Category Archives: Patents

Using invention to provide service prior to patent filing can trigger on-sale bar

Using an invention to provide a service before filing the patent application can trigger the on-sale bar to patentability, according to a recent decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

The court’s decision in Quest Integrity USA, LLC v. Cokebusters, LLC involved U.S. Patent 7,542,874, which relates to a system for displaying inspection data collected from a furnace. The patent’s priority date was June 1, 2004. However, the court found that the patent owner used the invention to commercially perform furnace inspection services at a Louisiana refinery in March 2003, which is more than one year before the priority date.

The patent owner did not sell hardware or software to the customer. However, the patent’s method claims included the step of “generating a display of at least a portion of said partitioned inspection data arranged to represent said physical geometry of a plurality of said tube segments and enable visual detection of a problem area comprising one or more of said tube segments.” The court found that this claimed method included the production of “strip charts,” which are shown by way of example in Figures 3 and 4 of the ‘874 patent.

The court held: “Sale of a product (here, sale of the [strip charts]) produced by performing a claimed process implicates the on-sale bar.” The court also noted: “Performance of a claimed method for compensation, or a commercial offer to perform the method, can also trigger the on-sale bar, even where no product is sold or offered for sale.”

The case indicates that inventors should not delay before filing a patent application for a new process, especially if commercialization activities that relate to the process are expected.

 

Confidential sales before filing patent application can waive patent rights

U.S. patent law states that any invention that was “on sale in this country, more than one year prior to the date of the application for patent” is not eligible for patent protection.

The Supreme Court recently confirmed that a confidential sale — such as a sale under a nondisclosure agreement — is still a “sale” that can trigger loss of patent rights. In Helsinn Healthcare S.A. v. Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc., the Court considered agreements by which the patent holder (Helsinn) agreed to license and sell palonosetron, which is the active ingredient a drug that treats chemotherapy-induced nausea. The agreements required the licensee/buyer to keep dosage and other product information confidential. Two years later, Helsinn applied to patent a method of treatment using the dosage.

In its decision, the Court held that “an inventor’s sale of an invention to a third party who is obligated to keep the invention confidential can qualify as prior art under §102(a)” of the Patent Act. The Court also noted that its ruling is consistent with long-standing precedent on the subject, and that the changes that Congress made to §102(a) in the America Invents Act of 2011 did not alter this premise.

Notably, the facts that led to the Court’s decision involved a sale from the patent holder to a third party. In 2016, the Federal Circuit held that a sale from a contract manufactuer to the patent holder would not trigger the on-sale bar because it was a sale of manufacturing services, and not a sale of the invention. (See The Medicines Co. v. Hospira, Inc.) The Supreme Court’s decision in Helsinn did not address a sale in the contract manufacturing context. However, in its holding the Court specifically mentioned that it was considering “an inventor’s sale of an invention to a third party,” So, it does not appear that the Court’s decision will affect contract manufacturing arrangements.

However, the Court’s decision highlights the importance of filing for patent protection before any offer to sell the invention – even if the offer is made under a nondisclosure agreement. Also, even though U.S. patent law provides a one-year window for filing, most other countries’ patent laws provide no such grace period.

 

 

 

When is a Creative Director an inventor?

A recent intellectual property infringement lawsuit between Puma and Forever 21 regarding Puma’s Fenty X shoes garnered a lot of attention in the popular press. In no small part, the attention resulted because Puma’s creative director for its Fenty line was Rhianna.

A recent article in The Fashion Law examined whether a creative director (such as Rhianna) should be listed as an inventor in the company’s patents covering the creative director’s product line.

The answer to this question (with input from yours truly) is available in the article that is linked here. (Hint: it depends on whether the creative director actually participated in design of the product claimed in the patent.)

 

How long does it take to get a patent or trademark? (2018 update)

At the end of each fiscal year, the USPTO releases a Performance and Accountability Report, with statistics about patent and trademark allowance rates, average pendency, and other details. The USPTO recently released its Performance and Accountability Report for Fiscal Year 2018. This means that it’s time for IP Spotlight’s annual review of the question:  “how long does it take to receive a patent or register a trademark?”

To answer that question, here are a few highlights from the USPTO’s FY 2018 report:

Patents:  The USPTO continued a seven-year trend of reducing overall patent application pendency in FY 2017. The average time between filing and first office action was 15.8 months, which is down a few week’s from last year’s measure. Average total pendency (time from start to grant or abandonment) also dipped to 23.8 months.

The report did not discuss the effect of the USPTO’s “Track 1” expedited examination option on the overall timeline. Applicants who pay the additional fee for Track 1 processing typically receive a first action within 4-6 months of filing, and allowance or final action within 12 months of filing.

