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New Arguments Yield Same Unpatentability Outcome

On remand from the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in connection with inter partes review (IPR) proceedings, the Patent Trial & Appeal Board considered the petitioner’s reply arguments and evidence regarding the claim constructions that were first proposed in the patent owner’s response but again found that the claims were not unpatentable. Axonics, Inc. v. Medtronic, Inc., IPR2020-00712; -00680 (May 30, 2024) (Tartal, Jeschke, Dougal, APJ)

Axonics filed IPR petitions challenging two patents owned by Medtronic that are directed to the transcutaneous charging of implanted medical devices. In its petitions, Axonics did not propose any express claim constructions. In its preliminary response, Medtronic agreed that claim construction was not necessary. In its patent owner response, however, Medtronic – for the first time – advanced a new claim construction that differed from the interpretation of the relevant claims implied in Axonics’s claim charts. Axonics defended its own implicit construction but also offered new arguments and evidence that the prior art anticipated the patents even under the alternative construction. The Board adopted Medtronic’s new claim construction but refused to consider Axonics’s new arguments and evidence because they were first presented in the reply. The Board then found that Axonics failed to show by a preponderance of the evidence that the challenged claims were unpatentable. Axonics appealed.

Axonics did not dispute the new claim construction first introduced by Medtronic in its response and adopted by the Board; it argued only that the Board erred in refusing to consider its reply arguments and evidence under the new construction. The Federal Circuit agreed, concluding that in such a situation, “a petitioner must be given the opportunity in its reply to argue and present evidence of anticipation or obviousness under the new construction, at least where it relies on the same embodiments for each invalidity ground as were relied on in the petition.” The Court remanded for the Board to consider Axonics’s new arguments.

On remand, the Board considered Axonics’s new arguments and evidence that the challenged claims were unpatentable over the prior art under the new construction. It also considered Medtronic’s amended sur-reply. The Board again determined that none of the challenged claims were unpatentable. In its analysis, the Board pointed out that some of Axonics’s new arguments and evidence regarding what the prior art disclosed in light of the new claim construction were inconsistent with the arguments and evidence it initially offered in its petition. In particular, the Board observed that the declaration testimony of Axonics’s expert regarding the prior art, on which Axonics relied in its petition, did not support the new claim construction, even considering the expert’s supplemental declaration. The Board also rejected Axonics’s attempts in its post-remand brief to discredit Medtronic’s arguments as “untimely and wrong,” “incorrect” and “contradictory of the positions on infringement it has taken in district court.” Citing the Federal Circuit, the Board pointed out that in an IPR, the burden of persuasion to prove unpatentability by a preponderance of the evidence [...]

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PTO Collaborates With UK Counterpart to Address Standard-Essential Patents

On June 3, 2024, Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) Director Kathi Vidal and Chief Executive Officer of the UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO) Adam Williams signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) designed to tackle various issues related to standard-essential patents (SEPs).

SEPs are patents that have been declared essential to a particular technical standard. Common examples of technical standards with active SEP bases include cellular communication and other wireless standards, such as LTE, 5G and Wi-Fi. Standards are typically adopted by Standard Setting Organizations (SSOs). To have input on standard adoption, many SSOs require participants agree to license any patents that result from discussions with potential licensees on Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (FRAND) terms (See e.g., ETSI Intellectual Property Rights Policy).

But what are FRAND terms, and who gets to decide whether they issue? While individual patents are territorial (e.g., a US-issued patent is only enforceable in the United States), patent owners often obtain patent coverage in multiple jurisdictions. This can lead to challenges wherein a court in one jurisdiction may determine FRAND terms for a patent in that jurisdiction, which may then set or significantly influence the FRAND rate for the patent owner’s corresponding patents in other jurisdictions.

