The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) issued a Notice clarifying its practice as to situations that will require additional information about whether a delay in seeking the revival of an abandoned application, acceptance of a delayed maintenance fee payment, or acceptance of a delayed priority or benefit claim was unintentional. 85 FED. REG. 12222 (Mar. 2, 2020).
A panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit considered whether the Patent Commissioner, on assuming the role of the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) Director, can constitutionally evaluate the rehearing of Patent Trial & Appeal Board (Board) inter partes review (IPR) decisions. The panel concluded that neither Appointments Clause jurisprudence nor the Federal Vacancies Reform Act (FVRA) impeded the Commissioner from exercising the PTO Director’s authority. Arthrex, Inc. v. Smith & Nephew, Inc. et al., Case No. 18-2140 (Fed. Cir., May 27, 2022) (Moore, C.J.; Reyna, Chen, JJ.)
Approximately one year ago, Arthrex succeeded in the Supreme Court of the United States on its argument that the Appointments Clause of the Constitution was violated unless a presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed officer (such as the PTO Director) could review the Board’s final IPR decisions. (United States v. Arthrex, Inc.) The case returned to the PTO on remand. At the time, the position of PTO Director was vacant, and there was no acting director. Pursuant to the FVRA, the Commissioner of Patents (a position filled by the Secretary of Commerce) exercised the PTO Director’s authority to review Board decisions and ultimately rejected Arthrex’s challenge to the Board’s unpatentability determination. Arthrex appealed.
Arthrex contended that the Commissioner could not constitutionally exercise the PTO Director’s IPR review authority without running afoul of the Appointments Clause, that the FVRA barred the Commissioner’s exercise of authority and that the Commissioner violated separation of powers. Arthrex also challenged the ruling on the merits. None of these challenges were successful.
First, the Federal Circuit concluded that Arthrex reinforced long-settled Supreme Court precedent that an inferior officer could exercise a principal officer’s authority constitutionally on a temporary basis without violating the Appointments Clause. Here, the Court concluded that the Commissioner’s exercise of the PTO Director’s IPR review authority until a new director was installed presented no problem.
Second, the FVRA provides a statutory framework for the exercise of a principal officer’s duties under certain circumstances, which, if the law applied, would not have allowed the Commissioner to review IPR decisions. However, the Federal Circuit explained that the FVRA narrowly governs only those duties of an officer that are statutorily non-delegable (i.e., which US Congress has required to be exercised personally by the officer). According to the Court, such provisions did not apply here because nothing demonstrated that the PTO Director’s newly created authority to review IPR decisions was non-delegable.
Third, the Federal Circuit rejected Arthrex’s argument that the Commissioner’s service as the PTO Director violated the line of precedent that limits Congress’ ability to circumscribe the president’s removal authority for superior officers. Arthrex contended that the Commissioner, a non-superior officer, could be removed only for “misconduct or nonsatisfactory performance” and therefore could not fill the role of the PTO Director. The panel disagreed, explaining that the president could name an acting director “with the stroke of a pen,” and so the limits on removing the Commissioner from his role as Commissioner [...]
Only under Rare Circumstances Can the Patent Trial & Appeal Board Find Proposed Substitute Claims Unpatentable on Its Own
The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit addressed, for the first time, the issue of when the Patent Trial & Appeal Board (Board) may raise a ground of unpatentability that was not advanced by a petitioner in relation to proposed substitute claims. The Court upheld the standard defining the “rare circumstances” in which such a ruling is proper while questioning the Board’s reasoning and application of the standard. Hunting Titan, Inc. v. DynaEnergetics Europe GMBH, Case Nos. 20-2163; -2191 (Fed. Cir. Mar. 24, 2022) (Prost, C.J., Reyna, Hughes, JJ.) (Prost, C.J., concurring).
Hunting Titan challenged DynaEnergetics’ patent in an inter partes review (IPR) based on anticipation and obviousness grounds. The Board found all the original claims of the patent unpatentable as anticipated. DynaEnergetics moved to amend to add proposed substitute claims. Hunting Titan opposed the motion to amend but advanced only obviousness grounds against the proposed substitute claims. The Board determined sua sponte that the proposed substitute claims were unpatentable as anticipated and, therefore, denied the motion to amend. DynaEnergetics requested rehearing, and the Precedential Opinion Panel (POP) reversed the Board’s denial of the motion to amend and determined that Hunting Titan did not prove that the proposed substitute claims were unpatentable.