The wait times vary depending on the technology involved. Patent applications for computer architecture and mechanical engineering inventions generally experienced the longest waits, while applications for communications and semiconductor technologies moved relatively quickly. The breakdown by technology included:

  • biotechnology and organic chemistry (USPTO Technology Center 1600) had an average wait time of 12.5 months to first action, and an average total pendency of 22.9 months;
  • chemical and materials engineering (USPTO Technology Center 1700) had an average wait time of 18.0 months to first action, and an average total pendency of 27.3 months;
  • computer architecture (USPTO Technology Center 2100) had an average wait time of 19.4 months to first action, and an average total pendency of 28.4 months;
  • networks, multiplexing, cable and security (USPTO Technology Center 2400) generally waited 15.9 months to first action, and have an average total pendency of 25.3 months;
  • communications technologies (USPTO Technology Center 2600) had some of the shortest average wait times — 11.0 months to first action, and an average total pendency of 19.9 months;
  • semiconductors, electrical systems and optical systems (USPTO Technology Center 2700) had an average wait time of 12.7 months to first action, and an average total pendency of 21.6 months;
  • methods relating to transportation, construction, agriculture and e-commerce (USPTO Technology Center 3600, in which the e-commerce inventions are often considered to involve “business methods”) had an average wait time of 18.2 months to first action, and an average total pendency of 25.5 months; and
  • mechanical engineering products (USPTO Technology Center 3700) had an average wait time of 19.0 months to first action, and an average total pendency of 28.4 months.

339,534 patents issued in FY 2018 — a 2.3% decrease from last year’s all-time high. The overall patent allowance rate was 56.3% – a dip from last year’s 59.4% allowance rate.

The number of patent applications filed in FY 2017 was 647,349 — a slight (1% decrease from last year’s number. Of these applications, approximately 596,000 were utility filings and 169,000 were provisional filings. The other patent applications were design, plant, or reissue filings.

Trademarks:  In FY 2018 the average time from filing to first Office Action in a trademark application increased to 3.5 months, up from 2.7 months in 2017. Average total pendency remained about the same as last year: 9.6 months as compared to 2017’s 9.5 months.

The total number of trademark applications filed was 638,647, an all-time high and the third consecutive year of double-digit growth. The total number of registrations granted was 367,382, also an all-time high and a 12.2% increase over last year’s grant rate.

USPTO updates patent examination guidelines for computer-implemented inventions: Less abstract ideas, more specific algorithms

On January 4, 2019, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office released new guidance documents that USPTO Patent Examiners are to use when evaluating whether a patent application claims patent-eligible subject matter under Section 101 of the Patent Act. The new documents also address whether claims directed to computer-implemented inventions should be considered to be purely functional and/or indefinite under Section 112 of the Patent Act.

Taken together, the new guidance documents may narrow the situations in which Examiners issue rejections under Section 101 of the Patent Act, but may expand the number of rejections issued under Section 112 of the Patent Act. The documents indicate that inventors who want to patent computer-implemented inventions must be sure that the patent application: (a) describes and claims a practical application of the invention; and (b) discloses specific algorithms for performing claimed functions.

2019 Revised Patent Subject Matter Eligibility Guidance (Section 101)

Unlike previous USPTO patent-eligibility guidance, the new Section 101 guidance focuses on situations in which patent claims should be eligible, and it limits situations in which USPTO Examiners should issue rejections under Sections 101 of the Patent Act.

In particular, the 2019 Revised Subject Matter Eligibility Guidance opens the door to patent-eligibility for patent claims that are limited to practical applications. In particular, the Section 101 guidance states that “a patent claim or patent application claims that recites a judicial exception [i.e., a law of nature, a natural phenomena or an abstract idea] is not ‘directed to’ the judicial exception if the judicial exception is integrated into a practical application of the judicial exception.”

The new Section 101 Guidance states that to determine that a claim recites an abstract idea, Examiners must “(a) identify the specific limitations(s) in the claim … that the examiner believes recites an abstract idea; and (b) determine whether the identified limitation(s) fall within the subject matter groupings” — that is, one of the following judicial exceptions to patentability: (1) mathematical concepts; (2) certain methods of organizing human activity; or (3) mental processes. Laws of nature or natural phenomena are another subject matter grouping to be considered. If the Examiner believes that the claim falls within one of these groupings, the Examiner must “evaluate whether the claim integrates the judicial exception into a practical appplication.”

The new Section 101 guidance instructs Examiners that analysis of whether a claim includes significantly than the judicial exception is only needed if “a claim recites a judicial exception and fails to integrate the exception into a practical application.” The guidance also states that “a practical application will apply, rely on, or use the judicial exception in a manner that imposes a meaningful limit on the judicial exception, such that the claim is more than a drafting effort designed to monopolize the judicial exception. When the exception is so integrated, then the claim is not directed to a judicial exception … and is eligible.”

Examples of practical applications include:

  • an element that improves the functioning of a computer or other technology;
  • an element that effects a particular treatment or prohylaxis for a disease or medical condition;
  • an element that is operates in conjunction with a particular machine or manufacture that is integral to the claim; or
  • an element that applies or uses the exception in a menaingful way beyond generally linking the use of the exception to a particular technological environment, so that the claim is more than a drafting effort designed to monopolize the exception.

The Section 101 guidance also states claims that include elements that are not well-understood, routine or conventional in a way that does not simply append those elements to the claim may be eligible.

