US Patent Office

USPTO Gives New Guidance on Software Inventions

January 25, 2019

Earlier this month, the United State Patent and Trademark Office released new guidance for its Examiners to help them better determine when an invention is too abstract to be patentable. This latest effort by the Patent Office brings more clarity and predictability to the examination process for inventors seeking patent protection for software and business methods.

To be patentable, an invention must be new, useful, and unobvious. The courts have also recognized that abstract ideas and laws of nature are also not eligible for patent protection. Predicting which inventions are too abstract for patent protection has been a challenge in the past, and has become more difficult since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank (March, 2014). The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has so far attempted to follow the Supreme Court’s guidelines on a case by case basis giving us clues as to the kinds of inventions that are too abstract to be patented. This effort has created some clarity in specific cases, but it has also created additional confusion where the Federal Circuit has given differing opinions for similar inventions. This raises the possibility that different Examiners in the same technology area may pick and choose how to handle similar inventions thus arriving at different conclusions for similar subject matter.

The Patent Office has responded with this latest guidance for the Examiner corps that attempts to synthesize the case law into a more practical legal framework that may be applied in a more predictable manner. Although they do not have the force of law, the guidelines offer valuable insights into how Examiners will determine whether the subject matter in a given application is unpatentably abstract.

Looking briefly at the substance of the latest guidance, the USPTO is revising its examination procedure by: (1) Providing groupings of subject matter that it considers to be an abstract idea; and (2) clarifying that a claim is not ‘‘directed to’’ a judicial exception if the judicial exception is integrated into a practical application of that exception.

On the first point, the Patent Office sees three separate categories of material that are unpatentably abstract:

  1. Mathematical Concepts: Mathematical relationships, mathematical formulas or equations, mathematical calculations
  2. Methods of Organizing Human Activity: Fundamental economic principles or practices (including hedging, insurance, mitigating risk); commercial or legal interactions (including agreements in the form of contracts; legal obligations; advertising, marketing or sales activities or behaviors; business relations); managing personal behavior or relationships or interactions between people (including social activities, teaching, and following rules or instructions)
  3. Mental Processes: Mental processes—concepts performed in the human mind (including an observation, evaluation, judgment, opinion).

According to the guidelines, concepts that do not fit one of these categories are probably not abstract ideas. The Patent Office does leave open the possibility that exceptional cases could arise where the concept is too abstract to be patented, but also does not fit into one of these categories.

On the second point, the Patent Office explains that even if the claims do fall within one of the three groupings above, they may still be eligible for patent protection if the abstract concept is integrated into a practical application of that concept. A “practical application” is one that applies, relies on, or uses the concept “in a manner that imposes a meaningful limit on the abstract concept.”

The new guidance represents a noteworthy change in the way applications will be handled by Examiners, and it marks the latest attempt by the Patent Office to bring clarity and predictability to the process. It is also important to note that this is not a change in the statute approved by Congress, nor is it a change to the legal framework that has been endorsed by the Federal Circuit or the Supreme Court. It remains to be seen then, what the long-term effect of this change will be on applications currently under examination, and what affect, if any, it will have on patent litigation going forward.


Provisions of the America Invents Act Effective as of September 16, 2012

September 19, 2012

Provisions of the America Invents Act Effective as of September 16, 2012

The America Invents Act (IAI) is now one year old and several important provisions are now in effect.  Some of these provisions are important to both patent holders and anyone who wants to challenge the validity of a patent.  The newly in-force provisions include:

  • Prior art submissions by third parties;
  • Post-grant review of newly issued patents;
  • Post-grant review of covered business method patents;
  • Inter partes review of issued patents; and
  • Supplemental examination

 

Prior Art Submissions by Third Parties

Third parties may now submit any printed publication of potential relevance to the examination of a patent application.  This allows a third party to let the patent examiner know of relevant prior art that may have a bearing on patentability.  Third party submissions must be filed before a notice of allowance and before the later of 6 months after publication or the date of the first office action (not a restriction requirement).  Submissions must include a brief explanation of why the submitted documents are relevant.

