This is the third and final installment of my recent interview with former Federal Circuit Chief Judge Paul Michel. In this installment of the interview we discuss the future of the Federal Circuit now that Judge Rader is a private citizen. We discuss the type of candidate that should be appointed to replace him, and the always concerning panel dependency.
QUINN: So now we still have one topic still to discuss. Perhaps, if you have the time, we could talk about the Federal Circuit. I don’t want to get into any of the touchy subjects, which some people are diving into. I’m more interesting in talking about moving forward, you know, Judge Rader is now a private citizen and he was clearly one of the champions of the patent system and a believer in the power and the importance of patents. And now he’s not on the Court any more. I wonder what that’s going to mean moving forward. I wonder— and then I can’t help but wonder about panel dependency, which is a problem that a lot of people talk about. And particularly in light of the fact that the Supreme Court has remanded Ultramercial to the Federal Circuit. And Judge Rader was on that panel. So you already have people talking about whether that outcome in what could be a very important case will become panel dependent.
MICHEL: Right. Well, first of all I think Judge Rader will continue to play a very constructive role as a vocal spokesman now in the private citizen realm. And in fact being a private citizen he can be much more frank and candid than he was able to be as a sitting judge. So his voice may get even more interesting and even louder as a part of the overall debate. His replacement will be very important. So just as people are focused on is Phil Johnson going to become the new patent director, will he get nominated, can he get confirmed, how will he do? All those interesting very important questions, people should also be asking who will replace Judge Rader? Who will get nominated, can that person get confirmed, can they get confirmed as fast as they need to get confirmed so the Court is at full strength?
In what can really only be characterized as a stunning development, earlier today Judge Randall Rader of the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit announced that he is retiring effective June 30, 2014. This announcement comes only weeks after he stepped down as Chief Judge.
On May 23, 2014, then Chief Judge Rader announced that he would step down as Chief Judge of the Federal Circuit on May 30, 2014. At that time Rader also said that he would continue in active service on the Court, although the official announcement said that he will also undertake additional teaching, lecturing and travel. Given Rader’s statement that he would remain on the Court just weeks ago the announcement today is shocking. It is too early to know exactly why Judge Rader has made this decision, as news is just breaking, but the speed with which Rader has gone from Chief Judge, to Circuit Judge to private citizen is staggering.
By now much of the patent world likely already knows that Chief Judge Randall Rader has announced that he will step down as Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit effective May 30, 2014. Many in the popular press are tying his decision to step down to his recent recusals, which were necessitated by an ill-advised email sent by Judge Rader praising a member of the patent bar that routinely appears before the Federal Circuit. On May 23, 2014, Judge Rader sent a letter to all of the other Judges on the Federal Circuit apologizing for his lapse in judgment and for the need to recuse himself. Given the timing of Judge Rader’s decision to step down and his apology letter it is easy to understand why many are speculating that the two are connected.
Given the anti-patent climate that has been created by major Silicon Valley technology companies, the Obama Administration and certain Members of Congress, the news that Judge Rader will step down as Chief Judge comes at a difficult time. As innovators celebrated the defeat of the latest round of patent legislation that would have weakened the patent system and patent rights generally, the industry is now face with losing Judge Rader, at least to some extent.
Judge Rader will stay on the Federal Circuit, he will continue to teach, lecture and travel, spreading the positive patent message that he delivers so uniquely well. Even though the Chief Judge is really only a leader among equals, there is no doubt that a bully pulpit is provided to a Chief Judge. Judge Rader was willing to talk about the virtues of the U.S. patent system generally, and continually raised issues relevant to businesses both small and large that innovate. His absence at this critical time will be missed.
EDITOR’S NOTE: What appears below are the prepared remarks for “The Honorable Howard T. Markey Distinguished Lecture on Intellectual Property Law,” given by Don Dunner at the John Marshall Law School on November 12, 2010. In light of the recent announcement that Chief Judge Rader will be stepping down as Chief Judge, Dunner granted us permission to publish this piece.
The title of my lecture today is “The Evolution of Patent Jurisprudence … from Giles Rich to Howard Markey to Randall Rader.” Why, you might ask, am I restricting myself to these three jurists if my subject is “The Evolution of Patent Jurisprudence”? Why not start at the beginning, for example, and talk of Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution, or the first patent act in 1790, or the beginning of the patent examination system in 1836, or the patent writings of Judge Learned Hand.
Those of you who are familiar with my career will know the answer: My 55 year career in patent law spans almost exactly the judicial tenures of Judges Rich, Markey and Rader. I have been specially blessed with my extensive interactions with all three judges, not to mention numerous oral arguments that I have been privileged to make before them. And so it seemed to me appropriate to spend my time today sharing my recollections and thoughts about these three giants of the patent profession.
Chief Judge Randall R. Rader today announced that he will step down as Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit on May 30, 2014. Judge Rader will continue in active service on the Court, although the official announcement says that he will also undertake additional teaching, lecturing and travel.
