If a patent says something is “essential,” then it must be so

To help a patent attorney prepare a patent application, inventors often provide a copy of a manuscript for an upcoming technical journal, research publication or white paper. The manuscript often goes into great detail to explain what features of the invention are essential, critical, or otherwise important to achieve certain results.

Then the patent attorney guts all of that language and produces a document that describes nothing with certainty, and that suggests everything is an option.

Why does this happen?

recent opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit helps to explain the reasoning behind this.

A basic tenet of patent law is that the scope of the patent is defined by the patent’s claims. The detailed description serves as an instruction manual for how to make and use the invention, while the claims define the boundaries of the patent rights that cover the invention.  In order to infringe the patent, someone has to make, use or sell a product or process that contains all elements of at least one of the claims.

Ordinarily, when evaluating a patent infringement case, a court is not supposed to read words into the claims that aren’t already there. A court can use the detailed description to understand what the claim terms mean.  However, in most cases a court should not add features to a claim (and thus narrow the scope of the claim) if those features aren’t expressly recited in the claim.

The recent Federal Circuit decision, X2Y Attenuators, LLC v. Int’l Trade Commission, highlights an exception to this rule:  if the detailed description describes an element as “essential,” then the court may interpret it as being so — even if the claims don’t include that element.

In the X2Y Attenuators case the patent covered a structure for Electrodereducing electromagnetic interference in electrical circuits. The claims covered a structure with four electrodes.  The claims also described the positioning of certain electrodes in a way that caused certain pairs of the electrodes to be physically shielded from each other. The detailed description also said that a common conductive pathway electrode was “an essential element of all embodiments or connotations of the invention.” Because of this language, the court concluded that one could only infringe the patent if one were to make, use or sell a product with a common conductive pathway electrode, even though the patent claims did not specifically recite that element. In particular, the court noted:

we have held that labeling an embodiment as “essential” may rise to a disavowal.

One of the first questions I typically ask an inventor when talking about a new invention is whether he or she has been through the patent process before. If the answer is “no,” then I try to prepare the inventor for the fact that the patent application’s description may soften some of the inventor’s absolute statements.

It’s important to recognize that what’s “essential” to achieve the best possible practical implementation of an invention may not always be “essential” for the purpose of patentability.  The X2Y Attenuators case helps illustrate what happens when a patent application confuses the difference between the two.

If a patent can’t cover an “abstract idea,” can it be a trade secret?

Should I patent my invention or keep it a trade secret?  QuestionInventors often ask me this question.  And after a recent court decision and USPTO actions that raise the bar for patenting software inventions, the question is becoming even more important for software developers who want to protect their IP.

In Alice Corporation Pty Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l, the Supreme Court made it clear that “abstract ideas” are not eligible subject matter for patent protection. The decision, as well USPTO Preliminary Examination Instructions that followed the decision, suggest that inventive concepts such as algorithms, financial business methods and methods of organizing human activity are not, in themselves, patentable unless claimed with additional elements that make the claim cover significantly more than just the abstract idea.

So, does this mean that it’s better to keep certain inventions as a trade secret? Will trade secret law protect abstract ideas in a way that patent law can’t?

In most cases, probably not. Several state court decisions suggest that a trade secret needs to be described in an enabling manner in order for the owner to enforce trade secret rights against others.

For example,the Court of Appeal for the State of California recently held that in California, a “trade secrets plaintiff must, prior to commencing discovery, ‘identify the trade secret with reasonable particularity.’” New Castle Beverage, Inc. v. Spicy Beer Mix, Inc., (Cal. App. 6/17/2014).  In that case, the complaint described the trade secret as a “process of applying a secret solution to the inner and outer surfaces adjacent the lip of a beverage cup to permit a first mixture of spices to adhere to those surfaces.” The court found this description to be too vague.  Also, the lower (trial) court expressed a concern that if it were to grant a preliminary injunction, the court would have difficulty determining whether the defendant was violating the injunction.

This means that when deciding whether to patent a process or keep it trade secret, the inventor should work with his or her attorney to assess which area of law provides the best protection, not which regime is easier to use. In both situations, the inventor should identify and document a complete description of the process.  This description needs to include more than just the general idea itself, it needs to explain how the idea is implemented as technology.

So, if the question is “can I protect it,” patent law and trade secret law will often lead to similar answers.  Neither area of law is likely to help an inventor who either can’t or won’t fully describe the process in a way that enables a reader to make and use the process, and that allows a court to determine when an infringer is using the process.