This can be advantageously used as a persuasive brief arguing against patentability.  Third-party submissions of prior art may provide a relatively inexpensive way to invalidate a competitor’s patent before it ever issues.  Businesses should consider a patent monitoring service to monitor published patent applications for business damaging patents.

Inter partes Review of Issued Patents

This new review procedure replaces the old inter-partes reexamination.  Anyone (except for the patentee) can petition for inter partes review of the patent, seeking cancellation of one or more claims based on the claim(s) being anticipated and/or obvious in view of one or more prior art documents (limited to patents and printed publications).  This review allows the third party to participate throughout the process, including comments on any arguments or amendments made by the patentee.  Unfortunately, the Patent Office has set the base government fee for inter partes review at $27,200, making this approximately three times as expensive as the previously available inter-partes reexamination.

Post-Grant Review of Newly Issued Patents

This new review procedure allows anyone (except for the patentee) to petition for post-grant review of the patent, requesting cancellation of one or more claims.  Unlike inter-partes review, the petition for post-grant review is not limited to anticipation or obviousness arguments based on prior art documents.  Post-grant review may also argue the claims are directed toward ineligible subject matter, the claims are invalid because the written-description in the patent is insufficient to support the claims and the claims are invalid as anticipated and/or obvious in view of prior public use or disclosure (as well as any prior art documents).

This provides options for arguing invalidity that were not previously available from the Patent Office (and which otherwise require Federal Court litigation to resolve).  Unfortunately, the Patent Office has set the base government fee for post-grant review at $35,800.  Also, the petition must be filed no later than nine-months after the date the patent was granted.  Due to this short timeframe, businesses should consider a patent monitoring service to monitor for business damaging patents.

Post-Grant Review of Covered Business Method Patents

This new review procedure is a broadening of the post-grant review, as applied to “covered business method patents.”  Post-grant review of covered business method patents is allowed anytime between September 16, 2012 and September 16, 2020 and is not limited by the grant date of the patent.  Only a person who has been charged with infringement of a patent that claims a covered method of corresponding apparatus can file a petition under this procedure.  The petition may be brought under the same grounds as the post-grant review, but with limits on the prior art that may be asserted.

Supplemental Examination

This new review procedure is now available to patent owners to correct mistakes made during the prosecution of the patent.  The patent owner may present any information believed to be relevant to the patent including any ground of patentability, i.e., patent eligibility of the subject matter of the claims, anticipation or obviousness in view of prior art, lack of written description, enablement, best mode and indefiniteness of the claims.  Supplemental examination can be used to cure what otherwise might be considered inequitable conduct during the prosecution of an application, although it is expensive.  A request for supplemental examination requires a total government fee of $21,260, although $16,120 is potentially refundable.

Please contact us here at Woodard, Emhardt, Moriarty, McNett & Henry LLP if you need any assistance with these or any other IP matter.


First Ever Satellite Patent Office Opens in Detroit

July 20, 2012

The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) opened the first ever satellite patent office in Detroit, Michigan amid fanfare on July 13, 2012. USPTO Director David Kappos swore-in the office’s first seven USPTO Board Judges who will preside over patent appeals cases and help speed up patent prosecution. In addition to the judges, approximately 25 patent examiners and other staff began work on Monday, July 16. The Detroit office is expected to create approximately 120 highly-skilled jobs in its first year of operations, which should help to reduce the backlog of patent applications and appeals. Three additional satellite offices are set to be opened in or around Dallas, Texas, Denver, Colorado, and Silicon Valley, California, as the USPTO announced July 2, 2012.

This is good news for inventors and entrepreneurs because it will help them to move their innovation to market more quickly, saving critical time and resources. In some cases the new office could allow for more economical prosecution by allowing Indianapolis attorneys to conduct Examiner interviews at the new office.

