Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Making America's Patent System Great Again

The Restoring American Leadership in Innovation Act of 2018 was recently introduced by a bipartisan group of members of the House. 

The Act reverses a lot of the damage that has been done to the US patent system in recent years as a result of restrictions on the value, scope, and enforceability of patents put in place nearly simultaneously on a judicial, legislative, and executive level.

The Act would:

(1) Undo the Supreme Court's decision in Oil States, a case that determined that patents are not private property (despite literally centuries of jurisprudence treating them as private property and a statutory provision stating that "patents shall have the attributes of private property."). 

(2) Restore the United States patent system to a "First to Invent" system.  With passage of the America Invents Act, the United States changed its patent system from one where the first person to invent something got the patent to one where the first person to file for a patent got the patent, regardless of whether they were the first person to invent.  The Act would reverse this change.

(3) Restore a one year grace period that lets an inventor test and improve their invention in full public view for a year before the clock runs out on filing for a patent.  This grace period allows inventors to improve the invention through experience, to gauge whether a market exists for the invention, and to find investors.

(4) Abolishes the post-grant review ("PGR") and inter-parties review ("IPR") processes.  The IPR system has been called a patent death squad by the former chief judge of the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, and it is very likely that this change alone restores predictability and fairness to the US Patent system, again rendering it the preeminent IP system in the world.

(5) Without the PGR and IPR workload, the need for a Patent Trial and Appeal Board ("PTAB") goes away, and the bill would replace the PTAB by restoring the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences (this is really a technical fix).

(6) Critically, the bill would eliminate fee diversion.  This issue seems like a nerdy, "inside baseball" kind of issue, but is actually crucial.  Currently, the USPTO is self-funded.  That means that users are charged hefty fees for almost every interaction with the USPTO, and those fees are used to pay for the USPTO.  In theory, the USPTO sets fees in order to minimize the cost of protection invention while making sure that the office is funded in a way that allows for timely, complete, and accurate review of patent applications.  In reality, every year Congress takes the opportunity to raid the USPTO's coffers, diverting to other government departments the USPTO user fees intended to pay for additional patent examiners.  Ending fee diversion will dramatically improve patent quality and the speed of patent issuance (or rejection).

(7) Clarifies that when Congress said "Whoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefor, subject to the conditions and requirements of this title," it actually meant it.  Supreme Court decisions in recent years have carved out so many judicial exceptions that even federal judges and the head of the patent office are no longer sure what is patentable.  The statute lays out patentability in a very clear way by replacing wandering, inconsistent jurisprudence with a simple statement that an invention is ineligible only if it exists in nature independently of and prior to any human activity, or exists solely in the human mind.  I have long taken the position as an inventor that a clear rule -- even a bad clear rule -- would substantially improve on the existing state of confusion.  By abrogating the various Supreme Court decisions that created a confusing maze of eligibility issues, inventors will finally know whether to keep something a trade secret (because it isn't patentable) or to file for a patent.

(8) The standards for a patent rejection on the grounds that the invention isn't novel are clarified.

(9) Clarifies that patents may only be invalidated by a judicial proceeding unless the patent owner consents to an administrative procedure.

(10) Reverses the rule that (absent an express request for non-publication) patent applications are automatically published 18 months after the priority date.  The concern here is apparently that (1) publication rules can prevent an inventor from filing for an improvement on their own invention that didn't issue as a patent because the prior invention was published before the improvements were filed for after the publication of the earlier patent application, and (2) Publication at 18 months and a delay in patent issuance that can last years after publication allow foreign competitors to steal inventions.

(11) Restores the rule that patents are presumed to be valid.

(12) Prevents infringers from effectively running out the patent term by filing multiple validity challenges that effectively prevent the patent from being enforced before it expires.  This is accomplished by "tolling", or pausing, the running of a patent term during the pendency of a validity challenge.

(13) Reverses the Supreme Court's holding that patent owners are almost never able to obtain an injunction against infringers.

(14) Restores the "Best Mode" requirement -- a requirement that an inventor discloses the best mode to implement an invention.  This avoids the shady practice of describing hundreds of ways to do a thing in order to keep competitors from figuring out the best way to do it (presumably after the patent term ends).

The bill would likely restore the status of the United States patent system as the envy of the world.  As of now, the United States patent system may well be the most confusing and expensive in the world.