The POP decided that “only under rare circumstances” should the Board sua sponte raise a ground for unpatentability not advanced by the petitioner in relation to proposed substitute claims. The rare circumstances include only two situations:
- When the petitioner is not involved in the motion to amend, such as when a petitioner chooses not to oppose the motion or ceases to participate in the proceeding altogether
- When evidence of unpatentability is readily identifiable and persuasive, such as if the substitute claims are unpatentable for the same reasons as the original claims.
The POP stated that in most circumstances, it is best to rely on the adversarial system and expect the petitioner to raise the unpatentability grounds for consideration.
The Federal Circuit upheld the POP’s standard for when the Board may sua sponte find proposed substitute claims unpatentable but also found the POP’s reasoning “problematic” because it placed too much emphasis on the adversarial system. The Court noted that Board proceedings, such as IPRs, are fundamentally a review of an earlier administrative proceeding, as opposed to civil litigation, The POP’s rationale was based on the public interest being served by an adversarial system rather than on the public interest being served by maintaining integrity of the patent system.
The Federal Circuit also questioned the POP’s application of its new standard to the case at hand, noting that the readily identifiable evidence exception should have been applied when the Board found the proposed substitute claims unpatentable for the same reasons it found the original claims to be unpatentable.
In her concurring opinion, Chief Judge Prost noted that “[i]t makes little sense to limit the [Board], in its role within the agency responsible for issuing patents, to the petitioner’s arguments.” Instead, “the Board must determine whether the [...]
Patent Venue Statute Doesn’t Apply to Third-Party Counterclaim Defendant; Acts in Furtherance of Partnership May Be Imputed to Partner for Venue Purposes
The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a district court’s determination of proper venue, finding that the patent venue statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1400(b), does not apply to a third-party counterclaim defendant and that acts done by separate entities in furtherance of a partnership can be imputed to a partner for purposes of venue determination. The Federal Circuit also affirmed and reversed jury verdicts of adequate written description and patent co-ownership. BASF Plant Sci., LP v. Commonwealth Sci. and Indus. Rsch. Org., Case Nos. 20-1415; -1416; -1919; -1920 (Fed. Cir. Mar. 15, 2022) (Newman, Taranto, Chen, JJ.) (Newman, J., dissenting).
Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), a research arm of the Australian government, owns six patents directed to the engineering of plants, particularly canola, to produce specified oils not native to the plants. BASF Plant Science is a plant biotechnology company. CSIRO and BASF each explored genetic modification of familiar oilseed crop plants, such as canola, to get them to produce omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFAs), commonly known as “fish oil,” that could be fed to farm-raised fish and are beneficial to human health. In 2007, CSIRO and BASF discussed a focused collaboration and in 2008 entered into a two-year Materials Transfer and Evaluation Agreement (MTEA) to advance that goal. In 2010, following the conclusion of the MTEA, CSIRO partnered with another Australian government entity, Grains Research and Development Corporation, and private company, Nuseed, to commercialize its products. CSIRO granted Nuseed an exclusive license to CSIRO’s LCPUFA technology and patents. In 2011, BASF entered into a commercialization agreement with Cargill. BASF developed a canola seed line that it used to apply for regulatory approvals, which Cargill used in cross-breeding work. As part of the joint project, BASF deposited seeds with the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC) to support BASF’s patent applications.
During this period, BASF and CSIRO entered negotiations for BASF to take a license to CSIRO’s LCPUFA technology, but the negotiations broke down. In 2016, Nuseed sent Cargill a letter identifying multiple CSIRO patents and inviting Cargill to discuss CSIRO’s omega-3 patent portfolio. In April 2017, BASF sued Nuseed in the District of Delaware, seeking a declaratory judgment that BASF did not infringe certain CSIRO patents listed in the 2016 letter. The District of Delaware dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction.
