Several weeks ago the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued a rather interesting decision in a case that had initially been appealed up to the Unite States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. See United States Marine, Inc. v. United States (Fed. Cir., July 15, 2013).
United States Marine, Inc. (USM) sued the United States government in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)and 28 USC §2674. USM alleged that the United States misappropriated USM’s trade secrets. Specifically, USM claimed that the United States Navy, which had lawfully obtained USM’s proprietary technical drawings under a contract (to which USM was not a party), owed USM a duty of secrecy that it breached by disclosing those drawings to a rival private firm for use in designing military boats for the government.
The case was straight forward enough, at least through the end of trial. After the district court found the United States liable for trade-secret misappropriation and awarded USM damages, the government appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit claiming that the district court lacked jurisdiction.
Last month a coalition of farmers, seed sellers, and agricultural organizations (i.e., hereafter “farmers”), recently received an unfavorable but hardly shocking decision from the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. See Organic Seed Growers v. Monsanto. These farmers filed a declaratory judgment action seeking a determination of non-infringement and invalidity with respect to twenty-three patents owned by Monsanto Co. and Monsanto Technology, LLC (collectively, “Monsanto”). The twenty-three patents-in-suit relate to technologies for genetically modifying seeds. The patented technologies are used to incorporate various traits into soybeans, corn, and other agricultural crops, including traits conferring resistance to the herbicide glyphosate (the active ingredient in Monsanto’s product Roundup).
The farmers do not want to use or sell transgenic seed incorporating Monsanto’s technologies. They also oppose the use of glyphosate and do not use it on their crops. So what is the problem then? If they don’t want to infringe and don’t plan on infringing Monsanto patents how could they possibly support a declaratory judgment action against Monsanto? They say they were concerned that if they do indeed become contaminated by transgenic seed Monsanto may come knocking and assert claims of infringement despite the fact that they have done nothing affirmative, unlike farmer Bowman, to infringe the Monsanto patents.
Such a generalized fear, without any preparations to engage in potentially infringing activity, has never been enough to support declaratory judgment jurisdiction. Neither would it be found to support declaratory judgment jurisdiction in this case simply because Monsanto is one of the most hated corporations in the world. Thus, unrealistic hatred and irrational fear of a patent holder, as it turns out, is insufficient to support declaratory judgment jurisdiction.
The law as it relates to software has been in flux over the last 10 years. Many older patent applications simply do not have enough detail to satisfy the current requirements to obtain a patent, although when drafted they would have been sufficient to satisfy the requirements then in place. Describing software as a pure method claim has not worked for a long time despite the fact that in reality software is really a method. Much more than a cursory description of software as a series of steps is required in order to have hope of obtaining patent protection for software.
Indeed, ever since the Federal Circuit en banc decision in Bilski, claims have been required to be tethered to tangible components, such as data storage devices, processors, databases, controllers, servers and the like. Unfortunately, however, the Patent Trial and Appeals Board at the United States Patent and Trademark Office now has taken the position that they will ignore the tangible components within a computer implemented method claim and then look to see what remains before determining whether the claim is patent eligible. See PTAB Kills Software.
Of course, after you remove or ignore the tangible components what remains is a naked process, which is patent ineligible. Thus, deciding to ignore tangible components leads to the inescapable conclusion that no software is patent eligible. Such disingenuous reasoning has the effect of punishing applicants for writing claims as the Patent Office has mandated ever since the machine-or-transformation test was first announced by the Federal Circuit in Bilski. The test announced in SAP/Versata, which was the first covered business method review decision announced by the PTAB, cannot be the correct test, and ultimately the decision (or at least the rationale) will be reversed. Any test that has the net effect of rendering all software patent ineligible, like the SAP/Versata test, is simply not correct as I will explain more clearly below.
Recently the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld Nintendo’s victory in a patent-infringement case brought against Nintendo by IA Labs CA, LLC. See IA Labs CA v. Nintendo Co., LTD. The Federal Circuit agreed with the the United States Federal District Court for the District of Maryland, issuing what is called a Rule 36 Judgment. A Rule 36 Judgement is one a judgment of affirmance without an opinion. See Rule 36 of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, Federal Circuit Rules.
We do not have any recitation of facts or reasoning explaining the Federal Circuit panel decision because the Per Curiam decision of the panel, which was made up of Circuit Judges Newman, O’Malley and Wallach, merely read: “AFFIRMED. See Fed. Cir. R. 36.” Thus, we must look to the underlying district court proceeding.