Unfortunately, the infringer lobby is likely to derail or massively amend the bill. If the bill makes it into law largely unscathed, however, it will keep the Trump Administration's promise to Make America Great Again -- at least with regard to a patent system that has suffered mightily over the past decade.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Contingency Planning and Patents

It was 2006.  RIM/Blackberry just settled a patent infringement case for $612.5 million.  US patent law had been largely stable for decades. The Chinese government was not all in on IP. The US government ran the world's best patent system, and "Designed in California, Manufactured in China" was the tagline on almost every Apple device. The RIM settlement was the canary in the coal mine: Infringers did not like the idea of having to pay this kind of money just to use somebody else's innovations.  They piled money and support into Obama's campaign, and soon enough Google's head of patents was promoted to head the US Patent and Trademark Office (causation v. correlation -- your call). The Supreme Court got involved an bought into the "patents are broken" line that the infringer lobby pushed -- and in response severely limited patents and patent rights. Congress got involved and created a system of post-grant review that has been called a "patent death squad".

Fast forward to 2018.  The U.S. Patent System dropped to 12th place in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's global IP index, ranking below the new patent rights champion, Singapore, as well as France, Germany, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, the UK, and Italy -- marking quite a fall for the previously top-ranked patent system.  China is rapidly moving to reinvent its own patent system that improves on the Western patent systemThe European Patent Office appears likely to survive Brexit, but the same forces that brought Brexit to electoral success -- and the US Administration's hostility to international trade agreements -- raise questions about whether the Patent Cooperation Treaty remains stable (for now, it is) and whether the EPO will continue to function (for now, it will).

Finally, the IP markets have entirely seized up for small businesses and independent inventors.  While big companies continue to wage billion-dollar court battles and reach 10 figure settlements, the introduction of the post-grant review ("PGR") regime and the inter-parties review ("IPR") category of PGR have raised the cost of asserting a patent by hundreds of thousands of dollars for each IPR filed (and some patents have seen double-digit numbers of IPR filings). 

Because of the uncertainty about what the US Supreme Court will do next and whether there will be a legislative fix for what the US Supreme Court did with the Alice and related decisions about patent eligibility, potential patent buyers are faced with a situation analogous to ... well, there really isn't a solid analogy. One that gets close is an owner of a house trying to sell it. Playing the role of IPR in this analogy is a prohibition on fire insurance and legalization of arson.  Sure, you can buy the house, but if a big enough company decides it wants to destroy the house, it can.  At will.  It becomes an impossible task to sell a house -- or a patent -- under those circumstances.

As a lawyer and a named inventor on over 200 issued patents, I have had plenty of opportunities to analyze the patent marketplace and consider how an independent inventor or small business should respond to these changes.  Of course, the best strategy for me may not work for a particular invention or business, so you should seek legal advice tailored to your situation.

As a general case, my recommended filing strategy is as follows:

(1) File a provisional patent application in the United States.  This preserves the filing date but does not start the clock running on the 20 year patent term (which runs from the date the first non-provisional application is filed).
(2) Before expiration of the provisional, file a Patent Cooperation Treaty application.  This is a place-holder (just like a provisional) but it allows you to file years later in almost every country in the world.
(3) Hope that the US patent system stabilizes before it is time to file a national phase application in the United States.
(4) Before the expiration of the PCT deadlines, file national phase in:
  (a) Germany (the EU's biggest economy).
  (b) China (the government is strongly backing growth in their patent system and -- if trends continue unchanged -- may well have a stronger patent system than the United States within a decade.
  (c) USA (the world's biggest economy).
  (d) Review the technology at issue and determine which other countries are good candidates.
(5) With regard to the US filing, one strategy is to buy time for the US patent system to stabilize by filing an application that has claims that should be allowable and putting the patent application into the appeals process if it is denied.  This will buy half a decade or more, much of which is ultimately tacked onto the patent term in the form of a patent term adjustment.
(6) File for foreign patents via a non-US entity.  This is a weird one, but there is increasing pressure on Canada and certain other former US trade allies to respond to the Trump Administration's trade policies by expropriating patents owned by US entities.  By having a non-US entity own your foreign patents, you have a better chance of avoiding seeing your patents fall victim to a trade war.

While the US system was still the preeminent patent system in the world, and while China's IP policy was at best neglected, the strategy was much simpler:  File for a utility patent in the United States and perhaps file abroad if you can make the business case for it.  Now the strategy is complex, but with a simple organizing principle:  IP law is in flux, and filing strategy needs to preserve the maximum amount of flexibility to respond to changes.

One example of the flux we're waiting out?  The United States is about to find out whether a patent is void (as a result of the on-sale bar) if the inventor shows the patent to a third party under a non-disclosure agreement.  Last year's flux?  Determining whether extraterritorial sales of patented items exhaust US patent rights. Before that? The legality of the IPR system. Before that? Subject matter eligibility.  The United States has made changes to the patent system such that baseline, critical questions remain unanswered -- and the answers are coming out at a snail's pace.