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USPTO Conducting Patent Eligibility Jurisprudence Study

At the request of Senators Thom Tillis (R-NC), Marie Hirono (D-HI), Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Chris Coons (D-DE), the US Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) is undertaking a study on the current state of patent eligibility jurisprudence in the United States and how the current jurisprudence has impacted investment and innovation, particularly in critical technologies like quantum computing, artificial intelligence, precision medicine, diagnostic methods and pharmaceutical treatments. On July 9, 2021, the USPTO issued a Federal Register Notice seeking public input on these matters to assist in preparing the study. The deadline for submitting written comments is September 7, 2021.

The Federal Register Notice included 13 concerns on which comments were requested:

  1. Explain how the current state of patent eligibility jurisprudence affects the conduct of business in your technology areas, and identify your technology areas.
  2. Explain what impacts you have experienced as a result of the current state of patent eligibility jurisprudence in the United States. Include impacts on as many of the following areas as you can, identifying concrete examples and supporting facts when possible:
    1. patent prosecution strategy and portfolio management;
    2. patent enforcement and litigation;
    3. patent counseling and opinions;
    4. research and development;
    5. employment;
    6. procurement;
    7. marketing;
    8. ability to obtain financing from investors or financial institutions;
    9. investment strategy;
    10. licensing of patents and patent applications;
    11. product development;
    12. sales, including downstream and upstream sales;
    13. innovation and
    14. competition.
  3. Explain how the current state of patent eligibility jurisprudence in the United States impacts particular technological fields, including investment and innovation in any of the following technological areas:
    1. quantum computing;
    2. artificial intelligence;
    3. precision medicine;
    4. diagnostic methods;
    5. pharmaceutical treatments and
    6. other computer-related inventions (e.g., software, business methods, computer security, databases and data structures, computer networking, and graphical user interfaces).
  4. Explain how your experiences with the application of subject matter eligibility requirements in other jurisdictions, including China, Japan, Korea, and Europe, differ from your experiences in the United States.
  5. Identify instances where you have been denied patent protection for an invention in the United States solely on the basis of patent subject matter ineligibility, but obtained protection for the same invention in a foreign jurisdiction, or vice versa. Provide specific examples, such as the technologies and jurisdictions involved, and the reason the invention was held ineligible in the United States or other jurisdiction.
  6. Explain whether the state of patent eligibility jurisprudence in the United States has caused you to modify or shift investment, research and development activities, or jobs from the United States to other jurisdictions, or to the United States from other jurisdictions. Identify the relevant modifications and their associated impacts.
  7. Explain whether the state of patent eligibility jurisprudence in the United States has caused you to change business strategies for protecting your intellectual property (e.g., shifting from patents to trade secrets, or vice versa). Identify the changes and their associated impacts.
  8. Explain whether you have changed your behavior with regard to filing, purchasing, licensing, selling, or maintaining patent applications and patents in the United States as a result of [...]

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Too Good to Be True? Federal Circuit Demands Evidence of Reliance on Favorable Ruling, Stipulation

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that notwithstanding a stipulation on claim construction, a party may still induce infringement absent proof that it actually relied on the stipulation, and that mere inaction, absent an affirmative act to encourage infringement, cannot be the basis for a claim of inducement. The Federal Circuit also affirmed the district court’s reduction of the jury’s damages award to $0 despite a finding of direct infringement because the plaintiff failed to prove damages. TecSec, Inc. v. Adobe Inc., Case Nos. 19-2192, -2258 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 23, 2020) (Taranto, J.).

TecSec owns several patents on systems and methods for multi-level security for network-distributed files. TecSec sued Adobe (among other defendants) in this now-10-year-old-case, which the Federal Circuit has considered several times. As relevant here, the district court entered a claim construction in 2011 that led to a stipulation of non-infringement, and the Federal Circuit reversed that claim construction in 2013. On remand, the district court barred TecSec from introducing evidence of inducement in the 2011–2013 period on the grounds that it was reasonable for Adobe to have relied on the district court’s ruling and the stipulation. On the new claim construction, Adobe stipulated to one act of direct infringement. Adobe also moved for summary judgment of patent ineligibility, which the district court denied, stating that its rationale supported judgment for TecSec that the patents claimed eligible subject matter. At trial, the jury found that the claims were valid and that Adobe directly infringed but did not induce infringement. The jury awarded TecSec $1.75 million in damages. On Adobe’s post-trial motion, the district court reduced the damages award to $0 because TecSec had not proved inducement and had proved no damages associated with the single act of direct infringement. Both parties appealed.