At trial it was determined by United States District Judge Peter J. Messitte that Nintendo did not infringe IA Labs’ patent (U.S. Patent No. 7,121,982). Further, Judge Messitte ordered IA Labs to pay Nintendo more than $236,000 in attorneys’ fees because it was an exceptional case due to the fact that the claims were objectively baseless. Also of interest is the fact that IA Labs sought to not post a bond to appeal, which was denied at least in part because the litigation was being funded by a third-party financier.
Three weeks ago Chief Judge Randall Rader of the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit authored an op-ed article in the New York Times titled Make Patent Trolls Pay in Court. He co-authored this article with Law Professors Colleen Chien (Santa Clara) and David Hricik (Mercer). The premise of the article is simple: there are bad actors who abuse the patent litigation system by buying up and then seeking to enforce dubious patents with vague allegations of infringement that don’t seem to pass muster.
But exactly how do these bad actors abuse the litigation system? Chief Judge Rader explained the business model as follows: “[T]rolls… make money by threatening companies with expensive lawsuits and then using that cudgel, rather than the merits of a case, to extract a financial settlement.” Indeed, these patent trolls rely on the inefficiencies of the litigation process and bring lawsuits solely for the purpose of settling the case for nuisance value before the lack of merit in the case is exposed.
While it may be difficult for some to believe that this type of activity happens, those within the industry with first hand knowledge know it to be true. The problem is real, the damage it causes is significant and the frequency with which it occurs is astonishing. Rader, Chien and Hricik are absolutely correct!
As I read CLS Bank v. Alice, I wondered if 35 USC 101 is really a question about the claims or about the specification? 35 USC 101 states:
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.
This section does not say anything about the claims and while the claims define the invention they are not the invention. To suggest otherwise is to confuse reality and elevate the draftsman’s art above the inventor’s work.
Judge Lourie, who was joined by Judges Dyk, Prost, Reyna and Wallach, in CLS Bank v. Alice Corp. wrote: “At its most basic, a computer is just a calculator capable of performing mental steps faster than a human could. Unless the claims require a computer to perform operations that are not merely accelerated calculations, a computer does not itself confer patent eligibility.”
One way that Judges probe generalized statements is to look for the boundaries to test the logic. If the statement cannot be stretched to apply to even similar scenarios then the logic of the statement is questioned and believed to be faulty and self-serving. So let’s see if the above statement can withstand even modest scrutiny.
The statement above, by any fair reading, says that if the core of the invention is something that a human could do but slower then the subject matter is patent ineligible. So what about robots? Robots are more efficient, stronger and faster than humans, but a human can do what a robot can do. So are robots patentable?
Chief Judge Rader’s band De Novo should play a dirge tonight.
On May 10, the Federal Circuit issued its en banc opinion in CLS Bank. Within 48 hours, I had twice read the 135 page decision. It may be a bullet to the head of the software industry. Don’t take my word for it: four different judges say so:
And let’s be clear: if all of these claims, including the system claims, are not patent-eligible, this case is the death of hundreds of thousands of patents, including all business method, financial system, and software patents as well as many computer implemented and telecommunications patents. If all of the claims of these four patents are ineligible, so too are the 320,799 patents which were granted from 1998-2011 in the technology area “Electrical Computers, Digital Processing Systems, Information Security, Error/Fault Handling.” Every patent in this technology category covers inventions directed to computer software or to hardware that implements software. In 2011 alone, 42,235 patents were granted in this area. This would render ineligible nearly 20% of all the patents that actually issued in 2011. If the reasoning of Judge Lourie’s opinion were adopted, it would decimate the electronics and software industries. There are, of course, software, financial system, business method and telecom patents in other technology classes which would also be at risk. So this is quite frankly a low estimate. There has never been a case which could do more damage to the patent system than this one.
That parade of horribles is not entirely fair to Judge Lourie’s concurrence. Judge Lourie based his opinion on the fact that the disputed patent is directed not just to electronics, but to an insignificant use of modern electronics to implement an arguably basic financial transaction. I doubt that Judge Lourie would expand the holding in CLS Bank far beyond that specific fact pattern. Nevertheless, as quoted above, the dissenting judges do not share even this much optimism.
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