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Michael Burke, MJLST Staff
Most people are not up to date on the latest and greatest patents. Most wait for the idea to be reported in the media, or see the idea's physical manifestation at their favorite technology store. But this past week, Stephen Colbert made a point to inform his late night audience--and the public at large--about the latest patent filed by Amazon: taking photos against a white background. On March 18th, The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office awarded Amazon with their "Studio Arrangement" patent numbered U.S. 8,676,045. Amazon's filing essentially gives the company the intellectual rights to taking any picture in front of seamless white backgrounds.
Michael S. Mireles, Jr.'s book review, The United States Patent Reform Quagmire: A Balanced Proposal, helps to provide a framework of why weak patent ideas unfortunately receive the blessing of the United States government, and how patent reform efforts can help resolve this problem. Mireles provides a two-tiered approach to solving the problems of the patent system by attacking the current system at its weakest points: the issuance of weak patent grants from the USPTO and the liberal upholding of the validity of weak patents.
Allowing weak patents to exist undermines the genuine purpose of assigning ownership of intellectual property. The result has been a "dangerous and expensive arms' race, which now undermines rather than fosters the crucial process of technological innovations." Most certainly, someone needs to develop and implement a quality idea for change. Who knows, under the current system, maybe he or she could patent it?
Nathan Peske, MJLST Staff
On March 31, 2014 the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case CLS Bank International v. Alice Corporation Pty. Ltd. This case examines patents held by the Alice Corporation for software that implements an abstract scheme for managing settlement risk in the series of transaction banks make back and forth over the course of the day. The question before the court is whether the software is patent-eligible subject matter under §101 of the Patent Act.
Section 101 sets out the initial statutory requirements for patent-eligible subject matter. An invention must be a "new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter" or an improvement to one of those categories. Supreme Court jurisprudence has repeatedly affirmed that there are three judicial exceptions to these categories. These exceptions are laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas. Einstein's famous theory of relativity E = mc^2 is often cited in court opinions as an example of unpatentable subject matter. If patents this broad were granted they would foreclose any other innovation using the abstract idea. This would ultimately stifle innovation rather than encouraging it.
When an implementation of an abstract idea is patentable has proved a very difficult standard to establish, particularly when software is involved. In Gottschalk v. Benson a computer program implementing a mathematical formula was ruled unpatentable because simply incorporating an abstract idea into a software program is not sufficient to render it patent-eligible subject matter. In Diamond v. Diehr a software program that calculated the cook time for curing rubber was ruled patent-eligible subject matter because it also controlled the cook time and opened the mold when the rubber was done. Subsequent cases have generally been decided on narrow factual grounds and have failed to establish a general test.
The Federal Circuit en banc rehearing of Alice Corporation continued this trend. In a thoroughly fractured decision seven of the ten Federal Circuit judges held the Alice patents invalid and wrote five concurring and dissenting opinions to justify their reasoning. Chief Judge Rader also penned a series of Reflections discussing the current state of patent law. Since the Supreme Court granted Alice's petition for certiorari it has the opportunity to establish a clear standard that will settle some of the continuing uncertainty over software and business method patents.
This decision has sweeping implication for the future of software patents. A broad interpretation of the patentability of software would open the door for endless patent litigation and reduced the patent system to dueling patent lawyers. A narrow interpretation would have the benefit of reducing the ability of "patent trolls" to harass other companies. Patent trolls acquire patents, often cheaply from struggling companies, and sue or threaten to sue other companies for infringing them. Rather than face years of expensive patent litigation many companies will settle even spurious claims. At the same time a narrow interpretation could drastically limit the abilities of software inventors to patent their inventions. Thus discouraging the innovation the patent system was designed to encourage.
Justice Breyer summarized the situation during oral arguments when he said "There is a risk that you will take business in the United States or large segments and instead of having competition on price, service and better production methods, we'll have competition on who has the best patent lawyer. And if you go the other way and say never, then what you do is you rule out real inventions with computers." The justices' questions seemed to indicate they were unsure if and how to address this question.
There is ample precedent for the Supreme Court to issue a narrow ruling on the merits. Rather than attempting to issue a sweeping decision to establish a precedent for future cases. Indeed, they seem poised to do exactly this. Observers can only watch and wait to see how the Supreme Court will decide this time.
Michael A. Carrier, Distinguished Professor, Rutgers School of Law, MJLST Guest Blogger
Think back several years to, say, 2006 or 2008. The world of drug patent settlements, by which brand-name drug companies pay generics to delay entering the market, was a far different place. A string of appellate courts--the Second, Federal, and Eleventh Circuits--had essentially immunized these agreements by applying a toothless framework based on the "scope of the patent." The test applied by these courts assumed that the patent was valid and infringed and that a payment for delayed entry could not violate the antitrust laws.