Also significant: even if an Examiner rejects claims under Section 101, the Examiner must still examine each claim under Sections 102, 103 and 112 of the Patent Act.

The 2019 Section 101 guidance “supercedes all versions of the USPTO’s Quick Reference Sheet[s]” and indicates that those prior documents “should not be relied upon” by Examiners or Applicants.

Guidance for Examining Computer-Implemented Functional Claim Limitations for Compliance with 35 U.S.C. §112

The USPTO’s 2019 Guidance for Examining Computer-Implemented Functional Claim Limitations for Compliance with 35 U.S.C. 112 provides cautionary warnings to patent applicants who describe and claim computer-implemented inventions in only broad, general terms. This new guidance is intended to address the “problem with broad functional claiming without adequate structural support in the specification” and address “when a claim is purely functional in nature rather than reciting with any specificity how the claimed function is achieved.”

In the past few months, USPTO Examiners have more frequently issued Section 112 rejections against computer-implemented invention claims, even if the claims do not explicitly use means-plus-function language. The new guidance suggests that this is not appropriate by stating that “a claim limitation that does not use the term ‘means’ will trigger the presumption that 35 U.S.C. §112(f) does not apply.”

However, the guidance notes that certain phrases can be generic placeholders for means-plus-function language, in particular: “module for,” “device for”, “unit for,” “component for,” “element for,” “member for,” “apparatus for,” “machine for” and “system for.” The guidance also cautions against phrases that use the term “module” in connection with the module’s function.

The guidance also states: “for a computer-implemented … claim limitation, the specification must disclose an algorithm for performing the claimed specific computer function, or else the claim is indefinite” (emphasis added). The guidance notes that “the requirement for disclosure of an algorithm cannot be avoided by arguing that one of ordinary skill in the art is capable of writing software … to perform the claimed function.”

 

The new guidance documents took effect on January 7, 2019, the USPTO is accepting public comments on the new guidance through March 8, 2019.

 

 

Federal Circuit finds software license verification technology patent-eligible under Section 101

A new Federal Circuit decision found the claims of a patent directed to software license verification to be eligible for patenting under Section 101 of the Patent Act.

In Ancora Technologies, Inc. v. HTC America, Inc., the court reviewed the claims of U.S. patent 6,411,941, which involved methods of restricting software operation on a computer to be within a license for that computer. Representative claim 1 of the patent is:

A method of restricting software operation within a license for use with a computerincluding an erasable, non-volatile memory area of a BIOS of the computer, anda volatile memory area; the method comprising the steps of:

selecting a program residing in the volatile memory,

using an agent to set up a verification structure in the erasable, non-volatile memoryof the BIOS, the verification structure accommodating data that includes atleast one license record,

verifying the program using at least the verification structure from the erasable non-volatile memory of the BIOS, and

acting on the program according to the verification.

Thus, the method required storage of a license record in a “verification structure” created in a portion of the computer’s BIOS memory.

In its decision, the court noted that as in its Enfish, Visual Memory, Finjan, Core Wireless and Data Technologies cases, “[i]mproving security — here, against acomputer’s unauthorized use of a program — can be a non-abstract computer-functionality improvement if done by a specific technique that departs from earlier approaches to solve a specific computer problem.” The court also found that because in the representative claim “a license record is stored in a particular, modifiable, non-volatile portion of the computer’s BIOS … the claim addresses a technological problem with computers:  vulnerability of license-authorization software to hacking.”

Quoting its SAP America, Inc. v. InvestPic, LLC decision, the court also noted that the claim has “the specificity required to transform a claim from one claiming only a result to one claiming away of achieving it.” Therefore the court stated that it did not need to consider step two of the Alice analysis.


[1] ____ USPQ2d____ (Fed. Cir. Nov. 16, 2018).

[2] 127 USPQ2d 1597 (Fed. Cir. 2018).

Federal Circuit: Even the inventor can challenge patent’s validity

Historically, inventors who assign a patent to a company or other entity have been barred from later challenging the patent’s validity under the doctrine of “assignor estoppel.” This common-law doctrine has been in place for years. However, a new Federal Circuit decision scales it back by holding that assignor estoppel cannot stop certain inter partes review (IPR) proceedings filed by inventors with the Patent Trial and Appeals Board (PTAB).

In Arista Networks v. Cisco Systems, Inc. (Fed. Cir. Nov. 9, 2018), the court considered an appeal from the PTAB decision in an IPR proceeding. In the case, a company founded by an inventor (who was a former employee of the patent holder) argued that certain claims of the patent were obvious in view of prior art. While acknowledging that assignor estoppel is a “rule well settled by 45 years of judicial consideration and conclusion,” the court found that in the America Invents Act reveals Congress’ intent for a different rule in IPR proceedings. Specifically, since 35 U.S.C. §311(a) states that any “person who is not an owner of the patent” may file an IPR petition, the court ruled that an inventor who has assigned his or her interest — and who therefore is no longer an owner of the patent — may file an IPR petition that challenges validity of the patent.