In 2017, BASF filed a declaratory judgment action in the Eastern District of Virginia against CSIRO, Nuseed and Grains Research (collectively, CSIRO). CSIRO filed an answer and counterclaims asserting infringement of the asserted patents against BASF and Cargill. BASF entered the case as a party and asserted co-ownership of the asserted patents under the MTEA. Cargill moved to dismiss the counterclaims for lack of personal jurisdiction and improper venue. The district court denied the motion, determining that it had personal jurisdiction over Cargill and that venue was proper. Cargill did not dispute that it had a regular and established place of business in the Eastern District of Virginia but argued that it [...]
The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a Patent Trial & Appeal Board (Board) decision that claims to a ballistic parachute were obvious over the prior art based on knowledge attributable to artisans and denying the patentee’s motion to substitute proposed amended claims, finding that they lacked written description. Fleming v. Cirrus Design Corp., Case No. 21-1561 (Fed. Cir. Mar. 10, 2022) (Lourie, Hughes, Stoll, JJ.)
Cirrus Design filed a petition for inter partes review on certain claims of Fleming’s patent related to ballistic parachute systems on an aircraft. The challenged claims relate to an autopilot system that increases the aircraft’s pitch, reduces the aircraft’s roll or changes the aircraft’s altitude when a ballistic parachute deployment request is made. Fleming moved to amend some of the challenged claims, effectively cancelling those claims. In its final written decision, the Board found the remaining original claims obvious over the prior art and found that the amended claims lacked written description and were indefinite. Fleming appealed both the obviousness determination and the denial of the motion to amend.
Fleming argued that the Board’s obviousness determination was incorrect because the prior art did not disclose the commands to the autopilot to alter the aircraft’s pitch, roll or altitude. The Board acknowledged that neither of the primary prior references included the claimed commands upon the receipt of a deployment request, but nevertheless, concluded that a person of ordinary skill in the art would have had the motivation to combine the prior art disclosures to arrive at the claimed invention. The Federal Circuit concluded that the Board’s findings were supported by substantial evidence, citing to the Supreme Court’s 2007 KSR decision for the proposition that it is appropriate to consider a person of ordinary skill in the art’s knowledge, creativity and common sense, so long as they do not replace reasoned analysis and evidentiary support. Here the Court noted with approval the Board’s finding that aircraft autopilots are programmable and can perform flight maneuvers and deploy a parachute. The Court also noted that an artisan would have understood that certain maneuvers, such as stabilizing at an appropriate altitude, should be performed prior to deploying a whole-aircraft parachute. The Board concluded that a person of ordinary skill in the art would be motivated to reprogram the autopilot to take Fleming’s proposed actions prior to releasing the parachute to improve safety outcomes.
Fleming also appealed the Board’s rejection of his argument that the prior art taught away from claimed invention because a person of ordinary skill in the art would deem the combination unsafe. He argued that the prior art taught that autopilot systems should not be used in the sort of emergency situations that would lead to the deployment of a ballistic parachute. The Board rejected that argument, and the Federal Circuit found that the substantial evidence supported the Board’s determination that the prior art did not teach that a person of ordinary skill in the art would never use an autopilot system during [...]
The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the grant of a preliminary injunction, finding that the district court did not abuse its discretion, clearly err in its underlying factual findings or abuse its discretion in setting the scope of the preliminary injunction. BlephEx, LLC v. Myco Indus., Inc., Case Nos. 2021-1149; -1365 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 3, 2022) (Moore, Schall, O’Malley, JJ.)
Myco sells AB Max, a mechanical device with an attached swab used for treating an eye condition known as blepharitis. Myco began marketing AB Max at a trade show in February 2019. One month later, BlephEx filed an application that later issued as a patent. The patent is directed toward cleaning debris from an eye during treatment of ocular disorders, including blepharitis. According to the patent, prior art treatment for blepharitis included at-home treatment where the patient would use a cotton swab, fingertip or scrubbing pad to scrub the eyelid margin in order to remove debris. Patients would often fail to adequately cleanse the eyelid margin, however. The patent’s solution is an electromechanical device with an attached swab for use by an eyecare professional to clean the patient’s eyelid margins.
