Category Archives: Patents

Federal Circuit finds credit reporting patent ineligible; calls it the “height of abstraction”

A recent Federal Circuit decision illustrates the high eligibility hurdles that fintech software patents continue to face in view of the Supreme Court’s 2014 Alice v CLS Bank decision.

In Clarilogic, Inc. v. FormFree Holdings Corp. (Fed. Cir. Mar. 15, 2017), the court addressed the eligibility of U.S. Patent 8,762,243, which was directed to methods for electronic account certification and  credit reporting. The representative claim of the patent was: Continue reading

SCOTUS: No laches in patent infringement cases; six-year limit on damages is the rule

A recent Supreme Court decision may make it easier for patent holders to assert older patents, as the decision significantly restricts the availability of laches (i.e., unreasonable delay) as a defense to a patent infringement claim.

The doctrine of laches allows a court to deny a claim if the plaintiff delayed filing the suit and the delay was unreasonable and prejudicial. The Patent Act also includes a six-year limit on the recovery of damages for patent infringement activities.

Until now, most courts interpreted these two legal doctrines as requiring a patent holder to promptly bring suit upon learning of infringing activity, and in any event no longer than six years from the date that the patent holder places the infringer on notice of the claim. The reason for this is to prevent a patent holder from lying in wait by sending a cease and desist letter but never seeking to resolve the dispute in court.

A recent Supreme Court decision has changed this long-standing interpretation. In SCA Hygiene Products Aktiebolag v. First Quality Baby Products, LLC (Mar. 21, 2017), the patent holder (SCA) sent a letter accusing First Quality of infringement in 2003. In 2010 — seven years after sending the letter — SCA filed suit against First Quality. First Quality argued that SCA’s claim was time-barred under the doctrine of laches. The district court agreed and dismissed the case. The Federal Circuit affirmed, stating that laches prevents recovery of all damages, including those incurred during the 6-year period prior to filing the suit.

The Supreme Court disagreed, noting that “[l]aches is a gap-filling doctrine, and where there is a statute of limitations, there is no gap to fill.” Because Section 286 of the Patent Act imposes a six-year statute of limitations, the Court found that the Patent Act had no gap to fill:  “Laches cannot be interposed as a defense against damages where the infringement occurred within the period prescribed by §286.”

[Image copyright: Lightwise]

Can a patent expire before it issues?

 

In certain situations, yes.  Ordinarily, the term of a patent begins on the grant date and ends twenty years after the filing date of the patent. If the patent claims priority to an earlier-filed nonprovisional patent application, then the twenty-year term is calculated from the filing date of the earlier-filed application.

However, an unusual situation can arise if a patent claims priority to a patent application that was filed more than twenty years ago. A recent court decision from the Eastern District of Texas found such a situation in U.S. Patent 9,094,694. The application for the ‘694 patent was filed in July 2014, and the patent issued in July 2015. However, the ‘694 patent was a continuation of three previous patent applications, the first of which was filed in July 1995. Because of this, the effective filing date of the ‘694 patent was July 8, 1995 and its grant date was July 28, 2015 — more than twenty years after the effective filing date.

There are circumstances in which a patent’s term can be extended beyond the twenty-year term. For example, if a patent application’s processing is held up due to Patent Office delay, the term of the patent can be extended to account for that delay. However, this opportunity for patent term adjustment is lost if the applicant also causes certain delays during prosecution, such as by taking an extension of time or filing a supplemental amendment after filing an additional amendment.

In the case of the ‘694 patent, the USPTO determined that no patent term adjustment applied.  Thus, the term of the patent was not extended beyond the standard twenty-year term. The ‘694 patent also included a terminal disclaimer with respect to patent 8,769,561, which did have a patent term adjustment but which still expired in 2016. Thus, the court determined that the ‘694 patent expired before it granted.

The case discussed above is Bartonfalls LLC v. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. (E.D. Tex. March 15, 2017).

