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Another Kind of Term Limit: Delay Resulting from After-Allowance Amendments Deducted from PTA

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the US Patent & Trademark Office’s (PTO) decision on a patent term adjustment (PTA), finding that it was appropriate to deduct days from a patent term when the applicant files an amendment after notice of allowance and could have completed prosecution earlier by withdrawing the amendment or abstaining from filing it in first instance. Eurica Califorrniaa v. Vidal, Case No. 22-1640 (Fed. Cir. Nov. 7, 2022) (Lourie, Dyk, Hughes, JJ.) (per curiam) (non-precedential).

Eurica Califorrniaa is the sole inventor of a patent application entitled “nondestructive means of ectopic pregnancy management,” which was filed on March 15, 2014. Near the close of an extended patent prosecution, the examiner identified minor additional changes to the claim language of the patent application that would place it in position for allowance. The examiner unilaterally made the amendments and provided Califorrniaa a notice of allowance. In response, Califorrniaa requested an interview with the examiner and provided a list of further proposed amendments that included changes to the examiner’s amended claim limitations as well as substantive changes unrelated to the Examiner’s Amendments. Following the interview, Califorrniaa formally submitted his proposed amendments for the examiner’s consideration. As a result, the PTO deducted 51 days from the adjusted patent term of the patent to account for the time it took the examiner to consider and accept Califorrniaa’s post-allowance amendments. Califorrniaa appealed the PTO’s calculations, first to the district court (which affirmed the PTO) and then to the Federal Circuit.

The PTO may extend the nominal 20-years-from-filing patent terms to account for each day of delay attributable to the PTO, minus the number of days of delay attributable to an applicant’s failure to engage in reasonable efforts to conclude prosecution. Congress has granted the PTO authority to define when this “reasonable efforts” standard is not met, and the PTO has created regulations to address the issue. In 2019, the Federal Circuit issued its decision in Supernus v. Iancu, finding that the PTO failed to properly consider whether the applicant reasonably engaged in efforts to conclude prosecution. In response, the PTO adjusted its regulations to distinguish between post-allowance amendments expressly requested by the PTO and those voluntarily made by the applicant, and to change the relevant timeframe for the calculation of a reduction in PTA. The PTO’s regulations state, in part, that an applicant’s decision to amend their patent application after the examiner has issued a notice of allowance is not a reasonable effort to conclude prosecution.

Unlike its ruling in Supernus, where no identifiable effort to conclude prosecution existed, here the Federal Circuit agreed with the PTO’s finding that Califorrniaa could have, at any time, withdrawn his post-allowance amendments and accepted the examiner’s amendments to conclude prosecution. As such, an “identifiable effort” existed by which Califorrniaa could have avoided additional delay and concluded prosecution. Therefore, the Court affirmed the 51-day deduction of the patent term.

The Federal Circuit also found that the PTO’s post-Supernus updates to [...]

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PTO Extends Deadline for Comments on Initiatives to Ensure Patent Robustness, Reliability

On November 3, 2022, the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) announced that it is extending the deadline for public input on its proposed initiatives aimed at ensuring the robustness and reliability of patent rights from January 3, 2023, to February 1, 2023.

For further details about the extension of the deadline, check out the notice here.




PTO Requests Comments on Initiatives to Expand Board Opportunities, Registration to Practice Criteria

In a pair of notices, the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) announced on October 18, 2022, that it is seeking public input on proposed initiatives directed at expanding opportunities to appear before the Patent Trial & Appeal Board, (Board) and expanding admission criteria for registration to practice in patent cases before the PTO. PTO Director Kathi Vidal explained that “[t]hese proposals are part of our broader initiatives to improve quality and participation.”

Regarding the expansion of opportunities to appear before the Board, the PTO requested comments on the following six questions:

  1. Are there any changes to Board rules or procedures that the PTO or the Board should make to increase opportunities to appear and/or serve as counsel and/or the lead counsel in America Invents Act (AIA) proceedings?
    1. If “yes” to question 1 as to the lead counsel, should the rules require that a non-registered practitioner have prior experience in AIA proceedings and/or have completed training before being designated as the lead counsel? What level of experience and/or type of training should be required?
  2. Should any rule or procedure revised by the PTO that permits a non-registered practitioner to be designated as the lead counsel in an AIA proceeding also require that any such non-registered practitioner be accompanied by a registered practitioner as backup counsel? If not, are there any circumstances or events that might occur during an AIA proceeding (g., the contemplated or actual filing of a motion to amend) that might warrant requiring a registered practitioner to then appear as backup counsel?
  3. Would a rule requiring that the lead counsel or backup counsel in an AIA proceeding be a registered practitioner have a significant impact on the cost of such a proceeding? If so, what would the impact be and would the impact be justified?
  4. Should any of the changes discussed above, if adopted, be implemented as a pilot program?
  5. Are there additional training and/or development programs the PTO should offer to increase opportunities for less experienced practitioners to appear as counsel and/or serve as the lead counsel in AIA proceedings?
  6. Are there any changes to the Legal Experience and Advancement Program (LEAP) that the PTO should make to increase opportunities to appear and/or serve as the lead counsel in AIA proceedings?

