by Nihal Parkar, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff
The written description requirement for patents often resembles the proverbial neglected middle child--it is left to its own devices and entrusted with its own care. The typical patent practitioner carefully chisels away at the claims with a thesaurus, and then proceeds to encase the exquisite sculpture with a glob of written description. Yes, the detailed description of the drawings and alternative embodiments may follow the core structure of the claims, but let's face it--the average specification is hardly as painfully beautiful as the average claim.
A recent paper by Aaron Rabinowitz in Volume 12 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, Ending the Invalidity Shell Game: Stabilizing the Application of the Written Description Requirement in Patent Litigation, analyzes this paradox in the context of how courts apply the written description requirement to routinely invalidate patents issued by the USPTO--those very issued patents that have gone through the tortious path of examination at the PTO and have been vetted by examiners and reshaped in course of the ping-pong game of office actions and their replies.
A high level of invalidation by the courts seems problematic. After all, shouldn't patent owners be entitled to rely on the PTO's evaluation of their patent, and be freely able to assert the patent against alleged infringers in court, without fearing that the court will find the written description to be as addled with holes as the typical chunk of Swiss cheese? Well, the courts can't quite be blamed, given that the PTO works in mysterious ways. Reviewing the file wrapper often does not explain how each claim fulfilled the written description requirement in combination with the rest of the specification. A law firm helpfully points out, "Make Sure Your Patents Do Not Prove Their Own Invalidity!" To add to the complexity of the situation, the "written description requirement is separate from enablement."
Patent owners would be wise to worry about the potential pitfalls of the written description getting shredded between Scylla and Charybdis. As Rabinowitz points out, "over 2000-2009, parties that attacked a patent on written description grounds succeeded more than forty percent of the time."
Fortunately, Rabinowitz does not merely cry wolf, but supplies some solutions to keep the wolf at bay. To strengthen a patent's validity, patent applicants can choose "to affirmatively identify the written description support for their claims in the application". And then eagerly wait for "the PTO to either approve or question the applicant's statement of support." Of course, with patent examiners already being somewhat overburdened, the PTO may not be enthusiastic about yet another step in prosecution.
Rabinowitz' article raises an interesting question that is often overlooked, and provides a practical, workable solution that is likely to be of benefit to patent owners, patent challengers, the PTO, and the courts.