The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit considered for the first time whether a district court’s invalidity determination, when made final after all appeals are exhausted, divests the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) of jurisdiction in a co-pending inter partes review (IPR) proceeding involving the same claims, and held that it does not. The Court also held that in an IPR proceeding, the PTAB is free to reject proposed substitute claims for failing to meet the subject matter eligibility requirements of § 101. Uniloc 2017 LLC v. Hulu, LLC, Case No. 19-1686 (Fed. Cir. July 22, 2020) (Wallach, J.) (Dyk, J., dissenting).
Hulu filed an IPR petition challenging claims of Uniloc’s patent directed to adjustable software licensing for digital products. After the PTAB instituted review, Uniloc filed a motion for substitute claims, conditional on whether the PTAB found the original claims unpatentable. Before the PTAB issued its final determination and before it ruled on the motion for substitute claims, a district court, in a related proceeding, held Uniloc’s asserted claims invalid as directed to patent-ineligible subject matter. Shortly thereafter, the PTAB issued a final written decision finding the challenged claims unpatentable over the prior art, and it found the substitute claims unpatentable under § 101. Uniloc appealed the PTAB’s use of § 101 to invalidate its substitute claims.
While Uniloc’s appeal of the Hulu IPR was pending, the Federal Circuit affirmed the district court’s invalidity finding as to the original claims. With respect to the Hulu appeal, the Federal Circuit ordered the parties to address whether the appeal was moot in view of the ultimate finality with respect to invalidity of the original claims, thereby divesting the PTAB of jurisdiction over the IPR.
The majority held that the finality of the district court’s invalidity finding did not necessarily divest the PTAB of authority to consider substitute claims. It determined that the mootness issue was waivable, and that Hulu had waived the argument because it failed to raise mootness during the pendency of the IPR at the time the district court issued its decision. Even if Hulu had not waived the argument, the majority found that the PTAB’s authority to consider substitute claims does not depend on any live dispute about the original claims, as long as the motion to amend in the IPR was timely filed.
As to the PTAB’s rejection of the claims under § 101, the majority held that although the PTAB is restrained in an IPR proceeding to invalidating a patent’s original claims only under the anticipation and obviousness grounds raised in the petition, the PTAB may use other invalidity tools as a “new ground of rejection” for substitute claims, including for lack of patentable subject matter under § 101. The majority also suggested that other grounds of patentability would be within the scope of the PTAB’s authority, including rejections under the various subsections of § 112. The majority was concerned that limiting the PTAB’s review might force it to issue substitute claims that fail to meet all the statutory requirements of patentability
In his dissent, Judge Dyk argued that the PTAB lacked authority to issue “substitute” claims because as soon as the original claims were revoked, there was nothing remaining for the PTAB to exchange for the substitute claims. The dissent accused the majority of enabling “zombie” patents by allowing the PTAB to breathe life into otherwise dead patents.
Dyk also argued that the America Invents Act IPR statute limits the PTAB’s “patentability” review to the prior art anticipation and obviousness grounds raised in the petition, and does not use the term “patentability” more broadly with respect to its power to review substitute claims. The dissent warned that the holding would turn the narrowly tailored IPR process into full-blown patent examination—something the IPR process was not meant to accommodate.