Regarding expanding the admission requirements to practice in patent matters before the PTO, comments on the following five topics were requested:

  1. The General Requirements Bulletin (GRB) lists three categories of scientific and technical qualifications typically used for eligibility for admission to the registration examination: (1) Category A, for specified bachelor’s, master’s and PhD degrees; (2) Category B, for other bachelor’s, master’s and PhD degrees with technical and scientific training; and (3) Category C, for individuals who rely on practical engineering or scientific experience and have passed the Fundamentals of Engineering test. The PTO is seeking comments as to acceptable degrees and whether it should add Category B degrees on a predetermined timeframe (g., every three years).
  2. Should the PTO accept [...]

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Cloudy Skies: PTO Director Finds Abuse and Sanctionable Conduct

The US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) Director issued a precedential opinion finding that filing an inter partes review (IPR) solely to extract payment in a settlement—without the intent to prosecute the IPR to completion—is a sanctionable abuse of process. OpenSky Indus., LLC v. VLSI Tech. LLC, IPR2021-01064 (Oct. 4, 2022) (Vidal, Dir.)

In 2019, VLSI asserted two patents against Intel. In response, Intel filed two IPRs against the allegedly infringed patents, but both IPRs were discretionally denied by the Patent Trial & Appeal Board (Board) based on the advanced stage of the underlying litigation and overlapping issues. The suit proceeded, and a jury awarded VLSI more than $600 million in damages in 2021.

OpenSky Industries was founded two months after the judgment. OpenSky filed a “copycat” IPR petition based on Intel’s previous petitions (including refiling the declarations of Intel’s expert without his knowledge) targeting VLSI’s two allegedly infringed patents. The Board instituted over VLSI’s argument, noting that patentability issues were raised that had not been resolved in the district court case. Initially, OpenSky attempted to settle the IPRs with VLSI, but VLSI refused. OpenSky then reached out to Intel, offering to let Intel collaborate if it agreed to pay a success fee. Intel refused and later filed its own IPR petition and joinder motion. After Intel’s refusal, OpenSky pivoted back to VLSI, offering to “refuse[] to pay [the] expert for time at deposition so [the] expert does not appear at deposition” in return for payment. VLSI reported the scheme to the Board.

Intel was joined as a party to the OpenSky IPR proceeding in June 2022 based on its later-filed petition. Once Intel joined, OpenSky threatened to forego both deposing VLSI’s expert and filing its reply brief unless Intel paid it for its “prior work in the IPR” plus “additional remuneration.” Intel refused. While OpenSky did notice VLSI’s expert, it declined to file a Petitioner Reply brief, forcing Intel to draft the reply. Later, at VLSI’s request (OpenSky missed the request date), oral argument in the proceeding took place before the Board. OpenSky did not meaningfully participate.

While all this was unfolding, the Director sua sponte initiated an investigation to determine “[w]hat actions the Director . . . should take when faced with evidence of an abuse of process or conduct that otherwise thwarts . . . the goals of the Office and/or the AIA.” To begin the investigation, the Director sent discovery requests to each of the three parties. VLSI and Intel complied. OpenSky, by comparison, either incompletely complied with or directly refused each request. Based on those evasions, the Director sanctioned OpenSky for discovery misconduct, applying adverse inferences against OpenSky on each request.

Discovery sanctions in place, the Director moved to the central question: Did OpenSky abuse the IPR process? The Director answered yes.

First, the Director found that OpenSky’s conduct violated its duty of candor and good faith to the Board. In its negotiations with VLSI, OpenSky offered to deliberately sabotage its own petition to hinder Intel. In its negotiations with Intel, OpenSky did [...]

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PTO Requests Comments on Initiatives to Ensure Patent Robustness, Reliability

The US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) is seeking public input and guidance on proposed initiatives directed at bolstering the robustness and reliability of patents. The request for comments was spurred in part by US President Joe Biden’s July 9, 2021, executive order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy, and a June 8, 2022, letter from Senators Leahy, Blumenthal, Klobuchar, Cornyn, Collins and Braun raising concerns about patent thickets.

