By Douglas Gallagher, Partner, Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP
Those who have been paying attention to United States patent law have noticed considerable changes over the past two years. These changes have even become interesting enough to periodically appear on mainstream news and media programs.
Changes abound under 2011 America Invents Act
During the last one to two years, Title 35—the portion of the U.S. code governing patent law—has undergone its most substantial overhaul in almost 60 years (and arguably since its inception) with the implementation of the 2011 Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (also known as the AIA). Amendments to fundamental portions of U.S. patent law have changed the ability of inventors to obtain patent protection for their inventions. In many ways, these changes can be seen as a movement away from the traditional and more equity-focused U.S. model toward a more rule-based international/European model. Many of the new provisions reflect this movement.
The most notable of these new provisions changes U.S. patent law from a "first-to-invent" system to a "first-to-file" system. In the prior first-to-invent system, if two people made the same invention around the same time, the person who made the invention first would receive the benefit of getting the 20-year monopoly provided under U.S. patent law. In the new first-to-file system, the person who filed a patent application first would receive the benefit of getting the 20-year monopoly. However, there appear to be more subtle changes geared toward an international/European model that could substantially affect an inventor's ability to obtain a patent in the United States, although these changes could be limited in duration.
Obtaining a patent
To obtain a patent, an inventor must file an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The patent includes two parts: the description and the claims. The description uses relatively common language to describe the objects that make up at least one version of the invention. The claims are the relatively obtuse, numbered sentences that appear on the last pages of a printed patent and are what define the metes and bounds of a granted patent, much like the text that describes the borders of real property. Examiners at the USPTO read the patent, search through old patents and other printed materials for similar technology, and make a determination whether the invention is merely an obvious advance over existing technology. If the invention is an obvious advance, a patent will not be granted. However, the inventor will be given an opportunity to amend the claims—the metes and bounds of the invention—to describe something that is more than an obvious advance over existing technology.
Changing the claims of a patent
The inventor's ability to change the claims is limited by how the invention was described in the rest of the patent application. Claim amendments cannot introduce something that was not described in the original application. Under traditional U.S. patent law (35 U.S.C. § 112), changes to the claims of a patent are allowed if a person of ordinary skill in the field of the invention would have understood that the inventor had invented the material now being included in the patent claim. In contrast, European law (Article 123(2) of the European Patent Code) requires explicit, almost verbatim support for any claim amendments, which results in a reduced ability for the inventor to change the claims after filing when compared to the U.S. system. While there does not appear to have been any specific law or rule change, there nevertheless appears to be a shift underway moving the procedures governing examination of patents at the USPTO toward the more restrictive international/European model.
The four-legged chair: An example
Imagine that a person invented a chair with four legs, and the patent application describes two versions of the four-legged chair: a four-legged chair with a back, and a four-legged chair with armrests. If the inventor wanted to change the claims because the patent office said that both a four-legged chair with a back and a four-legged chair with armrests were obvious advancements over prior technology, the inventor would have a different result depending on whether the U.S. or the international/European model was used. In this example there is no explicit support in the description for a four-legged chair with a back and armrests, so this change to the claims would likely be denied under the international/European model resulting in the inventor being unable to obtain a patent for the invention. However, since an ordinary person reading the description would likely believe the inventor had invented a four-legged chair with a back and armrests, this change to the claims would likely be allowed under the U.S. model, allowing the inventor to obtain a patent for the invention.
The statute governing this portion of U.S. law was not substantively changed with the AIA, so the courts will likely resist shifts away from the traditional U.S. model for determining whether support exists in the specification for the claims. Moreover, many of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions related to patent law appear to prefer a more holistic approach to applying patent law instead of the more structured international/European model. The U.S. Supreme Court's 2007 KSR v. Teleflex decision is a good example in which a more bright-line formula developed by the Federal Circuit for determining whether a claimed invention was obvious was overruled in favor of a standard that relies more on the totality of evidence. However, there is also an undercurrent in U.S. politics that appears to believe U.S. patent law is somehow broken (a viewpoint to which I do not subscribe), so this section of U.S. patent law could potentially be modified by Congress at some point.
While there has been a definite shift toward a more international/European model in certain aspects of U.S. patent law, it appears that some of the old ways of U.S. law, which include a fair dose of equity and fairness, may not wholeheartedly embrace the more formulaic approach of the international/European model. Only time will tell how this plays out.
Douglas Gallagher is a partner with Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP. A registered patent attorney with degrees in physics and aerospace engineering, he focuses his practice on assisting new and established businesses with protecting their intellectual property assets while avoiding the intellectual property rights of others. He can be reached via phone at (317) 968-5543 or by emailing email@example.com.