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Bursting the Bubble on Prosecution Delays

Addressing a case where a patent owner filed hundreds of applications as part of a strategy to maintain extraordinarily lengthy patent coverage, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a district court’s determination that the patent owner had engaged in a calculated and unreasonable scheme to delay patent issuance. Personalized Media Comms., LLC v. Apple Inc., Case No. 21-2275 (Fed. Cir. Jan. 7, 2023) (Reyna, Chen, JJ.) (Stark, J., dissenting).

The Uruguay Round Agreements Act and General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (GATT) amended the US patent term to 20 years from the effective filing date, instead of 17 years from the issue date. GATT took effect on June 8, 1995. In the months leading up to GATT’s enactment, some would-be patentees seeded patent applications with tremendous disclosures to anchor future applications and obtain the longer pre-GATT term. Practitioners referred to this time period as the GATT bubble. Personalized Media Communications (PMC) submitted 328 GATT bubble applications, from which PMC sought somewhere between 6,000 and 20,000 patent claims. The term of these patents would be 17 years from their issue date instead of 20 years from their priority date.

PMC asserted that Apple’s FairPlay digital rights management software infringed a patent covering a decryption method and won a jury verdict of $330 million. After the verdict, the district court held a bench trial and ultimately found that the patent was unenforceable because of prosecution laches, a doctrine that bars the assertion of patents where the patentee caused unreasonable delay in obtaining the patent, to the detriment of the accused infringer. PMC appealed.

The Federal Circuit affirmed. First, it examined whether the district court had properly concluded that PMC unreasonably delayed. Based on a wide swath of record evidence, all three panel members—Judges Reyna, Chen and Stark—agreed that, like the patentee in Hyatt v. Hirschfeld, PMC had engaged in an intentional scheme to delay patent issuance and extend its monopoly. PMC tried to distinguish its case from Hyatt by arguing that it had developed, with the US Patent & Trademark Office, a consolidation procedure to prioritize review of certain applications. The Court concluded that the structure of the agreement still unreasonably drew out resolution of PMC’s applications, however. The Court also approved of the district court’s reasoning based on the number of applications filed and the introduction of new (albeit narrowing) elements to the claims 16 years after the priority date.

Turning to prejudice, the Federal Circuit concluded that the district court did not act improperly in determining that the delay and improper conduct continued to harm Apple up through the filing of suit in 2015. The Court found that the patent had issued based on a pending claim that PMC did not disclose during PMC-Apple license negotiations and which PMC could quickly get granted and assert against Apple.

Judge Stark dissented, stating that he would conclude that the prejudice Apple faced did not happen during the period in which PMC unreasonably delayed issuance. Judge [...]

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Submarine Sunk: Patent Prosecution Laches Pops GATT Bubble

Addressing for the first time whether the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) can assert prosecution laches as a defense in a civil action brought under 35 U.S.C. §145, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that the PTO could assert prosecution laches as a defense against four patent applications in a case where the plaintiff delayed presenting the claims for these applications over a period of at least 10 years. Hyatt v. Hirshfeld, Case Nos. 2018-2390; -2391; -2392; 2019-1038; -1039; -1049; -1070 (Fed. Cir. June 1, 2021) (Reyna, J.)

Gilbert Hyatt is well known for having built a prolific patent application portfolio based on nearly 400 initial filings made just before the United States changed from an issuance-based patent exclusivity system to a filing-based patent exclusivity system under the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). By 2003, those 400 initial filings had exploded into 45,000 independent claims. Hyatt’s applications were so labor intensive that the PTO developed a separate examining unit specifically dedicated to their review. Many of these applications have been rejected.

After the PTO finally rejected four of Hyatt’s computer software patent applications, in 2005 Hyatt filed a § 145 action in the district court. Throughout the litigation, the PTO argued that Hyatt had routinely delayed prosecuting his patent applications and never complied with his verbal agreement with the PTO to streamline each application to apply for only one invention. Ultimately, after a five-day bench trial, the district court found that the PTO failed to prove it had taken sufficient action to advance prosecution of Hyatt’s applications. The PTO appealed.

Resolving the threshold issue on appeal of whether prosecution laches is even available to the PTO in a § 145 action, the Federal Circuit explained that the right to assert laches as an affirmative defense flows naturally from the PTO’s rights to reject applications based on laches and defend such rejections on appeal in the Federal Circuit on the same grounds. Any other conclusion, the Court recognized, would create incongruence and undermine the PTO’s authority. Such a defense is available even if raised for the first time in the district court, as “§145 actions open the door to new evidence.”

The Court found significant errors in the district court’s application of prosecution laches law. First, the Federal Circuit held that the district court too narrowly focused on the PTO’s specific conduct without considering the totality of the circumstances, including delays caused by Hyatt’s sweeping amendments and prosecution of other patent applications, as well as the relative costs and burdens of examining Hyatt’s gargantuan application portfolio. The Court was particularly critical regarding the district court’s assignment of blame to the PTO in its attempts to manage the unwieldy task before it.

After reviewing the evidence presented by the PTO, the Federal Circuit found that the PTO had amassed significant evidence of Hyatt’s delay of prosecution of his applications—i.e., “patterns of prosecution conduct [that] created a perfect storm that overwhelmed the [...]

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