[Image copyright:  W. Scott McGill]]

Federal Circuit: obviousness requires a clear and explicit explanation

The Federal Circuit recently vacated a Patent Trial and Appeals Board (PTAB) decision that found obvious several claims of a patent application relating to methods for re-configuring icons on a touch-sensitive display. In In re Van Os (Fed. Cir. Jan. 3, 2017), the court’s decision focused on the PTAB’s failure to provide sufficient reasoning for the rejection, rather than the question of whether or not the claims were in fact obvious.reconfiguration

The claims related to a user interface for a touch-sensitive display that would enter a “reconfiguration mode” after it detected a sequence of two touches that had different durations in particular locations of the display. The Examiner and the Board both found the claims to be obvious in view of two prior art patents.

The court found both the Examiner’s and the PTAB’s explanations to be lacking, stating:

Here, neither the Board nor the examiner provided any reasoning or analysis to support finding a motivation to add Gillespie’s disclosure to Hawkins beyond stating it would have been an “intuitive way” to initiate Hawkins’ editing mode. The Board did not explain why modifying Hawkins with the specific disclosure in Gillespie would have been “intuitive” or otherwise identify a motivation to combine.

The court explained that it had a long history of requiring Examiners and the Board to sufficiently explain the reasoning for an obviousness rejection:

Since KSR, we have repeatedly explained that obviousness findings “grounded in ‘common sense’ must contain explicit and clear reasoning providing some rational underpinning why common sense compels a finding of obviousness…. Absent some articulated rationale, a finding that a combination of prior art would have been “common sense” or “intuitive” is no different than merely stating the combination “would have been obvious.”

Because the Board and the Examiner failed to meet their burden, the court directed the USPTO to allow the claims and grant the patent.

Who should be listed as inventors in a patent application?

49458832 - inventor

49458832 – inventor

This is a question that all patent applicants must answer before filing a patent application. However, applicants often answer the question without fully understanding the criteria for “inventorship.” Applicants often simply presume that the inventors listed on an invention disclosure, or the authors of a publication, will be the inventors. This is not necessarily the case, since inventors of an invention and the authors of a document can be (and often are) different.

The consequences of failing to correctly identify the inventors in a patent application can be severe. If an inventor was omitted, the assignee of record may not be the sole owner of the patent rights.  In addition, an incorrect inventor list also may result in an invalid patent. Although inventorship can be corrected after a patent application is filed, and even after the patent grants, it’s much easier to get it right in the first place by answering a few key questions before filing the patent application.

To determine who is an inventor, consider the following:

  • Review the claims at the end of the patent application. The claims define the “invention.”
  • Participating in conception if the invention is the key.  Anyone who contributed to the conception of the invention is an inventor. In other words, anyone who suggested any of the steps or features listed in the claims is an inventor.
  • In contrast, a person who did not help conceive the invention is not an inventor. For example, a person who merely identified the problem is not an inventor unless they also helped conceive the solution. In addition, a person who reduced the invention to practice without helping to conceive it is not an inventor.

Omitting people who merely posed the problem, or who merely helped reduce an invention to practice from a patent application can be difficult, and may result in some bruised egos. For software-related inventions, the people who developed the design specification are typically inventors, but the people who actually created the code are typically not inventors since they merely reduced the design specification to practice. In life sciences, the individuals who specified the parameters for an experiment may be inventors, but the lab employees who actually performed the experiments are typically not inventors. In each of these cases, the coders and lab techs may have spent much more time and effort reducing the invention to practice than the inventors spent conceiving it. However, patent law rewards conception, which may not always equate to time spent or even level of difficulty of the work.

A person can be an inventor even if his or her contribution is relatively small. In fact, a person will be an inventor even if he or she only contributed to one of the features of one of the patent application’s claims. Because of this, it’s important to revisit the inventor list throughout the patent application process, in case claim amendments prompt a need to change the list of identified inventors.

[Image credit:  Ali Gokhan]

Will your patent assignment document satisfy new European Patent Office requirements?

19469909 - signing a document in the officeEffective November 1, 2016, new European Patent Office (EPO) Examination Guidelines governing the transfer of European patent applications will take effect. The new Guidelines make two changes that transacting parties need to know:

  1. the assignment document must include the signatures of both parties (i.e., assignor and assignee); and
  2. the assignment document must include the precise job title of each person who signs the document.