In the landmark case of FTC v. Actavis, 133 S. Ct. 2223 (2013), the Supreme Court rejected such a narrow view. Writing for a majority of five, Justice Stephen Breyer concluded that these settlements "tend to have significant adverse effects on competition" and could violate the antitrust laws. The Court also found that such agreements could demonstrate market power and that the parties had ways to settle other than with payment.
In contrast, writing for three Justices in dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts downplayed antitrust law in contending that "the scope of the patent--i.e., what rights are conferred by the patent--should be determined by reference to patent law." The claimed reason is that "a patent holder acting within the scope of its patent does not engage in any unlawful anticompetitive behavior" but "simply exercis[es] the monopoly rights granted to it by the Government."
Roberts combined his exclusive preference for patent law with the position that activity within the nominal scope of the patent is immune from the antitrust laws. A patentee "acting within the scope of its patent has an obvious defense to any antitrust suit: that its patent allows it to engage in conduct that would otherwise violate the antitrust laws." And even though he viewed "the question posed" as "fundamentally a question of patent law," he lamented that "the majority declares that such questions should henceforth be scrutinized by antitrust law's unruly rule of reason."
My short article in the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology highlights three significant flaws with Roberts' opinion. First, Roberts ignored the patent-law policy of challenging and eliminating invalid patents. Second, he downplayed the role of antitrust law. And third, he neglected the importance of the Hatch-Waxman Act, Congress's resolution of the patent-antitrust intersection in the pharmaceutical industry.
First is patent law. Empirical studies have consistently shown that at least 40% of patents issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) that are litigated to decision are invalid. For that reason, the Actavis Court recognized the "patent-related policy of eliminating unwarranted patent grants so the public will not 'continually be required to pay tribute to would-be monopolists without need or justification.'" Roberts' suggestion to decide the issue solely on the grounds of patent law does not include this important aspect of patent policy.
Second is antitrust law. As the majority in Actavis recognized, reverse-payment settlements "tend to have significant adverse effects on competition." Of all the types of business activity subject to the antitrust laws, agreements by which competitors divide markets could be the most dangerous since market division restricts all competition between the parties on all grounds.
Reverse-payment settlements result in generics dropping patent challenges and, in exchange for millions of dollars, agreeing to delay entry into the market. Because the brand makes more by keeping the generic out of the market than the two parties would receive by competing in the market, the parties have an incentive to cede the market to the brand firm and split the monopoly profits.
Third is the regulatory regime. As the Supreme Court has made clear, it is appropriate for courts applying antitrust law to "be attuned to the particular structure and circumstances of the industry at issue." Congress resolved the tension between the patent and antitrust laws in the pharmaceutical industry by enacting the Hatch-Waxman Act.
The Act had a central purpose of encouraging challenges to invalid or not infringed patents during the term of the patent to encourage early market entry. Reverse-payment settlements directly contravene this goal by allowing brands to pay generics for delayed market entry. In short, not only does such conduct flout the patent policy of testing invalid patents and present significant antitrust harm, but it also disregards the Hatch-Waxman Act and important public-policy goal of increasing the number of affordable generic medicines.
As courts begin to interpret drug patent settlements in the wake of Actavis, they should not follow the approach to patent and antitrust law articulated by Chief Justice Roberts. For in addition to being rejected by the Supreme Court, it (1) shortchanges patent law, which includes a policy goal of testing invalid patents to ensure they do not block competition; (2) downplays antitrust law's role in monitoring behavior that resembles market division between potential rivals; and (3) ignores the Hatch-Waxman Act's encouragement of challenges to patents that are invalid and not infringed.
Comi Sharif, MJLST Staff
Last week, athletic apparel giant Adidas filed a complaint accusing Under Armour of patent infringement. The complaint identifies ten Adidas-held patents that are used in mobile applications to collect and share workout-related data. The patents currently implemented in Adidas's "miCoach" product line are allegedly being put to similar use in Under Armour's "Armour39" products. The technology allows users to monitor their workout progress, and record and share statistics such as calories burned, heart rate intervals and distances traveled.
Both companies are major players in the fast-growing wearable technology fitness market. Adding fuel to the rivalry is the fact that Under Armour's director of product and innovation previously worked as a senior innovation engineer at Adidas for over a decade. In addition, Under Armour recently announced a sponsorship deal with the University of Notre Dame, which ended a run for the school as one of Adidas's biggest partners.
Though this dispute is only just getting underway, the results will be an important indicator for future events. If Adidas can succeed in preventing Under Armour and others from using the identified patents in its products, Adidas could put itself in a strong market position moving forward, while Under Armour would be relegated back to the drawing board. As fitness and mobile interconnectivity continue to trend worldwide, the intensity of the competition to gain market share is sure to increase as well. Holding and protecting patents could be the key that separates the winners and the losers in this race to the top. Stay tuned.
