Musings on Justice Scalia and the Hard, Dull Patent Cases
|Written by Gene Quinn
President & Founder of IPWatchdog, Inc.
Patent Attorney, Reg. No. 44,294
Zies, Widerman & Malek
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Posted: July 26, 2012 @ 12:39 pm
I received a few responses from those who did not opine as to what case Justice Scalia might be referring to, but rather commented generally about the interview and what Justice Scalia said relative to patent cases being difficult, dull and insignificant. What follows below are those musings from industry insiders.
Stay tuned for my own thoughts and musings.
I don’t find it very surprising that Justice Scalia characterizes a patent case as his most difficult decision, whichever case that might be. Mr. Scalia and the other justices are, without doubt, individuals possessing outstanding intellect and command of the law, and nothing here is intended to suggest otherwise. However, when addressing some of the more difficult issues that arise in connection with patents, they are required to deal with matters and concepts that are not only extraordinarily difficult, but which are foreign to persons of ordinary experience, i.e., persons generally lacking in technical background and not extensively familiar with patent law and practice.
Let’s not forget that, with the possible exception of Admiralty, Patent Law has long been the only recognized specialty in the U.S. legal system. I would submit that this is no accident. Patent law requires an understanding of the law and the legal system, an understanding of the world of technology in both broad conceptual strokes and in its specific applications and manifestations, an understanding of the interface between those two disparate worlds, and a grasp of the complications imposed on the whole situation by the vagaries of the human thought process. That is outside of the scope of experience of most persons, including most of the finest jurists.
It requires a great deal of experience with the many twists, turns and nuances of patent law and practice to appreciate how all these things interplay with one another, or to understand the broad ripple effects of decisions on what might appear to be a single issue. It requires still more in the way of understanding to be able to articulate the basis for any decision in a way that makes sense across the spectrum of issues that will be impacted by such decision. Decisions of the Supreme Court, both recent and in the more distant past as well, too often indicate that the Court understands the nature of the desired result, but is unable to articulate the basis and reason for the decision in a way that actually makes sense across the spectrum of patent issues or provides reasonable guidance to patent applicants or litigants. In patent cases the justices are too often grappling with matters and concepts which are well outside of their “comfort zones.” As a result, despite best efforts and intentions, decisions of the Court often inject new uncertainty into, rather than resolve issues on appeal.
About 20 years ago, when our daughter was in the second grade, her class had something called “Career Day.” Each week a parent was invited to describe his or her workday. By the time that my name rose to the top of the list, there had been several interesting careers represented, including some in law enforcement. The teacher asked my daughter to introduce me, saying what it was I did. She looked nervous and said that I was ”a patent pender.” My presentation started slowly, so the teacher threw in the comment that people could make a lot of money inventing and patenting inventions. Then some of the students started to ask questions. What happens if two people separately make the same invention? What proof is needed to show invention? Does it have to be on paper? Do you need witnesses? My interference knowledge was being put to the test as never before. Finally, one child asked what if two people made the same invention on the same day? That has never happened, I confidently answered. Several days later I received a handful of letters from our daughter’s classmates — no doubt written under the coercion of the teacher — thanking me for coming. One letter said: “I used to think that patent law was the most boringest thing in the world, but you taught me!” So, you see, Scalia has it all wrong.
Not sure which decision he is referring to. However, when I read patent decisions by the Supreme Court generally I am sometimes left with the feeling that the court doesn’t like having to decide patent cases. They obviously must think the cases are important or they would not grant cert. However, the opinions are sometimes rather short, sometimes devoid of substantial analysis or both. For example, the eBay case from a few years ago changed almost a century of clear established precedent with a brief opinion that was no more than three pages. The majority opinion lacked any real explanation for the change in the law.
What a great insight into the thinking of the Supreme Court. In essence they are saying that patent law is hard, but insignificant. That’s simultaneously exciting and sobering. Exciting because it says we work in one of the toughest areas of the legal profession. Sobering because it says we are not doing our job of positively impacting most people’s lives.
We need to look to the future and envision new laws and new structures that clearly support innovation but are much easier to understand. I personally am very excited about the whole field of crowdfunding. It is a new and powerful tool that addresses THE critical issue in new product development – how to get seed capital to start your company, build your prototypes and get your product to market. Whether it’s preselling your product (e.g. Kickstarter) or mass marketing equity in your company (e.g. JOBS act), new frontiers of business growth are being explored and legal conflicts are going to arise. I hope that when the Supreme Court gets these cases, they will find them a lot more important and much easier to decide.
Interesting comments from Justice Scalia, although it is hard to imagine any patent case that makes it to the Supreme Court being described as ‘insignificant’. Perhaps Justice Scalia had CNN’s audience in mind, in which case he may quite rightly have assessed that the general level of community interest in patent cases is not likely to be high. A discussion of the issues addressed in MercExchange, KSR, Bilski or Prometheus would hardly make for exciting television!
At the Supreme Court, he at least has the benefit of not having to sit through days of evidence, testimony and argument. So we know he is not referring to spending hours listening to opposing counsel argue over such minutiae as the meaning of the word ‘data’, as was the fate of Justice Bennett in the Federal Court of Australia yesterday.
My first thought is that he must be referencing one of the few patent cases in which the Court split on the decision such as Stanford v. Roche which held that the University and Small Business Patent Procedures Act of 1980 (“the Bayh-Dole Act”) does not automatically vest title to federal contractors for inventions conceived, or first reduced to practice with the support of federal funds. This is pretty dry stuff. However, I am going to go with a case that was unanimous in decision, but far reaching – Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories. I am guessing the same because the whole concept of “laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas” while sounding in prinicipal as simple, is in reality a bear to deal with, particularly given the Supreme Court case law that preceeded the Prometheus decision.
- - - - - - - - - - Just over one week ago Justice Antonin Scalia of the United States Supreme Court was interviewed by Piers Morgan of CNN. See
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About the Author
Gene Quinn is a Patent Attorney and the founder of the popular blog IPWatchdog.com, which has for three of the last four years (i.e., 2010, 2012 and 2103) been recognized as the top intellectual property blog by the American Bar Association. He is also a principal lecturer in the PLI Patent Bar Review Course. As an electrical engineer with a computer engineering focus his specialty is electronic and computer devices, Internet applications, software and business methods.