In the past, it was common for a patent holder to execute an assignment in favor of an assignee, without the assignee signing the document. Under the new Guidelines, the EPO will no longer accept an assignment document that uses the single-signature format.

In the past, some assignment documents would list the signing party as something like “authorized representative.” This EPO will no longer accept this practice, either.

The new Guidelines only affect the transfer of pending applications, not granted patents.  However, transacting parties should consider following the new Guidelines in all patent assignments, since the general contract laws of several European countries (including Great Britain and France) typically require both parties to sign a contract. The new Guidelines are also consistent with Article 72 of the European Patent Convention, which states that an assignment of a European patent application requires “the signature of the parties to the contract” (emphasis added).

(Thanks to my Fox Rothschild partner Marilou Watson for bringing this change to my attention.)

[Image credit:  Oleksandr Nebrat]

Federal Circuit invalidates three software patents; Judge Mayer calls for ban on all software patents

In the past few months, the Federal Circuit reversed a two-year trend of overturning software patents by publishing three decisions that outlined various parameters in which software can be eligible for patenting.  In those decisions (described in previous IP Spotlight posts published here and here) the court cautioned that not all improvements in computer-related technology are inherently abstract.  It also said that when assessing patent-eligibility, one must be careful to not use patent-eligibility to invalidate a claim when the real issue with the claim is obviousness.

A new opinion from the Federal Circuit sets some boundaries in the other direction, and limits how far software patent holders can push the boundaries of patent-eligibility. In Intellectual Ventures I LLC v. Symantec Corp., the court found certain claims of three software patents to be invalid. The patents were US 5,987,610 (directed to computer virus screening methods), US 6,073,142 (directed to automated analysis of e-mail messages) and US 6,460,050 (directed to a system for identifying distributed content).

The court drew an analogy between the representative claim of the ‘142 patent and a corporate mailroom that receives correspondence and uses business rules to define actions to be taken based on the application of the rules to the correspondence. The court found this claimed use of a “rule engine” to be a “conventional business practice” and noted that “with the exception of generic computer-implemented steps, there is nothing in the claims themselves that foreclose them from being performed by a human.”

In the case of the ‘050 patent, the court found that the representative claim was directed to nothing more than “[c]haracterizing e-mail based on a known list of identifiers.”

The ‘610 patent was directed to a virus screening method.  The court noted that this patent “involves an idea that originated in the computer era – computer virus screening.” Nonetheless, the court said that “[p]erforming virus screening was a long prevalent practice in the field of computers” and that the representative claim “does not claim a new method of virus screening or improvements thereto.” The court also noted that “[j]ust as the performance of an abstract idea on the Internet is abstract,  so too the performance of an abstract concept in the environment of the telephone network is abstract.”

To understand the boundaries of what the Federal Circuit considers to be patent-eligible, the court’s analysis of the broad claims of the ‘142 and ‘050 patents can be compared to the court’s recent decisions that found claims directed to discrete, technical solutions to be patent-eligible.  However, the court’s analysis of the ‘610 patent arguably conflicts with its recent statements in Bascom Global Internet Services, Inc. v. AT&T Mobility et al., where the court cautioned that one should not use patent-eligibility to reject a claim when the real issue is obviousness.  Although not expressly stated in the decision, the court may have actually considered the possible pre-emptive effect of the claims,  as it did in recent cases such as Bascom Global and McRO, Inc. v. Bandai Namco Games America, Inc.

Notably, in a concurring decision Judge Mayer expressed a hard line view against software patents:  “claims directed to software implemented on a generic computer are categorically not eligible for patent.” Notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s statement to the contrary in Alice v. CLS Bank, Judge Mayer further argued that “[s]oftware is a form of language,” and that patents such as those at issue in the case “run afoul of the First Amendment” by “constricting the essential channels of online communication.”

Judge Mayer was not part of any of the court’s panels that upheld software patents earlier this year. Judge Mayer’s comments, while certainly provocative, do not reflect the overall direction of either the Federal Circuit or the Supreme Court. Although the court is unlikely to follow his call for all-out ban on software patents, it may do well to consider his request to “provide much-needed clarity and consistency in our approach to patent eligibility.”