The PTO identified four broad topics and initiatives that it is considering:

  • Prior Art Searching
  • Support for Patent Claims
  • Request for Continued Examination (RCE) Practice
  • Restriction, Divisional, Rejoinder and Non-Statutory Double Patenting Practice.

The PTO seeks comments on 11 main questions and several sub-questions. The first five questions are directed to the PTO initiatives while questions six through 11 address concerns raised by the senators.

PTO Initiatives

  1. How should the PTO facilitate an applicant’s submission of prior art that is not accessible in the Patents End-to-End Search system (e.g., “on sale” or prior public use)?
  1. How, if at all, should the PTO change claim support requirements and/or continuation practice?
  1. How, if at all, should the PTO change RCE practice?
  1. How, if at all, should the PTO limit or change restriction, divisional, rejoinder and/or non-statutory double patenting practice?
  1. Provide any other input on any of the proposals listed under the PTO initiatives.

Senator Inquiries

  1. How would eliminating terminal disclaimers, thus prohibiting patents that are obvious variants of one another, affect patent prosecution strategies and overall patent quality?
  1. Should patents that are tied together by a terminal disclaimer because of an obviousness-type double patenting rejection stand or fall together if their validity is subsequently challenged?
  1. Should the PTO require a second look by a team of patent quality specialists before issuing a continuation patent on a first office action?
  1. Should there be heightened examination requirements for continuation patents?
  1. Should the PTO implement a rule change that requires any continuation application to be filed within a set timeframe of the ultimate parent application?
  1. If filing fees were increased to cover the actual cost of obtaining a patent, would this increase patent quality? And if the fees for continuation applications were increased, would applicants be less likely to file continuations for obvious variants?

Among the proposals under consideration are whether to require applicants to identify corresponding support in the original disclosure for each claim in a continuation application, whether applications should be reassigned to a different examiner after a set number of RCEs are filed, whether the PTO should adopt the unity of invention standard, and whether divisionals should be filed within a set time period.

Click here for further details on the PTO initiatives.

Comments must be received by January 3, 2023, to ensure consideration.




PTO Switches to New Public Search Tools, New PTAB Filing System

The US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) will replace four legacy tools—Public-Examiner’s Automated Search Tool, Public-Web-Based Examiner’s Search Tool, Patent Full-Text and Image Database (PatFT) and Patent Application Full-Text and Image Database (AppFT)—with the new Patent Public Search Tool (PPUBS) on September 30, 2022. The PTO first announced the transition to the new tool in February 2022.

Existing links to US patents and US pre-grant publications in PatFT and AppFT will be terminated following the retirement of these services. US patents and US pre-grant publications can be directly accessed via PPUBS, and links for direct document access to US patents and US pre-grant publications can be set up on a webpage or document. According to the PTO, PPUBS provides more convenient, remote and robust full-text searching of all US patents and US pre-grant publications. PPUBS also streamlines the search process for users, provides alternatives for existing services and incorporates new features. Step-by-step instructions for performing these functions can be found here.

The PTO also announced that as of October 11, 2022, the Patent Trial & Appeal Board E2E system used for electronically filing all documents related to Inter Partes and Post Grant reviews, Transitional Program for Covered Business Mmethod Patents, and Derivation Proceedings will be replaced by the Patent Trial & Appeal Tracking System (P-TACTS) platform. The E2E system will be unavailable starting at 5:00 pm EDT on October 9, 2022, through 11:00 pm EDT on October 10, 2022 (which is a federal holiday). For more information about the platform migration and how to register to use P-TACTS, click here.




Claim at Issue Must Be Substantively Allowable to Qualify for PTA

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed two district court decisions, finding that a patent owner who only partially prevailed in one of two appeals was not entitled to any additional patent term adjustments (PTAs) from the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) under 35 U.S.C. § 154(b)(1)(C) during the pendency of their district court appeals. SawStop Holding LLC v. Vidal, Case No. 2021-1537 (Fed. Cir. Sept. 14, 2022) (Newman, Linn, and Chen, JJ.)

SawStop owns two patents directed to saws with a safety feature that stops a power-saw blade upon contact with flesh. During prosecution of the application for one of the patents, SawStop appealed an obviousness rejection to the Patent Trial & Appeal Board (Board). The Board affirmed the obviousness rejection but on new grounds. The patent ultimately issued after SawStop amended the claim at issue to overcome the obviousness rejection.