Go here to learn more about the opening of the new Patent Office. If you wish to learn more about how this can impact you as an inventor or entrepreneur, feel free to contact us here at Woodard, Emhardt, Moriarty, McNett & Henry LLP.


A Tougher Standard for Proving Inequitable Conduct?

June 8, 2011

In a 6–1–4 decision, an en banc Federal Circuit in Therasense, Inc. v. Becton, Dickinson and Company tries to cure the “plague” of inequitable conduct pleadings by raising the bar for proving that alleged bad acts were material to patentability and that the patentee undertook the alleged bad acts with intent to deceive the Patent and Trademark Office.

The court now rejects the previous “sliding scale” approach that allowed strong evidence of materiality to compensate for weak evidence of intent to deceive (and vice-versa), and requires the accused infringer to prove both elements — intent and materiality — by clear and convincing evidence.

For the element of intent to deceive, the Federal Circuit now demands evidence of a “deliberate decision” to deceive the Patent Office.  Focusing on the failure to submit prior art material to patentability, the court held that “the accused infringer must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the applicant knew of the reference, knew that it was material, and made a deliberate decision to withhold it.”

For the element of materiality, the Federal Circuit now demands evidence of “but-for materiality.”  Stated differently, the court must find that, but for the deception, the Patent Office would not have allowed the claim.  “In making this patentability determination, the court should apply the preponderance of the evidence standard and give claims their broadest reasonable construction.”  Yet, the court identified a major exception [to proving but-for materiality] in cases of “affirmative egregious misconduct”.

Please click here for a link to the opinion, and please contact our attorneys to further discuss the Therasense opinion.


USPTO Issues Final Rule to Implement Prioritized Examination

April 14, 2011

On April 4, 2011, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) issued a final rule regarding prioritized examination (Track I).  The purpose of the rule is to provide a final disposition within twelve months of prioritized status being granted. 

 Track I of the prioritized examination will allow an applicant to request prioritized examination of an original utility or plant application under 37 CFR 1.102(e).  To qualify for this status, the application: (1) must be a new original utility or plant nonprovisional application filed on or after May 4, 2011, (2) must be complete under 37 CFR 1.51(b) including an oath or declaration under 37 CFR 1.63 and all required fees (i.e., filing fee, search fee, examination fee, any excess claims fees, and any application size fee), and it must be filed via the USPTO’s electronic filing system (EFS-Web) if it is a utility application, (3) must contain no more than 4 independent claims, no more than 30 total claims, and cannot contain any multiple dependent claims, (4) and must be filed in conjunction with a request for prioritized examination in compliance with 37 CFR 1.102(e) along with the prioritized examination fee, the processing fee, and the publication fee.  The prioritized examination fee is the same for large and small entities ($4000), although this fee may be increased to $4,800 for large entities and reduced to $2,400 for small entities if the patent reform legislation S. 23 (or similar legislation) is enacted into law. 

Additional details from the Federal Register notice point out that continuing applications are acceptable; however, these applications will not automatically be given prioritized examination status based on a request filed in the parent case.  As well, unlike the accelerated examination program under 37 CFR 1.102(d), the filing of an examination support document is not required for prioritized examination under 37 CFR 1.102(e).

The USPTO is limiting the number of qualifying applications to 10,000 during the remainder of 2011. 

 To read the final rule in the Federal Register, click here.


USPTO Provides Updated Examination Guidelines In View of KSR Decision

September 3, 2010

The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) recently published updated examination guidelines regarding obviousness rejections under 35 U.S.C. §103 in light of the United States Supreme Court’s 2007 decision in KSR Int’l Co. v. Teleflex Inc.  The updated examination guidelines provide additional examples to assist in obviousness analyses stemming from post-KSR case law.  The guidelines can be found clicking here.  Comments can be emailed to KSR_Guidance@uspatent.gov


Patent Marking – Patent Owner Beware

July 12, 2010

How often have you noticed that a product bears a label of “patent pending” or “U.S. Patent No.”?  But, what if that patent does not cover the product?  Or maybe there is no “patent pending”?  Well, anyone could have a “false marking claim” against that manufacturer and could recover up to $500 per article manufactured with such label.  As one could imagine, the recoverable amount or damages could be very large.  Therefore, it is recommended that businesses implement procedures to avoid potentially false marking their products and minimize potential risk for liability. 