While the MOU is not public at this time, the PTO indicated that the MOU sets forth a framework for the following action items:

  • Cooperate on activities to facilitate collaboration and exchange of information on policy matters concerning SEPs to better ensure a balanced standards ecosystem.
  • Explore means to educate small- and medium-sized enterprises seeking to implement or contribute to the development of technical interoperability standards on FRAND terms.
  • Examine ways of improving transparency in the FRAND licensing of technical interoperability standards.
  • Engage in outreach to stakeholders to raise awareness of issues related to SEPs.
  • Discuss means to incorporate additional jurisdictions into the PTO and IPO’s activities concerning SEPs, including exploring a venue for broader discussions.

The agreement remains in place through June 3, 2029. PTO Director Vidal emphasized that “[t]his important collaboration with UKIPO will help us work together toward a fair and balanced international standard essential patent ecosystem that benefits all businesses in our two countries, including small and medium-sized enterprises and new market entrants.”

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The $X Factor: Demystifying Damages Calculations

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a district court’s decision to deny a defendant’s motion for a new trial on damages, finding that the plaintiff’s damages expert sufficiently showed that prior license agreements were economically comparable to a hypothetically negotiated agreement between the parties. EcoFactor, Inc. v. Google LLC, Case No. 23-1101 (Fed. Cir. June 3, 2024) (Reyna, Lourie, JJ.) (Prost, J., dissenting).

EcoFactor owns a patent directed to mitigating strain on the electricity grid by adjusting thermostat settings within HVAC systems. The patent describes a system where thermostats collect internal temperature readings and use them alongside external temperatures to estimate internal temperature change rates, including future predictions. EcoFactor sued Google alleging infringement based on Google’s Nest smart thermostat products.

After discovery, Google sought summary judgment, arguing that claims of EcoFactor’s patent were invalid as abstract ideas under 35 U.S.C. § 101. The district court denied this motion as well as Google’s Daubert motion to exclude the testimony of EcoFactor’s damages expert. At trial the jury found that Google infringed EcoFactor’s patent and awarded damages. The district court denied Google’s subsequent motions for judgment as a matter of law on noninfringement and for a new trial on damages. Google appealed.

Google raised three key issues. First, it argued that the district court erred in denying its motion for summary judgment. Second, Google asserted that the district court erred in denying its motion for judgment as a matter of law concerning the noninfringement of EcoFactor’s patent. Third, Google claimed that the district court wrongly denied its motion for a new trial on damages, arguing that EcoFactor’s damages expert opinion was based on unreliable methodology.

The Federal Circuit upheld the district court’s decision to deny summary judgment because there were genuine issues of material fact warranting a trial. The Court also affirmed the jury’s infringement verdict against Google, finding that it was supported by substantial evidence. Despite Google’s argument that its Nest thermostats did not meet the claims of EcoFactor’s patent, the Court concluded that expert testimony and corroborating documentation demonstrated otherwise.

On the damages issue, Google argued that EcoFactor’s expert testimony was unreliable because there was no evidence that the parties to the three license agreements used by the expert actually applied the royalty rate stated in the agreement. While Google acknowledged that each of the license agreements include a specified royalty rate, Google argued that each also included a “whereas” clause indicating that the licensee would pay EcoFactor a lump sum amount “set forth in this Agreement based on what EcoFactor believes is a reasonable royalty calculation of [$X] per-unit for . . . estimated past and [] projected future sales of products accused of infringement in the Litigation.” Google asserted that while the agreements may have included a stated rate, there was no evidence that the agreements actually applied the rate in calculating the lump sum payment.

The Federal Circuit rejected Google’s argument. The Court explained that the proposed royalty rate was derived from three [...]

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PTO Reopens Comment Period for AI Inventorship Guidance

The US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) reopened and extended until June 20, 2024, the period for public comment on the guidance regarding inventorship in applications involving artificial intelligence (AI) assisted inventions. The guidance was published on February 13, 2024, at 89 FR 10043. The PTO will also treat as timely any comments received between May 13, 2024, and the notice’s June 6, 2024, publication date.