Similarly, during prosecution of the application for the second patent, independent claim 1 was rejected as being anticipated and for obviousness-type double patenting while dependent claim 2 was rejected as anticipated. SawStop appealed the rejections. The Board affirmed both rejections of claim 1 but reversed the rejection of claim 2. SawStop subsequently challenged the Board’s anticipation rejection of claim 1 before the US District Court for the District of Columbia, which reversed the anticipation rejection. SawStop did not challenge the obviousness-type double patenting rejection. On remand to the Board, SawStop cancelled claim 1 and rewrote claim 2 as an independent claim. A patent subsequently issued.

Since issuance of both patents was delayed by appeals before allowance, SawStop requested PTAs under Section 154(b)(1)(C):

Subject to the limitations under paragraph (2), if the issue of an original patent is delayed due to … (iii) appellate review by the Patent Trial and Appeal Board or by a Federal Court in a case in which the patent was issued under a decision in the review reversing an adverse determination of patentability, the term of the patent shall be extended 1 day for each day of the pendency of the proceeding, order, or review, as the case may be.

The Board granted PTA “for the delay incurred in the successful reversal of the rejection of claim 2” of the second patent but denied additional PTA for both patents resulting from the appeals. SawStop filed suits in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, challenging the Board’s decision. The court granted summary judgment in favor of the PTO in both suits. SawStop then appealed to the Federal Circuit.

The Federal Circuit affirmed, finding that SawStop was interpreting Section 154(b)(1)(C) too broadly. SawStop argued in part that any examiner rejection overturned on appeal qualified as “a reversal of a determination of patentability.” The Court rejected this argument, explaining that the Board’s adverse determination of unpatentability remained before and after the appeal to the Board. That is, “the reversal of a ‘determination of patentability’ requires a determination that the claim in question is substantively allowable, not just free of [...]

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Sometimes Inactions Speak Louder Than Words

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a decision granting summary judgment in favor of the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) regarding the propriety of imposing a restriction requirement on a pre-General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) patent. Hyatt v. PTO, Case No. 2021-2324 (Fed. Cir. Sept. 8, 2022) (Moore, Prost, and Hughes, JJ.)

This action arose from the prosecution of a pre-GATT application that claimed priority to applications filed as early as 1983. The issue stems from changes to US patent law limiting patent terms to 20 years from their filing date. The old law provided a grant that lasted 17 years from a patent issuance. As the Federal Circuit noted in early litigation involving Gilbert Hyatt, tying patent term to the grant date “incentivized certain patentees to delay prosecuting their patents by abandoning applications and filing continuing applications in their place.” But the change in law left a gap for so-called transitional applications—those filed but not yet granted before the new law took effect. This “‘triggered a patent application gold rush in the spring of 1995’ by applicants who wanted their patent claims to be governed under the [old law]­ … This gold rush is ‘often referred to as the ‘GATT Bubble.’’”

Hyatt, a prolific inventor, is named in a series of pre-GATT applications filed in 1995 during the GATT bubble. Since then, he has continued to prosecute these applications. As a result of various litigations, the PTO stayed the prosecution of many of these applications between 2003 and 2012. In 2013, over Hyatt’s objections, the PTO required him to select eight claims from an application containing 200 for prosecution. In 2015, the PTO issued a non-final rejection on said claims. Hyatt responded by essentially rewriting the claims in their entirety. The examiner then issued a restriction requirement between the original and amended claims, which would require Hyatt to submit a new application with the new claims, which would be subject to the new law. The restriction requirement was based on the “applicant-action exception,” which allowed the PTO to issue a restriction requirement when the examiner could not have previously made one because of the actions of the applicant. The authority for the PTO action was rooted in Rule 129 (b)(1) (ii), which in relevant part provides:

(1) In an application … that has been pending for

at least three years as of June 8, 1995 … no requirement

for restriction . . . shall be made or maintained

in the application after June 8, 1995, except where:

(ii) The examiner has not made a requirement for

restriction in the present or parent application

prior to April 8, 1995, due to actions by the applicant

After the PTO issued a restriction requirement, Hyatt filed an action in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, alleging that the PTO violated the Administrative Procedure Act because the restriction requirement was arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion or otherwise not in [...]

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Oh, Fudge. TTAB Finds Curse Word Fails to Function as Trademark

The US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) denied registration of several US trademark applications for the mark FUCK, even though the applicant had overcome a prohibition on the registration of “immoral or scandalous” trademarks as a violation of the First Amendment in the Supreme Court’s 2019 decision in Iancu v. Brunetti. The applicant also had previously secured registration of the mark FUCT. The PTO nevertheless denied registration on grounds that the familiar curse word did not function as a trademark. In re: Brunetti, Ser. Nos. 88308426; 88308434; 88308451; 88310900 (TTAB Aug. 22, 2022) (Bergsman, Dunn, Lebow, Administrative Trademark Judges).

