This week in Washington D.C., the Congressional hearings schedule is empty as both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives enter work periods. However, Monday kicks off with a pair of think tank events on global technology issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Atlantic Council. The Brookings Institution hosts a pair of tech-related events this week—one focused on threats to democracy through digital capitalism and the other exploring how tech policy has altered the U.S.-China relationship. Other events include a look at securing supply chains for information and communication technology at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a look at the future of the Marine Corps at The Heritage Foundation.
In order to obtain exclusive rights on an invention, you must file for and obtain a patent. Many inventors will initially opt to file a provisional patent application to initiate the application process, which is a perfectly reasonable decision to make, and will result in a “patent pending” that can even result in a licensing deal. Ultimately, if a patent is desired, a nonprovisional patent application must be filed, and it is this nonprovisional patent application that will mature into an issued patent. U.S. patent laws require that the patent applicant particularly point out and distinctly claim the subject matter which the inventor regards as his or her invention. Any patent, or patent application, contains a variety of different sections that contain different information. Generally speaking, a patent is divided into a specification, drawings and patent claims. Only the patent claims define the exclusive right granted to the patent applicant; the rest of the patent is there to facilitate understanding of the claimed invention. Therefore, patent claims are in many respects the most important part of the patent application because it is the claims that define the invention for which the Patent Office has granted protection.
Something has happened at the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit over the past six months. After inching forward in a positive direction on patent eligibility, the entire court, including those judges who had been on the pro-patent eligibility wing of the court, have fallen, slipped, or just given up. The precisely correct characterization remains elusive given the traditional, characteristic and appropriate secrecy that surrounds judicial tribunals. As constitutional officers charged with independently deciding cases, judges take few speaking engagements. Even when they do, they generally speak off the record, and never speak about specific issues or cases that may at some point come before them. In this industry, that means little discussion is had between the bench and bar relating to matters of patent eligibility outside the record, which is itself unfortunate. If the judges of the Federal Circuit would sit through a conference exploring patent eligibility as it applies to the software and biotechnology industries, they would learn much about the uncertainty their decisions are causing. Still, something undeniably has changed.
It is time to recognize the elephant in the room. The Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) is broken. And, if we want to be perfectly fair and reasonable in our assessment of the reasons that the PTAB is failing, the blame must trace all the way back to Congress. The creation of three new ways to invalidate patent rights was at best ill-conceived. The manner in which it was done clearly put the finger of infringers on the scale of justice. The creation of an open-ended second window for patents to endlessly be challenged without title ever quieting and ownership ever settling is making a mockery of patent ownership.
USPTO Director Andrei Iancu said “something has to be done about” Section 101, as it has been thrown into flux following various U.S. Supreme Court cases, in comments made at the AIPPI Congress in London, United Kingdom last week. Iancu took part in an hour-long discussion with AIPPI Reporter General John Osha, and also took questions from the audience last Monday. He addressed topics including AI, anti-IP sentiment, litigation costs, bad faith trademark filings and gender parity. But it was issues of patent eligibility that were chief on his mind. Iancu said the Administration “has tried to bring consistency and predictability” to Section 101 with its January 2019 guidance, but added: “Courts are independent. They don’t have to follow our guidance. And so far, I have seen no evidence that they want to.”
The patent process actually starts well before you file a patent application or seek assistance from a patent attorney. Every patent application starts with an invention, and every invention starts with an idea. While ideas are not patentable, there will be a point in time when the idea you are working on comes so into focus with enough detail that it will cross the idea / invention boundary. It is when an idea matures to the point of being concrete and tangible enough to be described to another that the idea has become an invention, at least in general terms.
Yesterday, the Federal Circuit once again breached a fundamental boundary of our American system of law. This particular transgression has occurred only a handful of times, but each is more ominous than the last. If this is allowed to stand, we can no longer be considered a democratic republic, but will have become a banana republic. What is rapidly becoming routine to the patent litigation industry will create shockwaves throughout the other 12 circuit courts, upend the rule of law, and damage our nation. In Chrimar Systems, Inc. v. Ale USA, Inc. FKA Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise USA, Inc. (Fed. Circ. Case No. 18-2420), the Federal Circuit allowed the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) to overrule an Article III court and jury. That is, the Executive Branch of government directly and unequivocally has overruled the Judicial Branch, including a jury.
The bipartisan STRONGER Patents Act of 2019 took an important step forward last week, as the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Intellectual Property held a hearing on the proposed legislation. Senators Tillis and Coons, the Subcommittee’s Chairman and Ranking Member, should be commended for holding the hearing and focusing attention on our patent system’s role in promoting American innovation and job creation. As several of the hearing witnesses made clear in their testimony, our patent system has been dangerously weakened in recent years through a series of judicial, legislative, and administrative changes. These changes have undermined patent rights and made it difficult for inventors to protect their innovations from infringement. Meanwhile, our foreign competitors, including China and Europe, have strengthened their patent rights. This has put us at a competitive disadvantage and helped contribute to a trend of both innovation and venture capital increasingly moving overseas. For example, the U.S. share of global venture capital fell from 66% in 2010 to 40% in 2018, while China’s share increased from 12% to 38% in the same time period. And despite more than a decade of economic growth following the Great Recession of 2007-2009, startup formation has failed to return to its pre-recession levels.
