Washington—The U.S. Department of Commerce’s United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) today published final rules of practice implementing the first-inventor-to-file provision of the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (AIA). The provision, one of the hallmarks of the AIA, is a major step towards harmonization of the U.S. patent system with those of the United States’ major trading partners, allowing greater consistency in the prosecution and enforcement of U.S. patents. The AIA also includes safeguards to ensure that only an original inventor or his assignee may be awarded a patent under the first-inventor-to-file system. The first-inventor-to-file provision of the AIA goes into effect on March 16, 2013, and represents the final implementation of the changes mandated by the AIA.
The USPTO also today published final examination guidelines setting forth the agency’s interpretation of how the first-inventor-to-file provision alters novelty and obviousness determinations for an invention claimed in a patent application. In particular, the agency’s final examination guidelines inform the public and patent examiners how the AIA’s changes to the novelty provisions of law alter the scope of what is prior art to a claimed invention and how the new grace period operates.
The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) announced today that it is creating a new proceeding designed to ensure the first person to file a patent application is actually the true inventor. The new proceeding will ensure that a person will not be able to obtain a patent for an invention that he or she did not actually invent. If a true inventor is not the first to file, the true inventor may challenge the first applicant’s right to a patent by demonstrating that the first application is claiming an invention derived from the true inventor.
This new procedure, called a derivation proceeding, is required thanks to the enactment of the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (AIA), which went into effect on September 16, 2011. The AIA ushers in a great many changes to patent law and procedure, with the most significant being the change from first to invent to first to file, which does not actually become effective until March 16, 2013. The flavor of first to file adopted by the AIA is not the typical first to file system seen in many other jurisdictions around the world. The American flavor still provides a grace period, although it is peculiar to the inventors own disclosures and can be defeated by subsequent disclosures of third parties. The grace period is, therefore, quite fragile to the point that it is virtually non-existent. Much concern was voiced, however, over whether one could learn of an invention and then win a race to the USPTO. That is where the derivation proceedings come into play. The U.S. version of first to file is better stated as “first inventor to file.”
Director Kappos delivering remarks during the FTF Roundtable, Sept. 6, 2012.
On September 6, 2012, the United States Patent and Trademark Office held a Roundtable on the campus of the USPTO in Alexandria, Virginia. The Roundtable event was for the purpose of the USPTO accepting feedback from the user community on the proposed examination guidelines to implement the first-to-file changes of the America Invents Act (AIA), which go into effect on March 16, 2013.
While there were many issues raised, the one issue on which there seemed overwhelming consensus (although not unanimity) was with respect to the USPTO’s interpretation of the new grace period. A substantial majority of those who offered comments disagreed with the USPTO’s interpretation of 102(b)(1)(B), which pertains to disclosures made by third parties. The USPTO’s interpretation of this provision was set forth in the Federal Register on Thursday, July 26, 2012.
After the pre-scheduled speakers concluded their remarks at the roundtable those in attendance were invited to make remarks. At that time I was recognized and went to the podium to speak on behalf of the USPTO interpretation of the grace period. After my remarks there were no other remarks, but a Q&A session began, with many of those who spoke asking questions of the USPTO Officials in attendance, who were surprisingly willing to provide insight into their interpretations. I say surprisingly because these events are typically not a forum where the USPTO shares information.
Every good invention starts out with an idea, but the answer to the question – can you patent an idea – is a resounding NO! See Can Ideas be Protected? Therefore, in order to obtain a patent and become an inventor it will be necessary to move from idea to patent, which means that travel along the path to invention will take time. As with any lengthy project, keeping notes and tracking progress, success and failures becomes exceptionally important.
In the United States we are still a first to invent country and will remain first to invent up to March 15, 2013. On March 16, 2013, the law changes and the U.S. will become a first to file country, but not exactly like the rest of the world. Inventors will be given an extremely narrow grace period even under the first to file provisions. See USPTO Publishes Proposed First to File Examination Guidelines.
As a first to invent country the party who invents first gets the patent even if they are the second to file a patent application, but this is true if and only if the first to invent has the proof required by the law to demonstrate that they were in fact the first to invent. For many independent inventors and small businesses they simply will never be able to prove they were first to invent because the records they keep are not capable of making the required evidentiary demonstrations.
Those who are even casually familiar with patent law and patent practice undoubtedly know that when dealing with inventions it is always better to file a patent application sooner rather than later. There are many reasons to file sooner rather than later, perhaps chief among them is to prevent the so-called statutory bar from preventing a patent from issuing. The most common statutory bar situation arises when a product that is the embodiment of an invention is publicly used or on sale in the United States more than 12 months prior to a US application being filed. In order to prevent a statutory bar an application needs to be filed promptly, but the 12 month grace period can lull inventors into a false sense of security.
Of course, if you are availing yourself of the privilege of the 12 month grace period in the United States you have already forfeited foreign patent rights. In most of the rest of the world an absolute novelty rule is followed, which means that you must have a patent application on file prior to making any sale, use or public disclosure of the invention. Some will bicker with this as being an overbroad statement, but not by much. If what you sell, use or disclose publicly informs about the invention (which is virtually always the case) you lose the ability to seek foreign patent rights unless you had a patent application on file prior to the informing event. Once again, even the current first to invent law in the United States favors filing early.
But what happens if two or more applications filed by different inventors define the same invention? The old saying is that the more things change the more they stay the same, which very well might be exactly what happens as we transition from interference practice to derivation proceedings.
Anyone interested in reading this is likely old enough to have heard the old saying “Be careful what you wish for – you may get it.” Now we have it. Many people situated variously within and outside of the patent system of the United States urged the adoption of first-to-file. The underlying reasons included harmonization with the laws of other nations, and simplification or elimination of some proceedings in our own system, etc. with a view toward curing some of what has been ailing the U.S. patent system. The day, March 16, 2013, is now approaching when first-to-file will be a reality.
There are many questions about the scope and possible impact of the AIA. Exactly how it will all play out remains to be seen. A significant question is what will be the likely impact of the AIA upon the operations of the USPTO, an organization that has been so greatly over-burdened in recent times.
On Friday, September 16, 2011, President Obama signed into law “The America Invents Act” (“AIA”) which passed the Senate on September 8, 2011, by a vote of 89-9. The AIA passed the House of Representatives on June 23rd by a vote of 304-117. The measure, which is the product of a seven-years-long legislative battle among patent policy stakeholders, changes how patents are obtained and enforced in the United States. Important reforms to patent law are incorporated into the AIA and, just as significantly, several controversial proposed changes were deleted from the AIA before final passage.
Starting with President Obama’s State of the Union Address in January, where he made innovation and job creation key elements of his speech and specifically embraced passage of patent reform as a means of addressing both issues, patent reform was well positioned to be enacted in 2011. Moreover, Congress was desperate for legislative accomplishments in an environment where partisan differences, a weak economy, and government fiscal concerns dominated. Longstanding pro-reform coalitions and associations continued to expend considerable resources on the bill. Passage was deemed virtually assured when the Chairmen of the Judiciary Committees – Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) – essentially agreed this summer on a common piece of legislation. But, as explained below, nothing’s ever as simple as it seems in Washington.
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