[Image credit:  Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_anatolymas’>anatolymas / 123RF Stock Photo</a>]

What cloud computing services need to know about the Aereo decision

In June. the United States Supreme Court issued its much-anticipated decision in American Broadcasting Cos. v. Aereo, Inc. The decision effectively shut down the Aereo service, at least temporarily as it explores fundamental changes to its business model to permit it to continue distributing content while complying with the Court’s decision.

The Aereo service in question offered subscribers the ability to watch television broadcasts over the Internet, streamed in substantially real time as the programs were being distributed over-the-air by the original broadcasters. Aereo implemented this service via a network of antennas. When a subscriber selected a program, Aereo would select an antenna, deliver the program to the subscriber via the antenna, and dedicate the antenna to the subscriber until the program was complete.

The question that the Court considered was whether Aereo’s retransmission violated U.S. copyright law.  The Court focused on the section of the Copyright Act that gives a copyright owner the exclusive right to “perform the copyrighted work publicly.” The Copyright Act defines that exclusive right to include the right to “transmit or otherwise communicate a performance . . . of the [copyrighted] work . . . to the public, by means of any device or process, whether the members of the public capable of receiving the performance . . . receive it in the same place or in separate places and at the same time or at different times.”

Aereo argued that it did not transmit any performances “publicly” but rather only enabled the transmission of content privately, to a single subscriber at a time. However, the Court found that Aereo’s overall system could transmit a program to many subscribers, and that its activities constituted a “public” performance. In particular, the Court stated:  “we conclude that when an entity communicates the same contemporaneously perceptible images and sounds to multiple people, it transmits a performance to them regardless of the number of discrete communications it makes.”

The Court’s conclusion, if taken out of context, could cause cloud storage service providers to be concerned. Services that allow users to store music, video and other content online for on-demand delivery may indeed wonder whether their services permit “public performance” when a user accesses stored online content.

However, the Court took care to say that its ruling was limited to an interpretation of the Copyright Act’s Transmit Clause, which the Court said was intended to apply “to cable companies and their equivalents, [and] did not intend to discourage or to control the emergence or use of different kinds of technologies.” The Court noted that the term “public” in this context “does not extend to those who act as owners or possessors of the relevant product. And we have not considered whether the public performance right is infringed when the user of a service pays primarily for something other than the transmission of copyrighted works, such as the remote storage of content.”

Thus, not only did the Court state that it was not addressing remote storage systems, it also hinted that it would not consider distribution of remotely stored content in a cloud storage service to be a violation of copyright law because those distributions were not to the “public.”

So, at least for the present, remote storage services can take comfort in lower court decisions such as Cartoon Network LP v. CSC Holdings (2nd Cir. 2008), which held that remote DVRs may operate without violating copyright law.

 

 

Upcoming 3 Rivers Venture Fair provides opportunity to connect emerging companies with investors

This year’s 3 Rivers Venture Fair is scheduled for October 7 and 8, 2014 at PNC Invite_LogoPark in Pittsburgh, PA.  The 3RVF connects investors, entrepreneurs, business leaders and service providers who are interested in discovering innovation breakthroughs, ground-floor investment opportunities and trends in industries ranging from life sciences, to energy, to manufacturing, to electronics and software, and more.

The 3RVF is accepting nominations for presenting companies, but the available slots are filling fast.  Companies seeking venture investment should click here to apply to be considered for a presentation as a featured company.  Or, if you know a rising company who may benefit from the exposure and potential investment, nominate that company via the attached link.  Presenting companies will receive free admission to the event, and will participate in a Presenters’ Bootcamp to help sharpen presentations prior to the main event.

Although the application deadline is August 13, several presentation slots have already been filled.  And when the slots are gone, the application process will be closed.  So, apply now to be considered.  See you at the 3RVF!

Alice’s Adventures: how has USPTO examination changed in the first few weeks after Alice v. CLS Bank?

In the first few weeks after the Supreme Court published its opinion in Alice Corporation Pty Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l, the USPTO appears to be struggling with exactly how the Court’s decision should affect USPTO examination procedures. However, that struggle may soon be resolved as additional guidance from the USPTO and the courts shed more light on how Alice will be implemented.

A week after the Court issued its decision, the USPTO published a set of Preliminary Examination Instructions in view of the Supreme Court Decision in Alice.  The Preliminary Examination Instructions explained that Alice made clear that (1) the USPTO should consistently use the same subject matter eligibility analysis for evaluating abstract ideas as it uses for laws of nature, and (2) the USPTO should treat method claims and apparatus claims the same for the purpose of eligibility.

With those two exceptions, the Preliminary Examination Instructions state that “the basic inquiries to determine subject matter eligibility remain the same.” In particular, Examiners should ask (1) does the claim involve an abstract idea, and (2) if so, does the claim include enough additional elements to ensure that the claim amounts to significantly more than the abstract idea itself?