Comments on the inventorship guidance must be submitted via the Federal Rulemaking Portal.

For more information, see our previous report on the February 13 PTO notice and related examination guidance.

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Interference Analysis Is a Two-Way Street

On appeal from an interference proceeding, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed a Patent Trial & Appeal Board decision that found the claims of the senior party’s patent were not invalid as time-barred under 35 U.S.C. § 135(b)(1). The Federal Circuit concluded that the “two-way test” requires looking to see if either set of pre-critical and post-critical date claims contains a material limitation not found in the other and not just looking to see if the post-critical date claims have additional material limitations. Speck et al. v. Bates et al., Case No. 22-1905 (Fed. Cir. May 23, 2024) (Dyk, Bryson, Stoll, JJ.)

35 U.S.C. § 135(b)(1), pre-AIA, provides that “a claim which is the same as, or for the same or substantially the same subject matter as, a claim of an issued patent may not be made in any application unless such a claim is made prior to one year from the date on which the patent was granted.” This has been described as a statute of repose that places a time limit on a patentee’s exposure to an interference, the deadline for which is referred to as the “critical date.” At issue in this appeal was the “long-standing” exception to § 135(b)(1) for instances where the applicant files its claim after the critical period but has already been claiming substantially the same invention as the patentee during the critical period.

This case involves drug-coated balloon catheter technology. Bates is the senior party that filed a patent application, and Speck is the junior party that owns an issued patent. Speck’s patent issued on September 4, 2012, whereas Bates filed his application on August 29, 2013, six days before the critical date of Speck’s patent (i.e., one year after the filing date). Bates amended the application on August 30, 2013 (still before the critical date), and canceled all of the original claims and replaced them with new claims. Bates later amended the claims after the critical date to add a requirement that the device be “free of a containment material atop the drug layer.” The amendment was made to overcome a rejection from the examiner during prosecution.

Speck filed a motion to terminate the interference on the ground that the claims of Bates’s application were time-barred under § 135(b)(1) because Bates amended the claims more than one year after Speck’s patent issued. Speck also moved the Board to find that the claims of Bates’s application were unpatentable for lack of written description.

The Board denied Speck’s motion to terminate under § 135(b)(1), finding that the later-amended claims did not differ materially from the claims in other patents and patent applications Bates owned that were filed prior to the critical date, because “Speck ha[d] not directed [the Board] to a material limitation of the Bates involved claims that is not present in the earlier Bates claims.” Speck filed a motion for rehearing, which the Board denied. The Board also denied Speck’s motion to find that Bates’s claims lacked [...]

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For Statutory Equivalents, Even One Means May Be Enough

A US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) appeals review panel decided that a means-plus-function (M+F) claim element supported by the disclosure of only a single species is not invalid for indefiniteness or lack of written description, even if the specification lacks other disclosed statutory corresponding equivalents. Ex parte Chamberlain, Appeal No. 22-001944 (App. Review Panel, May 21, 2024) (Vidal, Dir.; Udupa, Boalick, APJs) (per curiam).

The independent claims of the patent application at issue involved methods of treating patients with “anti-C5 antibod[ies]” that include amino acid substitutions devised to increase the in vivo half-life of the antibody. Each claim involved similar preambles: “A method of treating a patient by administering an anti-C5 antibody comprising . . . .” One of the independent claims was in Jepson form, whereas the other included a M+F limitation.

Following rejections by the examiner and the applicant’s appeal to the Patent Trial & Appeal Board, the Board entered new grounds of rejection finding both claims invalid under 35 U.S.C. § 112, ¶1 (written description) and affirmed the examiner’s rejection of the claims for obviousness-type double patenting. The Board also entered a new ground of rejection finding the claim including the M+F claim element indefinite under 35 U.S.C. § 112, ¶2. Following the applicant’s appeal to the Federal Circuit, the PTO took the unusual step of petitioning the Federal Circuit to “administratively remand [the case] to the Office in order to convene an Appeals Review Panel to clarify the Office’s position on the proper analysis of ‘Jepson-format and means-plus-function claims in the field of biotechnology, and particularly in the antibody art’ and ‘to issue a revised decision.’”