Inducement

The Federal Circuit reversed the district court’s decision on Adobe’s motion in limine barring inducement evidence for the 2011–2013 period. The district court’s primary rationale for granting the motion had been the reasonableness of Adobe’s reliance on the claim construction order and stipulation of non-infringement. However, the Federal Circuit reasoned that the intent prong of inducement is a subjective inquiry, and that inducement could still be found upon a showing that Adobe subjectively believed that the claim construction order was wrong and would subsequently be reversed.

Jury Instructions

The Federal Circuit next addressed two challenges by TecSec to jury instructions. The first instruction was predicated on three facts: (i) that Adobe had admitted that a certain sequence of steps constituted direct infringement, (ii) that Adobe had performed the steps on at least one occasion, and (iii) that “the parties agree that the one time for which Adobe had admitted infringement . . . occurred before TecSec filed its lawsuit.” The Court found that this instruction was factually accurate and therefore not erroneous. The second instruction explained that inducement required “an affirmative act to encourage infringement,” and that “[e]vidence of mere inaction, or a failure to stop or prevent infringement, does not [...]

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Hooked on Precedent or Something New

Highlighting internal disagreement regarding patent eligibility under § 101, a divided panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued a series of opinions revising and reissuing a previous opinion on § 101 patent eligibility for a mechanical invention and, in an even split, denied a petition for en banc review. American Axle & Manufacturing, Inc. v. Neapco Holdings LLC, Case No. 18-1763 D.I. 134 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 3, 2019) (Dyk, J.) (Moore, J., dissenting); id. D.I. 133 (denying en banc by a 6–6 vote).

In October 2019, a divided Federal Circuit panel in American Axle v. Neapco affirmed a district court finding that method claims for a mechanical invention were invalid under 35 U.S.C. § 101. The majority specifically found that the claimed invention was nothing more than a recitation of Hooke’s law, which undoubtedly is a law of nature. Judge Moore dissented, arguing that the majority improperly expanded the § 101 eligibility inquiry beyond its statutory gatekeeping function and distorted patent eligibility under § 101 and enablement under § 112.

Neapco filed a petition for rehearing and a petition for rehearing en banc. Several amicus briefs were also filed. Notably, retired Judge Paul R. Michel, formerly the chief judge of the Federal Circuit, filed an amicus brief in support of the en banc petition because he believed the panel’s original decision “conflicts with the Supreme Court’s and [Federal Circuit’s] precedent.”

In view of the petition for rehearing, the original panel modified and reissued its opinion. The Court affirmed its original decision that two of the three independent claims were invalid under § 101 (patent claims 22 and 36); however, the Court reversed its original decision invalidating claim 1. Regarding claims 22 and 36, the majority reiterated that the claims were merely an application of Hooke’s law and that it was simply applying Supreme Court and Federal Circuit precedent, analogizing this case to the Supreme Court’s 1853 O’Reilly v. Morse decision where the Supreme Court determined the patentability of claims directed to a natural law of using electromagnetic force to transmit messages. When responding to the dissent, the majority reiterated that it was not departing from prior precedent, and that its “holding is limited to the situation where a patent claim on its face and as construed clearly invokes a natural law, and nothing else, to accomplish a desired result.”

Regarding claim 1, the majority reversed its original decision because the claim had an additional limitation that could cause the claim to not merely be an application of Hooke’s law. Because the district court did not address this limitation, the majority remanded the case so the district court could address this issue in the first instance.

Judge Moore maintained her dissent, arguing that the majority was announcing a new patentability test: the “Nothing More” test. She argued that the decision created a new test for instances when claims are directed to a natural law even though no natural law is specifically recited in the claims. Judge Moore further reiterated [...]

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