Nine months in, and we are still awaiting the Biden administration’s decision as to whether the law of patent eligibility should be clarified. This area of patent law has in recent years become increasingly unpredictable, and the consequences of that unpredictability have largely fallen on startups, whose primary assets are often inventions. On May 3, 2021, the Supreme Court invited the Solicitor General to recommend whether certiorari should be granted in American Axle v. Neapco Holdings, LLC—a case in which a method for manufacturing vehicle driveshafts was deemed ineligible under 35 USC § 101 as being directed to a law of nature.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has submitted proposed rulemaking for review by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Although the details are not public, the proposed rule is anticipated to formalize prudential doctrines on trial institution that the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) currently applies through precedential opinions such as Apple Inc. v. Fintiv, Inc.; General Plastic Industries Co. Ltd. v. Canon Kabushiki Kaisha; and Becton, Dickinson & Co. v. B. Braun Melsungen AG. These doctrines provide legal frameworks under which the PTAB may deny institution of an inter partes review (IPR) based on fairness—rather than on merits alone. Because the doctrines reduce the odds that certain categories of IPRs will be instituted, they are subjects of fierce dispute among patent lobbyists and, most recently, a lawsuit filed under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) in the Northern District of California. Apple Inc. v. Iancu, No. 5:20-cv-06128 (N.D. Cal.). As the two sides fight for their respective interests, the public—and policymakers—should not lose sight of the big picture: these doctrines protect basic tenets of fairness and they are, on balance, good policy. Stakeholders and OMB should therefore support the USPTO in its rulemaking effort.