This surprise announcement by Judge Rader, who turned 65 on April 29, 2014, means that Judge Sharon Prost will become the next Chief Judge of the Federal Circuit. Had Judge Rader served his entire term as Chief Judge succession rules would have meant that the title of Chief Judge would pass Judge Prost and go on to Judge Moore, who remains next in line after Judge Prost.
In the United States, attorneys, judges and others have struggled for decades to determine when, if ever, computer programs or software should be eligible for patent protection. In the 1960’s the U.S. Patent Office declared that software could not be patented. Since then, a series of court decisions have rejected that view and established that one may definitely patent software in the U.S., although the exact requirements remain unclear and critics increasingly demand that it should not be patentable.
As a starting point, 35 U.S.C. §101 provides that any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or new and useful improvement thereof, is eligible for patent protection, subject to other requirements of the Patent Act (that is, §101 is just the threshold test for patentability). Congress has never stated any limitations to the patentable categories of §101 and case law has only recognized three categories of exceptions – subject matter that may not be patented: laws of nature, physical phenomena and abstract ideas. Computer software is often found to be ineligible on the ground that it comprises abstract ideas, but courts have struggled to provide a precise formula or definition for abstract ideas.
Before I finally waded through the 135-page monstrosity called the en banc decision in CLS Bank International v. Alice Corp. (seven opinions, one a brief per curiam opinion, and six full opinions, including Chief Judge Rader at the end “waxing lyrically” about the “good old days” when he first joined the Federal Circuit), out came last Friday the remand decision in Ultramercial, LLC v. Hulu, LLC (Ultramercial II). I’ve already observed that Rader had “thrown down the gauntlet” at his Federal Circuit colleagues in Ultramercial I by stating that “breadth and lack of specificity does not render the claimed subject matter impermissibly abstract.” See Throwing Down the Gauntlet: Rader Rules in Utramercial that Breadth and Lack Specificity Does Not Make Claimed Method Impermissibly Abstract*. In Ultramercial II, Rader (again joined by Judge O’Malley but not completely by Judge Lourie) has squarely “thrown down the gauntlet” again, now before the Supreme Court to either clarify their “fuzzy” Bilski ruling, or “get out of the way” and let the Federal Circuit do the job it was created by Congress to do in 1982, namely be the primary arbiter of patent law jurisprudence, including patent eligibility under 35 U.S.C. § 101.
In Ultramercial I and II, the patentee (Ultramercial) asserted that U.S. Pat. No. 7,346,545 (the ‘545 patent) was infringed by Hulu, LLC (“Hulu”), YouTube, LLC (“YouTube”), and WildTangent, Inc. (“WildTangent”). The ‘545 patent relates to a method for distributing copyrighted products (e.g., songs, movies, books, etc.) over the Internet for free in exchange for viewing an advertisement with the advertiser paying for the copyrighted content. WildTangent’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim was granted by the district court based on the claimed method being patent-ineligible under 35 U.S.C. § 101. (Hulu and YouTube were dismissed from the case apparently for other reasons.)
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!
After the Federal Circuit issued its en banc decision on May 10, 2013 in CLS Bank v. Alice Corp, the patent owner Alice Corp must be feeling like Alice in Alice in Wonderland, bewildered and frightened by the fantastical situation in which they find themselves:
(1) “bewildered” because an equally divided Federal Circuit affirmed the district court’s holding that Alice’s claimed system to tangible machine components including a first party device, a data storage unit, a second party device, a computer, and a communications controller, programmed with specialized functions consistent with detailed algorithms disclosed in the patent, constitutes a patent ineligible “abstract idea;”
(2) “frightened” because, as Judge Moore puts it, “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” (Moore Op. at 2); and
In what can only fairly be characterized as utterly ridiculous, 5 of the 10 judges on the Federal Circuit to hear CLS Bank v. Alice Corporationen banc would find that claims that satisfy the machine-or-transformation test are not patentable. While I think it is inappropriate to find the systems claims patent ineligible that isn’t what makes the decision utterly ridiculous. The decision is an embarrassment because 5 other judges would have found the systems claims patent eligible. Thus, we have an even split of opinion at the Federal Circuit.
The Federal Circuit decision in CLS Bank v. Alice Corp. is now being horribly mischaracterized in the media, which will now only further complicate the matter in the court of public opinion. This decision offers no precedent whatsoever regarding systems claims because it was a tie. Alice Corporation loses the systems claims not because that is the law of the land announced by the Federal Circuit, but rather because a single district court judge determined that the systems claims were patent ineligible. Had that same district court judge found the systems claims patent eligible then Alice would have prevailed.
In other words, the Federal Circuit is essentially abdicating its authority relative to whether systems claims are patentable to the district courts and presumably also to the Patent Trial and Appeals Board at the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Whatever the district court or PTAB does is just fine. Well, not quite.