In August, the United States Attorney’s Office (USAO) for the Northern District of California charged a pioneer of self-driving car technology, Anthony Levandowski, with 33 counts of theft and attempted theft of trade secrets from Google under 18 U.S.C. § 1832 of the Economic Espionage Act (EEA). According to the indictment, Levandowski downloaded more than 14,000 files containing critical information about Google’s autonomous-vehicle research before leaving the company in 2016. The indictment alleged that Levandowski then made an unauthorized transfer of the files to his personal laptop. Some of the files that Levandowski allegedly took from Google included private schematics for proprietary circuit boards and designs for light sensor technology, known as Lidar, which are used in self-driving cars. Levandowski joined Uber in 2016 after leaving Google when Uber bought his new self-driving trucking start-up, “Otto.” Levandowski has repeatedly asserted that he never disclosed the download, nor made use of the information while he was at Uber.
An inter partes review (IPR) petitioner appeals the final written decision of the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) as to claims upheld but is found to have no standing, as there is no present indication that the challenger would face a patent infringement suit in future. Under these circumstances, would the IPR statutory estoppel provision, 35 U.S.C. § 315(e), prevent the petitioner from asserting the challenges it brought against the upheld claims if the patent owner were to assert those claims against the petitioner in future? Note that under these circumstances, if estopped, the petitioner would have sought judicial review, but the merits of the challenges would not have been reviewed by an Article III court. This was one of the questions before the Federal Circuit in Avx Corporation v. Presidio Components, Inc. 2018-1106 (Fed. Cir. May 13, 2019) (“Avx Corp.”). Although the court declined to answer the question, as there were no adversarial presentations on this question, it clarified that the operation of estoppel was not a foregone conclusion under these facts, which, the court indicated, may fall under one of the exceptions to issue preclusion.
The most effective way to protect an inventive business method is with a patent on a technical invention. Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 Alice decision, the U.S. courts and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) have consistently held that you can’t patent a business method by itself. The Alice decision overturned several related business method patents as being nothing more than an attempt to patent a fundamental economic process. Lower court decisions have since affirmed that “no matter how groundbreaking, innovative or even brilliant” a business method might be, you still can’t patent it. The only way to use patents, therefore, to protect business method inventions, is to patent the technological inventions required to make the business methods work. These inventions will be patentable since they will “improve the functioning of the computer itself.” See Buysafe, Inc., v. Google, Inc. 765 F.3d 1350 (2014) citing Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., ___ U.S. ___, 133 S.Ct. 2107, 2116, 186 L.Ed.2d 124 (2013).
As the summer winds down, it is time again to focus on how to fix the U.S. patent system. In June, the Senate Judiciary’s IP Subcommittee held unprecedented hearings on patent eligibility. They are now back in closed door sessions with selected stakeholders to further consider language to amend Section 101, having received extensive feedback. My testimony in part addressed the unconstitutionality of the U.S. Supreme Court’s cases on patent eligibility, which have created judicial exceptions that arrogantly ignore the plain wording of Congress’ statute (“invention or discovery” in the disjunctive in Sections 100(a), (f) and (g) and Section 101) and its legislative history, and despite the fact that the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the sole power to create patent law. The doctrine of judicially-created non-statutory obviousness-type double patenting is the flip side of the coin of the patent eligibility issues. A rejection for “non-statutory obviousness-type” double patenting is based on a “judicially-created doctrine” grounded in public policy and which is primarily intended to prevent prolongation of the patent term by prohibiting claims in a second patent not patentably distinct from claims in a first patent. This is problematic for at least the following reasons.
On August 23, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board’s (PTAB’s) Precedential Opinion Panel (POP) issued a decision granting patent owner 360Heros’ request for rehearing of an earlier PTAB decision to institute an inter partes review (IPR) requested by GoPro and also denied institution of that IPR under the one-year time-bar codified in 35 U.S.C. § 315(b). The PTAB agreed with 360Heros that the one-year time-bar began tolling from the filing date of a counterclaim alleging patent infringement that was dismissed by the district court for lack of standing. The POP panel included U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) Director Andrei Iancu, Commissioner for Patents Drew Hirshfeld and PTAB Chief Administrative Patent Judge Scott Boalick. The 360Heros decision may offer inventors an escape route from the PTAB death squad. For the first time since the America Invents Act became law, the shoe could be on the other foot.
On August 15, Trading Technologies International, Inc. (TT) petitioned the Federal Circuit again for panel rehearing and rehearing en banc of its recent decision that found TT’s Ladder Tool invention to be subject to the USPTO’s Covered Business Method (CBM) review process and abstract under Section 101. TT argues that the PTAB did not follow the precedent of the Supreme Court or Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) when reviewing its patent claims. The latest brief relates to U.S. Patent No. 7,725,382 (the ‘382 patent), while TT’s request for rehearing filed July 31 related to U.S. Patent No. 7,693,768.
The Federal Circuit recently reversed the District of Minnesota’s denial of summary judgment in Solutran, Inc. v. Elavon, Inc., Nos. 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 22516 (Fed. Cir. July 30, 2019) (Before Chen, Hughes, and Stoll, Circuit Judges) (Opinion for the Court, Chen, Circuit Judge), holding that the claims at issue, which related to processing paper checks, were invalid under 35 U.S.C. § 101. The physicality of the limitations of the claims did not save the claims. See Physicality of Processing Paper Checks Does Not Save Solutran’s Claims. “[W]e have previously explained that merely reciting an abstract idea by itself in a claim—even if the idea is novel and non-obvious—is not enough to save it from ineligibility,” Judge Raymond Chen of the Federal Circuit explained for the majority. The Federal Circuit can state that proposition until every single judge is blue in the face and there will be one exhausting, inescapable truth—it is wrong! Indeed, this logical impossibility is written into so many Federal Circuit decisions one must wonder how it is possible any of the judges who believe this nonsense were ever able to achieve an acceptable score on the LSAT in order to gain admission to law school in the first place.