Ryan J. Connell, MJLST Lead Articles Editor
In the spring 2013 issue of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology Mr. Roy D. Gross examined the use of circumstantial evidence to prove inducement of infringement. Mr. Gross's article is titled Can an Inference of Intent to Induce Infringement of a Patent Be Drawn Where Other Reasonable Inferences Exist? An Examination of the Use of Circumstantial Evidence to Prove Inducement of Infringement. Mr. Gross ultimately argues that that the doctrine of specific intent to infringe in patent cases should be harmonized with the standard used for inequitable conduct.
It is important to discern the boundaries of specific intent to infringe in light of the recent Akamai case. Akamai Techs. Inc. v. Limelight Networks Inc., 692 F.3d 1301 (Fed. Cir. 2012). In Akamai the Federal Circuit arguably made it easier for a patent owner to hold a person liable for induced infringement of a method claim when no single person performed all the steps of the method. The Akamai decision still requires the alleged inducer to have the specific intent to induce infringement. Akamai, 692 F.3d at 1308. The results of Akamai are mixed then, on one hand patent owners can now go after those who induced infringement but never induced a single party to infringe the patent. On the other hand the patent owner must still provide evidence of a specific intent to induce infringement.
by Eric Maloney, UMN Law Student, MJLST Lead Managing Editor
It's a bad time to be a patent troll in the United States. Both the Supreme Court and Congress are taking aim at these widely disparaged "trolls" who buy up a portfolio of patents and proceed to file lawsuits against anyone who may be using or selling inventions covered by those patents, often with a disregard for the merits of such suits.
Critics see these patent trolls as contributing nothing but a waste of time and resources to an already-burdened court system. President Obama has echoed this sentiment, accusing these trolls of "hijack[ing] somebody else's idea and see[ing] if they can extort some money out of them." On the other hand, legitimate patent holders are concerned that their ability to sue infringers may be limited in this mad rush to curb the patent troll problem.
The Patent Act does already have a mechanism in place to deal with frivolous patent lawsuits--35 U.S.C. § 285. This statute allows courts to award patent suit winners with "reasonable attorney fees." There's a catch, though--this fee-shifting isn't available for just any winner. It can only be awarded in "exceptional cases."
The Federal Circuit hears all patent appeals and sets patent precedent that is followed by district courts throughout the country. So far, their interpretation of "exceptional case" has required losing parties to misbehave quite flagrantly; the patent holder's suit must have been "objectively baseless," and the loser must have known it was baseless. Failing that, fees can only be shifted if the loser committed misconduct in the course of the suit or in obtaining the patent. MarcTec, LLC v. Johnson & Johnson, 664 F.3d 907, 916 (Fed. Cir. 2012). This high standard makes it tough for those sued by patent trolls to recover fees spent defending against a frivolous suit.
Two branches of government are taking aim at potentially easing this standard and making fee-shifting more commonplace, or even mandatory. The Supreme Court has decided to hear two appeals for fee-shifting cases, and may be looking to change how courts evaluate what is an "exceptional case" to make it easier for courts to punish frivolous plaintiffs. Rep. Goodlatte (R-VA) introduced the Innovation Act last week, which would change § 285 to mandate that patent suit losers pay fees to the winner, with some exceptions.
This would bring patent suits more in line with how English courts treat losing parties. The American legal system typically does not add insult to injury by forcing losing parties to reimburse the winners. While all the concern about patent trolls may not be misplaced, it may be worthwhile for policymakers (be they Congressional or judicial) to step back and consider the effect this may have on legitimate patent holders, such as inventors wishing to protect their patented products. Is mandatory fee-shifting the answer? All those involved should tread carefully before making groundbreaking changes to the patent litigation system.
by Joe McCartin, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff
Biotechnology encompasses a wide range of cutting-edge fields, from the genetic modification of agricultural crops and energy producing bacteria, to immunology and medical device manufacturing. Rapid innovation in these areas has led to today's most challenging ethical issues. One such concern is the fear that profits, rather than providing incentives for innovation, will slow down innovation by restricting the dissemination of new technologies, processes, and insights. In Volume 6, Issue 1 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science, & Technology, Robin Feldman outlined the problems an open-source biotechnology movement, one similar to the open-source computer programming world, faces in patent law, and ways that movement could navigate those complexities and potentially enhance the common good.
Feldman discussed the work of molecular biologist, Richard Jefferson, founder of Cambia and BioForge, who sought to democratize the field of plant genetics. The failure of those efforts was detailed by Sam Finegold in "The Hard Path to Open Source Bioinnovation." Jefferson claimed that the financial incentives available to researchers were no match for an industry that had become dominated by a small handful of industrial chemical companies.