Many products or packaging are marked with the label “patent” or a variant such as “pat.” and a full patent number or “patent pending”.  This “marking” provides notice to the public that the product is patented or has a patent pending.  Notice to the public is required to ensure a patentee’s right to damages for a time period prior to notice to the offending party if the patent is ever litigated.  In other words, failure to properly mark a patented product limits the time period by which one can recover damages. 

There are three types of “marking” prohibitions. The first type includes “counterfeit marking” which is the use of a patent mark without the owner’s permission.  The second type includes “false marking” which is the use of a patent mark on an unpatented article.  The third type includes “false patent pending marking” which is the use of “patent applied for” or “patent pending” when no patent application covering the product is pending with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

If an unpatented product is marked with a patent number and it can be proven that the party marking the product had the intent to deceive the public, then a penalty of up to $500 per article can be recovered.  Any person can sue for this penalty, in which event one-half of the recovery goes to the person suing and the other half to the U.S. government.  By permitting members of the public to sue on behalf of the government, Congress has allowed individuals to help control false marking.

 However, for patents directed to process or method claims the notice provision or “marking” does not apply.  The reason that the marking statute does not apply to method claims is that, ordinarily, where the patent claims are directed to only a method or process there is nothing to mark. Where the patent contains both apparatus, i.e., product, and method claims, however, to the extent that there is a tangible item to mark by which notice of the asserted method claims can be given, a party is obliged to do so if it intends to recover damages under the method claims prior to notice to the offending party.

Some recommendations that businesses may implement to avoid potentially false marking their products and minimize potential risk or liability include the following.  One recommendation is to review all current patent marking to verify that a product is marked with at least one claim in a patent that covers the product.  Also it is important to check for any expired patents and if there are any expiration dates approaching.  If any expired patents are found, then it is recommended to stop marking with that number upon expiration.  Similarly, if the maintenance fees have not been paid for a patent and the patent is no longer enforceable, then stop marking with that number.

 Additionally it is suggested to avoid conditional marking, i.e., “product may be covered by one or more of the following patents”, unless the product is covered by at least one claim of every listed patent.  Also avoid marking “patent pending” unless there is a reasonable belief that such marked products are covered by one or more claims in a pending patent application.  If a patent application is no longer pending, i.e., abandoned, then businesses should stop marking products with “patent pending”.

In addition to reviewing products, it is recommended to review product literature, brochures, presentations, advertising, and other materials that may be marked.  Businesses may also want to review any licensing programs for third party marking activities.

The preceding discussion is intended for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. Please contact one of our attorneys to learn more about patent marking or any other aspect of intellectual property law.


Case Law Update: Enforcing a Judgment by Levying a Domain Name

June 30, 2010

The Ninth Circuit issued an ironic ruling last month regarding levying domain names to satisfy a prior judgment. In Office Depot, Inc. v. Zuccarini (9th Cir., Feb. 2010), the Ninth Circuit ruled that a creditor can levy a domain name of a debtor to satisfy a judgment. 

John Zuccarini registered hundreds of domain names incorporating other individual’s trademarks, including “officedepot.com.” Office Depot successfully sued Zuccarini under the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (“ACPA”), 15 U.S.C. § 1125(d). The ACPA provides a cause of action for trademark owners against persons who register their mark(s) as domain name(s) to profit from the trademark. Office Depot obtained a judgment against Zuccarini, but was unable to collect and subsequently assigned the judgment to DS Holdings. 

DS initially sought to have 109 “.com” domain names that were registered to Zuccarini transferred directly to it. However, a California statue prohibited the court from ordering transfer of property held by a third party (a registrar maintains domain name registrations). DS then successfully had the court appoint a receiver to take possession of the domain names and sell them to satisfy the judgment. 