On remand, the panel affirmed the Board’s determinations that written description was lacking but overturned the Board’s finding of indefiniteness for the claim including the M+F element. In doing so, the panel offered useful commentary on the invalidity standard for M+F claim elements as well as the implications that a limiting preamble may have on invalidity.

The panel found the “treating a patient” preamble recitation limiting in both claims. For the Jepson claim, the preamble was per se limiting. However, the panel went on to find that, even independent of the Jepson claim format, the “treating a patient” phrase would be limiting. Outside the Jepson context, the panel characterized the inquiry of determining whether a preamble limits the body of the claim as a highly contextual one. According to the panel, the “treating a patient” term did not merely provide “circumstances in which the method may be useful” but instead constituted “the raison d’être of the claimed method itself.” The “treating a patient” language was necessary to “give life, meaning, and vitality” to limitations in the body of the claim involving increasing the in vivo half-life of the antibodies and administering the antibodies.

Having determined that the “treating a patient” recitation was limiting, the panel found that the limitation was overbroad compared to the scope of the patent’s disclosure, and thus the Jepson format claim lacked adequate written description. Read in light of [...]

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No Attorneys’ Fees Available for Successful IPR in Parallel Court Proceedings

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit concluded that a party that voluntarily elects to pursue parallel proceedings before the Patent Trial & Appeal Board and the district court is not entitled to recover attorneys’ fees under 35 U.S.C. § 285 (exceptional case doctrine) in connection with the Board proceedings, nor does § 285 entitle a party to hold opposing counsel jointly and severally liable for fees. Dragon Intellectual Property LLC v. Dish Network L.L.C., Case Nos. 2022-1621; -1777; -1622; -1779 (Fed. Cir. May 20, 2024) (Moore, C.J.; Stoll, J.) (Bencivengo, J., dissenting).

Dragon sued DISH Network, Sirius XM Radio (SXM) and eight others for patent infringement. The district court stayed proceedings as to DISH and SXM while they pursued inter partes review (IPR) but proceeded with claim construction for the other defendants. Following claim construction, all parties stipulated to noninfringement, and the district court accordingly entered a noninfringement judgment that was subsequently vacated following appeal to the Federal Circuit. Following the Board’s determination that the asserted claims were unpatentable, DISH and SXM filed a motion for attorneys’ fees in the district court proceeding. The district court granted the motion for time spent litigating the district court case but denied for fees incurred solely during the IPR proceedings and recovery from Dragon’s former counsel. DISH and SXM appealed the denial-in-part, and Dragon cross-appealed the grant-in-part.

The Federal Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant-in-part, finding that the district court did not abuse its discretion in declaring these cases exceptional. The Federal Circuit explained that the vacated noninfringement judgment did not require the district court to ignore its claim construction order in determining exceptionality. The Court further explained that even though Dragon was not entitled to a claim construction “do-over,” the prosecution history disclaimer issue was independently considered during the exceptionality inquiry, and Dragon did not provide any grounds for the conclusion that this constituted an inadequate inquiry.

The Federal Circuit also affirmed the denial of attorneys’ fees with regard to fees incurred during the IPR proceedings and Dragon’s former counsel’s liability for fee awards under § 285.

First, the Federal Circuit rejected DISH and SXM’s argument that § 285 allows recovery of fees incurred during parallel IPR proceedings, principally on the grounds that the IPR proceedings were pursued voluntarily. The Court reasoned that there are many advantages to leveraging IPR proceedings and, therefore, “where a party voluntarily elects to pursue an invalidity challenge through IPR proceedings, we see no basis for awarding IPR fees under § 285.”