The day the patent issued, BlephEx sued Myco and its chairman, John R. Choate, alleging that Myco’s AB Max infringed BlephEx’s newly issued patent. BlephEx moved the district court for a preliminary injunction prohibiting Myco from selling, distributing or offering the AB Max for sale. Myco opposed, arguing that a prior art reference (Nichamin) raised a substantial question of invalidity. The district court disagreed with Myco and granted the injunction. The district court noted that to anticipate, a prior art reference must disclose all elements of a claim arranged as in the claim, and Nichamin did not disclose combining the electromechanical applicator device depicted in one embodiment with a swab disclosed in another. The district court also rejected Myco’s argument that the patent examiner failed to consider Nichamin because he did not substantively discuss it during prosecution. The district court further rejected Myco’s obviousness argument as unsupported by expert evidence, finding Myco failed to overcome “the safety concerns of attaching a swab that is soaked in an abrasive to the Nichamin hand-held device.”
After the district court granted the preliminary injunction, Myco moved for reconsideration and argued that the preliminary injunction was overbroad because the AB Max had noninfringing uses. The district court rejected Myco’s argument, finding it was untimely and presented hypothetical noninfringing uses that were “outweighed by evidence that the only actual use of the AB Max was to treat anterior blepharitis,” which would likely infringe the asserted patent. Myco appealed.
The Federal Circuit affirmed the preliminary injunction grant. With respect to Myco’s anticipation argument, the Court found “Myco offers nothing other than attorney argument as to what the highly skilled artisan would do,” and this was insufficient to raise a substantial question of validity. The Court also noted that Myco had “put all of its eggs in the anticipation basket” and fatally failed [...]
The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (Board) decision affirming the US Patent and Trademark Office’s (PTO) refusal to register two trademark applications for “.SUCKS.” In Re: Vox Populi Registry Ltd., Case No. 21-1496 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 2, 2022) (Lourie, Dyk, Stoll, JJ.)
Vox is a domain registry operator that maintains the master database of all domain names registered in each top-level domain. Vox filed two trademark applications for identical characters, one as a standard character and the other as a stylized form of .SUCKS, as shown below.
The PTO refused Vox’s applications on the grounds that, when used in connection with the domain services, each failed to function as a trademark. Vox appealed to the Board. The Board concluded that .SUCKS, whether as a standard mark or in the stylized form, would not be perceived as a source identifier. Vox appealed the Board’s decision only with respect to the stylized form of .SUCKS.
On appeal, the Federal Circuit noted that although Vox did not appeal the rejection of the standard character application, it spent much of its opening brief arguing that the standard character functions as a mark. As such, the Court reviewed the Board’s decision with respect to the standard character mark .SUCKS under the substantial evidence standard. Substantial evidence “means only such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” The Court found that substantial evidence supported the Board’s finding that consumers will view .SUCKS as only a non-source identifying part of a domain name, rather than as a trademark. The Court cited evidence reviewed by the Board, including Vox’s website, online articles and advertisements showing that .SUCKS refers to a product rather than as an identifiable provider or service. Ultimately, the Court found that the Board reasonably weighed the evidence.
The Federal Circuit next addressed the question of whether the stylized design of .SUCKS is registerable. The Court found no error in the Board’s analysis of whether the stylized form creates a separate commercial impression, where “all of the characters in the mark are the same height and width and are merely displayed in a font style that was once mandated by the technological limitations of computer screens.” Because the stylized design was not inherently distinctive, the Court rejected Vox’s application, thus affirming the Board’s decision in full.
On February 1, 2022, the US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) announced a new Patent Public Search tool similar to the search tools used by patent examiners to provide more convenient and robust full-text searching of all US patents and published patent applications.
The Patent Public Search tool is free to all users with internet access and is based on the advanced Patents End-to-End (PE2E) search tool used by patent examiners. It also combines the capabilities of four existing search tools scheduled to retire in September 2022: (1) Public-Examiner’s Automated Search Tool (PubEAST), (2) Public-Web-based Examiner’s Search Tool (PubWEST), (3) Patent Full-Text and Image Database (PatFT) and (4) Patent Application Full-Text and Image Database (AppFT). (In the past, the public could only access PubEAST and PubWEST at a PTO facility or a Patent and Trademark Resource Center.)