The irony is that this judgment arose from Zuccarini’s liability from registering these domain names to sell to trademark owners for profit. Now, DS will presumably sell the same domain names to the same trademark owners to satisfy the judgment. While this situation likely does not meet the definition of bad faith required under the ACPA, the end result is the same: a third party selling a domain name confusingly similar to another party’s trademark. 

In any event, this decision provides a roadmap to levying domain names to satisfy a judgment. In many cases, domain names would not be worth the effort to seize. But in other cases, domain names can have significant commercial value, making such efforts worthwhile.


Trademark Videos on Demand

June 30, 2010

In case you don’t have enough videos to watch, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) launched a portion of its new Trademark Information Network where anyone can view news broadcast-style videos on its website that cover important topics and can teach you about the various phases of the trademark registration process. The site, which is not yet fully populated, will provide video walk-through of the entire trademark application process. Examples of the videos that will be available include:

Before You File – overview of the most important issues you should be aware of when filing a trademark application, including trademark availability searching, ownership information, differences between drawings and specimens, identifications of goods and services, and filing bases.

Searching – use of the Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) and an overview of the system and tips for how to use the system effectively.

Applicant Information – focuses on what is meant by the term “applicant.”

Drawing Issues – focuses on what is meant by the term “drawing” and how to comply with the requirements for submitting a drawing to the USPTO.

Goods and Services Issues – focuses on identifying the correct “goods and services” for filing in association with your application.

Basis Information – provides specifics about the filing requirements for both Section 1(a), Use-in-Commerce, and Section 1(b), Intent-to-Use-in-Commerce, filing bases.

Specimen Issues – provides examples of acceptable specimens and highlights the differences between a “drawing” and a “specimen.”

After You File – provides an overview of the most important issues you should be aware of after filing your application. It covers such topics as using the USPTO’s electronic resources to keep your application current, who to contact with questions, and what you must do to avoid abandonment.

Post-Registration Issues – provides an overview of the most important issues you should be aware of after your application has matured into a registration. The video explains the required maintenance documents that you must file to keep your registration alive, as well as discusses an optional filing to enhance the legal strength of your registration.

The Anchor in the videos is the Trademark Information Network’s Mark Trademan. We will leave it to you as to whether his name is either a great coincidence or an attempt at humor.


File Now, Pay Later

June 30, 2010

The United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) is considering a proposal which would make a change to missing parts practice in nonprovisional applications. The proposed change, if adopted, would somewhat extend the existing 12 month decision-making time provided by a provisional application to 24-months. The proposal would benefit applicants by giving them additional time to determine if patent protection should be sought – enabling them to defer additional fees and enabling applicants to focus efforts on commercialization during this expanded provisional period. 

Currently applicants have a one-year period from the filing date of a provisional application to file a corresponding nonprovisional application in order to claim the benefit of the provisional application. The proposed change would not alter this requirement, but instead would provide applicants with more time to reply to a missing parts notice in a nonprovisional application that claims the benefit of a provisional application. A missing parts notice is typically issued when a nonprovisional application is filed without complete payment of the required fees and/or with an unsigned inventor’s declaration. 

Under the proposal, applicants would be permitted to file a nonprovisional application with at least one claim within the 12-month statutory period after the provisional application was filed, pay the basic filing fee, and submit an executed oath or declaration. In addition, the nonprovisional application would need to be in condition for publication and applicant would not be able to file a nonpublication request. Applicants would be given a 12-month period to decide whether to pay the required surcharge and the additional required fees. 

Most notably, the USPTO proposal does not allow an applicant to defer the legal costs incurred in preparing a nonprovisional application. Applicants would still be required to make a decision whether or not to incur those costs and file their nonprovisional application prior to the 12 month window. 

The USPTO is currently accepting comments on its proposal before considering it for implementation. A copy of the USPTO Notice is available here.

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