So, is there a future for open-source biotechnology? While it would seem that the pharmaceutical industry would present similar challenges to the open-source biotech movement, Connie Wong posits that open-source may be exactly what the pharmaceutical industry needs in the face of shrinking R&D budgets. She argues that small, lean players can fully utilize their competitive advantage and still protect their work by using open-source arrangements that create a fair-playing field that allows them to operate nimbly. Perhaps the Affordable Care Act may transform the pharmaceutical industry in a way that creates room for open-source innovations?
But perhaps open-source biotechnology's real promise can be found in the work of Matthew Todd, who sought to bring the power of open-source to a neglected disease, flatworm infections. The World Health Organization documented the amazingly quick success Todd had finding more cost-effective methods of producing praziquantel, the preferred method of treating flatworm. While recognizing that the task far exceeded his abilities by himself, by tapping into not only researchers, but pharmaceutical and chemical companies, he found not one but two new methods of producing the drug! This appears to be the perfect example of the promise of open-source biotechnology. The profit motive focused attention on other diseases, restricting innovation until an open-source community sprung up. While open-source may not be the future of biotechnology innovation, it may end up playing a large role in a transformed pharmaceutical industry.
by Roma Patel, UMN Law and Public Health Student, MJLST Staff
Years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that inventors are not entitled to federal patent protection for discoveries of laws of nature. The Court said, "natural phenomena are the basic tools with which every would-be inventor starts, so locking up the right to use them in a monopoly held by a specific patent owner will frustrate others who might want to look for new ways to interpret [those] phenomena."
On June 13, a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court ruled that, "a naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated, but complementary DNA is patent eligible because it is not naturally occurring." The ruling, authored by Justice Thomas, was issued in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, a landmark case bringing an end to the practice of patenting isolated parts of the human genome as they originally exist.
The defendants, Myriad Genetics, discovered and then patented the location, sequence and mutations of BRCA1 and BRCA2. Both genes are highly associated with a risk of breast and ovarian cancers. If Myriad's patent claims were found valid, Myriad would have gained the exclusive right to isolate an individual's BRCA genes--a necessary step in conducting diagnostic testing for the cancers.
The Plaintiffs, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Public Patent Foundation, consist of a coalition of patients and researchers from University of Pennsylvania, New York University, Columbia, Yale and Emory. Plaintiffs claimed that Myriad's patent monopoly was invalid under 35 U.S.C. § 101 and that patents on isolated natural genetic sequences would restrict medical research, limiting progress. From a patient's perspective, such exclusive patent rights would make getting a second opinion regarding genetic predisposition almost impossible. Additionally, exclusivity would keep the cost of testing BRCA 1 and 2 higher through the absence of competitive pricing.
While patient's rights advocates and research and educational institutions applaud the decision, many are critical. Attorney and chemistry professor Bernhard Saxe stated that the Court, "trivializes chemistry and elevates biological "information" over chemical structure in patent law, and that usurps the role of Congress and creates a new class of patent-ineligible subject matter by judicial fiat." In Issue 2 of MJSLT's 12th volume, Peter Edwards noted that, "It is unwise to blithely remove patent eligibility from fields in which incentives for innovation have a dramatically positive effect on the population as a whole. Patent law was established to incentivize inventions that are useful to the public, while still allowing fair access to innovations. Because the public benefit resulting from incentivizing gene patents far outweighs the potential for public loss, it is in the country's best interest to structure and interpret patent law to find genes and methods employing them patent eligible."
Other case outcomes, Mayo v. Prometheus and In re Bilski have determined most diagnostic claims are not patentable. Now that the Court has determined natural isolated genetic sequences are also not patentable, Myriad's business model, an enterprise predicated on exclusive administration of the BRCAnalysis test to diagnose breast and ovarian cancers, will be difficult to sustain. Biotechnology businesses driven by research and development and investors may face less of an incentive to innovate, which could mean fewer diagnostic tests available on the market. However, multilateral ownership of such natural phenomena could possibly drive more tests to market at lower prices and provide for more accuracy due to alternate testing options. Time will tell us the precise effect this ruling will have on patients, but for now the road beyond the Myriad decision remains unclear.
by Nihal Parkar, UMN Law Student, MJLST StaffThe America Invents Act (AIA) was signed into law in 2011 and fully went into effect on March 16, 2013. The AIA resulted from efforts to strengthen the US patent system and bring it in conformity with global patenting standards. One of the aims of the AIA was to reduce post-grant litigation related to patent validity. It is common for alleged infringers to challenge the validity of patents that are asserted against them in court. However, such litigation can be expensive and protracted.
by Emily Puchalski, UMN Law Student, MJLST Notes & Comments Editor
In just about one month the most monumental provision of the America Invents Act (AIA) will take effect. As of March 16, 2013 patents will be awarded to the first to file rather than the first to invent. This first to file system will bring the United States in accord with many other countries of the world. However, it is important note that the first to invent rule will still apply to patent applications filed before March 16th 2013.