Second, the Federal Circuit relied on the statutory text and determined that liability for attorneys’ fees awarded under § 285 does not extend to a party’s counsel. The Court explained that while other statutes explicitly allow parties to recover costs and fees from counsel, § 285 is silent as to who can be liable for a fee award, and therefore it is reasonable to conclude that fees cannot be assessed against counsel.

Sitting by designation, Judge Bencivengo of the US District Court for the Southern District of California dissented [...]

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Section 337 Doesn’t Require Article III Standing for Claimant but Claimant Must Be “Patentee”

Addressing an initial determination by an administrative law judge (ALJ) granting summary determination and terminating a Section 337 investigation for lack of Article III standing, the US International Trade Commission reversed and held that Section 337 does not require claimants to have Article III standing. Certain Active Matrix Organic Light-Emitting Diode Display Panels and Modules for Mobile Devices, and Components Thereof, Inv. No. 337-TA-1351, Commission Opinion (May 15, 2024).

In late 2022, Samsung Display filed a complaint seeking to institute a Section 337 investigation based on its infringement allegations regarding four patents and seeking an exclusion order against replacement displays sold by various companies. In late 2023, on the eve of the evidentiary hearing, the ALJ granted the respondents’ motion for summary determination that the complainant lacked constitutional standing because Samsung Display had granted its parent company, Samsung Electronics Co., an implied license to the asserted patents with an unrestricted right to sublicense. Samsung Display petitioned for Commission review. On review, the Commission reversed.

The Commission first noted that because it’s an administrative tribunal and not an Article III court, the “case or controversy” requirement does not apply to parties before it and standing is instead based on its governing statute. The Commission acknowledged its previous decisions where it had applied a constitutional standing requirement and expressly overruled those decisions. It further noted that its statute does not include the “patentee” requirement of 35 U.S.C. § 281 that applies to plaintiffs in district court actions but reiterated its long-standing practice of requiring a complainant be the owner or exclusive licensee of the asserted patent(s) at the time of filing the complaint.

The Commission held that there were genuine issues of material fact as to whether Samsung Display was a “patentee” when it filed the complaint. The Commission found there was an open question as to whether Samsung Electronics actually had a right to sublicense without Samsung Display’s explicit or implicit authorization. The Commission thus remanded the investigation to the ALJ to conduct further proceedings to develop the factual record.

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Getting to the Core of It: Assignment Clause Is Ambiguous

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit vacated and remanded a district court’s grant of summary judgment, finding that the language used in an invention assignment clause was subject to more than one reasonable interpretation (i.e., ambiguous) and thus remand was necessary for further fact finding. Core Optical Tech., LLC v. Nokia Corp., Case Nos. 23-1001; -1002; -1003 (Fed. Cir. May 21, 2024) (Dyk, Taranto, JJ.) (Meyer, J., dissenting).

Core Optical filed complaints against three groups of defendants alleging patent infringement. The lead defendant, Nokia, moved for summary judgment, arguing that Core Optical did not have standing to bring the patent infringement suit. Nokia argued that by virtue of an invention assignment clause in an employment-related agreement signed in 1990, the inventor, Dr. Core, had assigned the patent rights to TRW, his employer at the time of the invention. In the agreement, Dr. Core “agreed to disclose to TRW and automatically assign to TRW all of his inventions that ‘relate to the business or activities of TRW’ and were ‘conceived, developed, or reduced to practice’ during his employment with TRW.” Nokia argued that by virtue of that earlier assignment, the subsequent assignment to Core Optical was ineffective. The agreement had a carveout from the assignment for inventions “developed entirely on [Dr. Core’s] own time” that was unrelated to his work for TRW. According to Nokia, based on the assignment, Core Optical did not have standing to assert the patent. The district court agreed and granted Nokia’s motion for summary judgment. Core Optical appealed.

