patent requirement under § 251.

Based upon this failure, the patented claims are invalid for violating the original patent requirement of Section 251.

= = = = =

This is an interesting and important case with regard to reissue applications and it may have important implications for the written description requirement as well.

A few limited remarks:

I should note first that the Federal Circuit here failed to explain how failure of the original patent requirement is a proper validity defense under 35 U.S.C. 282. [Update – I apologize, but I failed to express the point was thinking.  My basic point was that validity challenges for improper reissue are expressly stated in the statute while subject-matter challenges are not there.]

Second, the posture of this case is interesting – the patentee was appealing a denial of preliminary injunction. However, rather than simply affirming the denial (based upon likely invalidity), the Federal Circuit here ruled conclusively that the claims are invalid as a matter of law.

Finally, as alluded-to, this case appears poised to reach well beyond its reissue context and impact the entire population of patents under the context of the written description requirement.  Here, the court indicated that the standard from Industrial chemicals is “analogous to the written description requirement.”  Going forward, the USPTO may well begin limiting applications that shift claim focus under this newly revived doctrine.

Opinion by Judge Dyk, joined by Judges Reyna and Taranto.

Reissue Patent with Shifted Claim Focus Invalid: Not “clearly and unequivocally disclose[d] … as a separate invention.”

Mon, 11/17/2014 - 13:12

by Dennis Crouch

In Antares Pharma v. Medac Phama (Fed. Cir. 2014), the court has invalidated Antares’ reissue patent no. RE44,846 — finding that the reissued claims fail to comply with the “original patent” requirement of 35 U.S.C. 251.  This “original patent” requirement is roughly equivalent to both the written description requirement and the prohibition on new matter — all three basically require that the original patent specification disclose the particular invention now being claimed. Here, however, the court takes the requirement a major step further — indicating that the requirement is only satisfied if the newly claimed invention was described as the invention in the original disclosure.  The leading Supreme Court case on the topic is US Industrial Chem v. Carbide & Carbon Chem, 315 U.S. 668 (1942).  In that case, the Supreme Court held the asserted reissue invalid because claimed solution no longer required water even though the original specification had at least hinted that water was optional.  There, the court held that reissued claims must be “the same invention described and claimed and intended to be secured by the original patent.”   Under the Federal Circuit’s interpretation here, the requirement is that new or amended claims are only valid if the original specification “clearly and unequivocally disclose[s] the newly claimed invention as a separate invention.”  Going forward the biggest question is whether this requirement will also be extended to the written description requirement and new matter limitations.

Section 251 of the Patent Act creates the reissue process that allows a patentee to seek correction of errors in an original patent.  In the process, the patentee can broaden its patent scope, but only if the reissue application is filed within two-years of the original patent issuance. Further, a reissue application may not “recapture” scope that was surrendered during the original prosecution in order to obtain allowance nor may the reissue claim an invention that was not fully and expressly disclosed in the original written description.

Here, the patent covers the seeming torture device of a needle-assisted jet injector.  Soon after patent issuance, however, the patentee sought a reissue that removed the “jet injector” limitation and focused on novel safety features that were not originally claimed. The court writes:

The original specification here does not adequately disclose the later-claimed safety features to meet the Industrial Chemicals standard. The specification discussed only one invention: a particular class of jet injectors. . . . Although safety features were mentioned in the specification, they were never described separately from the jet injector, nor were the particular combinations of safety features claimed on reissue ever disclosed in the specification. Rather, the safety features were serially mentioned as part of the broader conversation: how to build the patented jet injection device.  . . . Nowhere does the specification disclose, in an explicit and unequivocal manner, the particular combinations of safety features claimed on reissue, separate from the jet injection invention. This does not meet the original patent requirement under § 251.

Based upon this failure, the patented claims are invalid for violating the original patent requirement of Section 251.

= = = = =

This is an interesting and important case with regard to reissue applications and it may have important implications for the written description requirement as well.

A few limited remarks:

I should note first that the Federal Circuit here failed to explain how failure of the original patent requirement is a proper validity defense under 35 U.S.C. 282. [Update - I apologize, but I failed to express the point was thinking.  My basic point was that validity challenges for improper reissue are expressly stated in the statute while subject-matter challenges are not there.]