Additional benefits of the new search tool include:
- Multiple layouts with several tools to provide more data at once
- Multicolor highlighting that can be viewed across multiple gadgets and be turned on or off
- Ability to tag documents into multiple groups that can be renamed and color coordinated
- Ability to add notes, tags, relevant claims and highlights to an image
- Use of the same searching syntax as PubEAST and PubWEST.
The PTO also introduced a new Patent Public Search webpage that includes FAQs, training resources and additional information to assist the public in using the new tool. The PTO is also planning on conducting public training sessions that will be posted on the webpage as soon as they are scheduled.
Addressing the applicability of interference proceedings to patent applications filed after the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (AIA) was enacted, the Patent Trial & Appeal Board (Board) found it proper to declare an interference between a patent application with a priority date before March 16, 2013, the AIA implementation date, and a patent with a priority date after March 16, 2013. SNIPR Technologies Limited v. The Rockefeller University, Pat. Interf. No. 106,123 (DK) (PTAB Nov. 19, 2021) (Katz, APJ).
The AIA switched the US patent system from a “first to invent” to a “first inventor to file” system. In line with this change, the AIA eliminated the patentability requirement under 35 U.S.C. § 102(g), regarding whether another inventor made the invention first, and the interference proceeding under 35 U.S.C. §135 for determining who invented the claimed invention first. Section 3(n)(2) of the AIA provides a timing provision relating to this change. Under this section, the interference proceeding “shall apply to each claim of an application for patent, and any patent issued thereon, for which the amendments made by this section also apply, if such application or patent contains or contained at any time, a claim [having a priority date before March 16, 2013].”
The US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) declared an interference between several patents owned by SNIPR and a pending application to The Rockefeller University. The claims involved were drawn to a method of killing or modifying specific bacteria in a mixed population of bacteria with different species using the CRISPR-mediated gene editing technology. The Rockefeller application asserted a priority date of February 7, 2013 (i.e., pre-AIA), while the SNIPR patents asserted the priority date of May 3, 2016 (i.e., post-AIA). SNIPR argued that the interference proceeding was improper since all involved patents were filed after the AIA was enacted.
The Board rejected SNIPR’s argument, explaining that Section 3(n)(2) provides for continuation of interference under certain circumstances. The Board noted that the patentability requirement under 35 U.S.C. §102(g) and interference still apply to each claim having a priority date before March 16, 2013, such as the claims of Rockefeller’s involved application. Accordingly, when the Rockefeller claims would otherwise be allowable, except for the existence of an interference with other claims such as SNIPR’s claims, Section 3(n)(2) necessarily calls for an interference proceeding between the Rockefeller application and the SNIPR patents. Otherwise, the PTO would not be able to determine whether Rockefeller was entitled to a patent under 35 U.S.C. §102(g).
The Board further reasoned that, instead of ending all interferences at the implementation of the AIA, US Congress enacted Section 3(n)(2) to continue the interference proceeding as applicable to certain cases after AIA. Congress also did not explicitly require that cases involved in interferences must all have priority dates before March 16, 2013. Therefore, the Board found that Congress contemplated interferences between pre-AIA and post-AIA applications and patents. Accordingly, the Board ruled in Rockefeller’s favor, finding it was the first to invent the claimed technology.
The US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) announced on December 10, 2021, that it intends to transition to electronic issuance of patents and trademarks in 2022. Under the current rule (37 C.F.R § 1.315), the PTO must deliver or mail a patent “upon issuance to the correspondence address of record.” The PTO will soon issue a notice of proposed rulemaking to seek public feedback on revising the rules of practice to issue patents electronically. Under the proposed changes, the PTO would no longer mail patents to the applicant. Instead, the PTO would issue patents electronically via the Patent Center and Patent Application Image Retrieval, from which the patents could be downloaded and printed.
While no changes to the trademark rules are necessary, the PTO will also issue a public request for comments on replacing paper registration certificates with digital versions.
The PTO believes that electronic issuance will reduce the time it takes for a patent or trademark to issue by about two weeks.
Once the transition is complete, applicants can still receive a paper copy of the issued patents and trademark registration certificates with an embossed gold seal and the director’s signature (i.e., a ribbon certificate) for a fee of $25 per copy.