The Federal Circuit reviewed the district court’s grant of summary judgment de novo, following Ninth Circuit and California law relating to the underlying contract dispute and related factual determinations. Under California law, the “fundamental goal of contractual interpretation is to give effect to the mutual intention of the parties” (citing City of Atascadero v. MLPF&S (1998)). In granting summary judgment, the district court had held that the 1990 invention assignment agreement’s carveout did not encompass Dr. Core’s PhD research, which undisputedly led to the invention claimed in the patent. That finding was based in part on the TRW fellowship program that supported and enabled Dr. Core’s PhD work. However, Core Optical presented evidence that “Dr. Core was careful not to work on his PhD research while ‘on the clock’ at TRW and not to use TRW equipment, facilities, or supplies when working on his PhD research.”

The Federal Circuit disagreed with the district court that the matter was subject to resolution on summary judgment. The Court agreed with Core Optical that the “entirely-own-time” phrase did not unambiguously express a mutual intent to designate all the time Dr. Core spent performing his PhD research as his own time or, as Nokia argued, to indicate that some of the time Dr. Core spent performing his PhD research was partly TRW’s time (as the district court held). The Federal Circuit walked through the undisputed facts, including that Dr. Core sought funding from TRW for his PhD research and [...]

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Pay for Delay Is Sometimes Okay

The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies accused of violating antitrust laws by using reverse payments to delay entry of a generic version of a patented drug. CVS Pharmacy, Inc. v. Forest Labs. Inc., Case Nos. 23-410; -418; -420; -423 (2d Cir. May 13, 2024) (Jacobs, Sack, Nardini, JJ.)

This case involves a drug called Bystolic, which is a beta blocker designed to treat high blood pressure. Numerous purchasers of Bystolic and its generic versions brought state and federal antitrust claims against Forest Labs. and the generic manufacturers. The purchasers alleged that Forest Labs. unlawfully paid off the generic manufacturers to delay the market entry of their products and prolong Forest Labs.’ ability to reap monopoly profits. The purchasers claim that Forest Labs. covered up these payments by pretextually compensating the generics for goods and services that Forest Labs. did not truly need. The purchasers claim that without such “side deals,” generic versions of Bystolic would have entered the market earlier – whether by the generic manufacturers prevailing in the infringement litigation, entering at risk (i.e., with litigation ongoing) or agreeing to a settlement allowing for earlier market entry.

The payments made by Forest Labs. are known as “reverse payments” because, unlike a typical settlement payment, the patent holder pays the alleged patent infringer even though they have no claim for damages. In 2013, the Supreme Court explained in FTC v. Actavis that such payments should be evaluated pursuant to antitrust law’s rule of reason, under which courts balance anticompetitive effects against procompetitive benefits. The Supreme Court explained that while reverse payments may look dubious, they are not automatically unlawful. Instead, these payments may “sometimes” violate the antitrust laws, but only if they are both “large” and “unjustified.” According to the Supreme Court, whether a reverse payment passes antitrust muster “depends upon its size, its scale in relation to the payor’s anticipated future litigation costs, its independence from other services for which it might represent payment, and the lack of any other convincing justification,” including fair value for goods and services exchanged as part of a bona fide commercial relationship.

Forest Labs. and the generic manufacturers moved to dismiss the purchasers’ claims for failure to state a claim. The district court granted the motion, concluding that the purchasers’ allegations did not plausibly show an antitrust violation under Actavis. The purchasers’ appealed.

The Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal. Analyzing Actavis, the Court explained that reverse payments are subject to the rule-of-reason analysis and the relevant inquiry involves determining why the payment was made. The Court noted that the payments must be analyzed against a backdrop of the strong public policy favoring settlement of disputes, meaning that the payments violate antitrust law only if they are both large and unjustified or unexplainable. In turn, whether a reverse payment is “unjustified” depends on whether it “reflects traditional settlement considerations,” including “fair value” for products or services provided by the generic manufacturer pursuant [...]

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