The Trademark Trial & Appeal Board (Board) issued a precedential decision affirming the PTO’s refusal to register the FUCK mark for a variety of goods and related services, including cellphone cases, sunglasses, jewelry, watches, bags and wallets. The Board found that the word FUCK expresses well-recognized sentiments and that consumers are accustomed to seeing the word in widespread use by many different sources. As a result, the word failed to create the commercial impression of a source indicator and therefore failed to function as a trademark to distinguish the goods from others.

BACKGROUND

Artist and entrepreneur Erik Brunetti applied to register the mark FUCK in relation to a wide variety of wearable goods, electronics accessories and related retail, marketing and business services in 2019 while his appeal to the Supreme Court regarding the FUCT mark was still pending. When the Supreme Court issued its decision, the FUCK applications were removed from suspension and could no longer be refused on grounds that the mark comprised “immoral or scandalous” material. The PTO examining attorney re-examined the applications and refused registration on the so-called “failure to function” ground, finding that the mark was a term that did not function as a trademark to indicate the source of the applicant’s goods or services and to identify and distinguish them from others. Brunetti appealed to the Board.

In response to Brunetti’s argument that there was no statutory basis for a failure to function refusal, the Board made clear that the PTO is statutorily constrained to register a mark on the Principal Register “if and only if it functions as a mark.” Matter that does not operate to indicate the source or origin of the identified goods or services and distinguish them from those of others does not meet the statutory definition of a trademark and may not be registered. The Board reminded applicants that not every designation adopted with the intention that it perform a trademark function necessarily accomplishes that purpose.

Matter may be merely informational and fail to function as a trademark if it is a common term or phrase that consumers are accustomed to seeing used by various sources to convey ordinary, familiar or generally understood concepts or sentiments. The critical inquiry in determining whether a proposed mark functions as a trademark is how the relevant public perceives it.

The Board described the Examining Attorney’s evidence supporting the failure to function [...]

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Thee I Dismiss: No Love for Failure to Add Necessary Party

After concluding that a trademark owner’s case for failure to add a necessary party was untenable, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a district court’s dismissal of the case because the necessary party enjoyed sovereign immunity and could not be added. Lee et al. v. Anthony Lawrence Collection, L.L.C. et al., Case No. 20-30769 (5th Cir. Aug. 24, 2022) (Jolly, Elrod, Oldham. JJ.)

Curtis Bordenave and Paige Lee are in the business of owning trademarks. They petitioned the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) for a federal registration of the mark THEEILOVE. The phrase “Thee I Love” comes from Jackson State University, which has used the phrase for roughly 80 years. Collegiate Licensing Company is a licensing agent that handles the licensing of Jackson State’s trademarks to manufacturers that make and sell Jackson State merchandise.

Despite Jackson State’s decades-long use of the phrase, it never applied for a federal mark until after Bordenave and Lee had already done so. Jackson State did register a mark under Mississippi law in 2015 for use on vanity plates and in 2019 for use on other merchandise. It also claimed to have common-law rights to the mark under the Lanham Act.

Bordenave and Lee sued Collegiate Licensing Company and a few of the licensees in charge of producing and selling Jackson State’s merchandise for various claims related to their licensing, manufacturing and selling of “Thee I Love” merchandise, including trademark infringement and unfair competition under the Lanham Act. Bordenave and Lee sought damages, a permanent injunction barring the defendants from producing or selling any more “infringing” merchandise, and a declaration that defendants infringed Bordenave and Lee’s registered marks. The defendants moved to dismiss under Fed. R. Civ. Pro.12(b)(1) and (7), arguing that Jackson State was a required party, and because Jackson State enjoys sovereign immunity, Bordenave and Lee’s case should be dismissed. The district court dismissed the case without prejudice under Rule 12(b)(7). Bordenave and Lee appealed.

The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling. First, the Court determined that Jackson State was a required party, stating that Jackson State had an interest in the action that would be impaired or impeded if Jackson State was not joined in the suit. The Court reasoned that even if Jackson State remained free to challenge Bordenave and Lee’s ownership of THEEILOVE elsewhere, it could still face challenges protecting its interest if it was not joined in this action.

Next, because Jackson State has sovereign immunity, the Fifth Circuit considered whether the district court abused its discretion in dismissing the case rather than proceeding without Jackson State. Jackson State enjoys sovereign immunity as an arm of the State of Mississippi. Because Jackson State had a non-frivolous claim here, the Court found that dismissal was required because of the potential injury to Jackson State’s interest as an absent sovereign.

Finally, the Fifth Circuit considered the four factors under Rule 19(b) that determine whether an action should continue without the absent party or be dismissed. [...]

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