However, in the weeks since the decision, USPTO Office Actions in pending applications have been anything but consistent. In some cases, the USPTO has Continue reading

USPTO seeks comment on “virtual marking” of patented products

When a company sells a product for which it also holds a patent, it is common practice for the company to mark the product with the patent number.  Patent marking serves to place the public on notice that the product is patented  — thus potentially deterring infringers.

More importantly, marking a product helps to maximize the damages available in an infringement action.  Section 287(a) of the Patent Act states that a patent owner who fails to mark its products can only collect damages for infringement if the infringer was notified of the infringement and continued to infringe anyway.

Complying with patent marking obligations can be difficult, especially for products that are covered by multiple patents. The ubiquity of e-commerce, smartphones, and our “always wired” society have led many to consider whether the patent marking requirement is antiquated. Congress did so in 2011, when the America Invents Act (AIA) allowed patent holders to mark a product with a website address instead of a patent number, if the website contains a list of patents covering the product.

The AIA also directed the USPTO to provide Congress with a report on the effectiveness of virtual marking by September 16, 2014.

In order to help it prepare that report, the USPTO seeks public input. Specifically, the USPTO is inviting public comment on the following aspects of virtual marking:

  • whether virtual marking is effective for giving public notice;
  • whether virtual marking has limited or improved the public’s ability to access patent information;
  • whether and what legal issues arise from virtual marking; and
  • whether virtual marking has any deficiencies.

The USPTO is accepting comments via email at virtualmarking@uspto.gov, and via other methods described in the USPTO’s full notice.  Act fast:  comments must be submitted by July 16, 2014.

Supreme Court delivers blow to “abstract” software patents, while stating that software still can be patent-eligible

In an opinion long-awaited by the software community, the U.S. Supreme Court has found a computer-implemented method and system for exchanging financial obligations ineligible for patenting.

In Alice Corporation Pty Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l, the Court considered the question of whether the claims of four patents covered patent-eligible subject matter. In its decision, the Court found all of the patents’ claims were “drawn to the abstract idea of intermediated settlement,” which is “a fundamental economic practice long prevalent in our system of commerce.” While acknowledging that “at some level, all inventions … embody, use, rest upon, or apply … abstract ideas,” the Court found this particular set of inventions to be patent-ineligible.

The Court declined to provide any general guidance on what other inventions might be considered to be “abstract ideas.” Instead, the Court focused on the particular patent claims in front of it and stated:

we need not labor to delimit the precise contours of the “abstract ideas” category in this case.  It is enough to recognize that there is no meaningful distinction between the concept of risk hedging in Bilski [v Kappos] and the concept of intermediated settlement at issue here.

In contrast to the highly fractured Federal Circuit decision, the Supreme Court’s decision was unanimous. However, by declining to provide any general guidance, the Court’s long-awaited opinion does not fully resolve the confusion about precisely when software is and is not patent-eligible.

However, the Court did provide some insight into its thought process by way of example. The Court discussed prior decisions involving: (1) methods of measuring metabolites in the bloodstream (Mayo v. Prometheus); (2) using a mathematical formula to adjust alarm limits for certain operating conditions in a catalytic conversion process (Parker v. Flook); and (3) a computer-implemented process for curing rubber (Diamond v. Diehr). Noting that the first two inventions were patent-ineligible while the third invention qualified for patenting, the Court explained that the rubber curing invention “improved an existing technological process” and was designed to “solve a technological problem.”

The Court explained that “[t]hese cases demonstrate that the mere recitation of a generic computer cannot transform a patent-ineligible abstract idea into a patent-eligible invention.”  Applying those cases to a representative claim (claim 33 of U.S. Patent 5,970,479), the Court found discrete processing steps such as limitations requiring creating shadow records, using a computer to adjust and maintain those shadow records, and reconciling shadow records and corresponding exchange institution accounts through end-of-day transactions to be “purely conventional” steps in an intermediated settlement.  Adding a generic computer to those steps did not make them patent-eligible.

The Court’s decision suggests that software inventions that are tied to particular technologies (such as manufacturing processes) may fare better than those that are tied to non-technological methods (such financial transactions). However, time and future court interpretations of this decision will be required to determine the decision’s precise impact.

By focusing its analysis on a specific claim set rather than providing any general guidance, the Court seemed to be mindful of Federal Circuit Judge Moore’s warning that the result could mean “the death of hundreds of thousands of patents.” Instead, the Court specifically stated:  “There is no dispute that many computer-implemented claims are formally addressed to patent-eligible subject matter.”

So, while the Court’s decision places number of software patents into question, it does not quite deliver a knockout punch to software patents in general.