Second, the posture of this case is interesting – the patentee was appealing a denial of preliminary injunction. However, rather than simply affirming the denial (based upon likely invalidity), the Federal Circuit here ruled conclusively that the claims are invalid as a matter of law.

Finally, as alluded-to, this case appears poised to reach well beyond its reissue context and impact the entire population of patents under the context of the written description requirement.  Here, the court indicated that the standard from Industrial chemicals is “analogous to the written description requirement.”  Going forward, the USPTO may well begin limiting applications that shift claim focus under this newly revived doctrine.

Opinion by Judge Dyk, joined by Judges Reyna and Taranto.

USPTO Telework Abuses

Mon, 11/17/2014 - 11:18

by Dennis Crouch

On November 18, the Congressional Judiciary an Oversight Committees will jointly hold hearings on the USPTO Telework Scandal.  As with many beltway-scandals, this one is double-dip involving both the scandal and then the cover-up.  Basically, USPTO managers allowed teleworkers to violate their time-reporting rules and then USPTO management attempted to hide at least some of those abuses from the Department of Commerce Inspector General after an anonymous whistleblower spilled the beans. [NOTE - The USPTO hotly contests the notion that it attempted any coverup]

[Hearing Notice and Written Testimony] [Testimony of Inspector General Zinser]

The Obama Administration appears to be shielding its USPTO Director Nominee Michelle Lee and is instead sending Patent Commissioner Margaret Focarino to testify.  The USPTO’s written testimony offers little information other than general statements of quality, performance, and seriousness.  The report offers no indication of whether any employees were fired, sanctioned, or prosecuted for reporting time worked without actually working (or encouraging that approach).  Further, even years after the PTO management became aware of the issues, the agency is still only in the process of “clarifying what steps supervisors should take if they suspect any misconduct.” [Focarino Testimony].  It will be interesting to see whether the committee members will allow the PTO to keep its comments at such a “high level of generality.”

Following Commissioner Focarino’s approach, Esther Kepplinger argues against transparancy — noting that many of the USPTO problems can an should be dealt with “outside the public eye.”

Bill Smith offers useful testimony on the count system and RCE-abuse.  [Smith Testimony] Smith notes that the count system offers some incentives for examiners to engage in bad or abusive behavior to ensure that they remain highly paid.  Smith proposes a change in the system with what he calls Compact Prosecution 2.0.

An Update on Patent Reform 2015

Mon, 11/17/2014 - 10:30

by Dennis Crouch

The current outlook for legislative patent reform in 2015 is not so much whether reforms will be enacted but instead how far they will go.  In a Chamber of Commerce IP event on November 18, Representative Goodlatte and Senator Coons will discuss their outlook on IP legislation in the new term.  Goodlatte has championed strong legislative patent reforms that include a presumption of attorney fee shifting, broadening of post-issuance review proceedings, heightened pleading requirements, and patent ownership transparency.  Senator Coons has also favored patent reform as well as sponsoring bills to nationalize trade secret law.

Emerging as a leading Senate Republican on patent reform is Senator Cornyn of Texas. Julian Hattem (The Hill) quotes Sen. Cornyn as saying that the 2015 Senate will “absolutely” pass legislative patent reforms to address the problem of “patent trolls.”  In 2014, Senators Cornyn and Schumer drafted a compromise bill that was less extreme than the Goodlatte version (that passed the House).  However, that compromise was never strongly supported by members of either party.  For his part, President Obama appears to be willing and ready to sign the Goodlatte bill if approved by Congress.

In the longer game, members of both parties see these patent reforms as potentially offering experimental results for major tort reform initiatives.  The test of success is whether the reforms limit the enforcement of “bad” patents while upholding both the value of “good” patents and the research-incentives offered by the patent system.

With Democrats out of the majority in the Senate, it is unclear whether patent reformers will now push for reforms that go beyond the recent legislative proposals.  A major open issue is that of the short nine-month window for filing of post-grant review proceedings.  A simple proposal would extend that window to 18-months post issuance and additionally open a second window to challenge very old patents.  In the past, I have proposed a USPTO claim-construction proceeding that could be a simple and cost-effective tool for formally establishing claim scope.