Last week the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued a decision in State of Vermont v. MPHJ Technology Investments, LLC. The decision, which was really not much of a decision because the Federal Circuit concluded they lacked jurisdiction, is interesting for at least several reasons.
While Vermont’s actions are undoubtably laudable, despite what some conclude I suspect that when challenged the legislation will fall because it pre-empts patent law, which is federal. For example, one of the factors that would suggest a bad faith patent enforcement under the Vermont statute is if there has previously been a lawsuit or threatened lawsuit based on the same or similar claim of patent infringement.
There’s an old expression that Murphy (of Murphy’s Law fame) “was an optimist.” That expression certainly applies to the recent Federal Circuit panel decision in Novartis AG v. Lee, as well as the companion decision in Exelixis, Inc. v. Lee on the meaning of the Patent Term Adjustment (PTA) Statute (35 U.S.C. § 154(b)), and particularly what’s called the “B period” portion (i.e., 35 U.S.C. § 154(b)(1)(B)) of PTA. In Novartis, this Federal Circuit panel (opinion by Judge Taranto, joined by Judges Newman and Dyk) ruled that the second exclusion from PTA in the “B period” portion (i.e., 35 U.S.C. § 154(b)(1)(B)(ii)) excludes from PTA any time consumed by a Request for Continued Examination (RCE), even if that RCE is filed more than 3 years after the “actual filing date” of the patent application. Not only is this ruling a questionable interpretation of 35 U.S.C. § 154(b)(1)(B)(ii) for reasons I’ll discuss below, but it creates an unfortunate, and surely unintended impact on RCEs specifically, as well as continuation practice generally. And the more I dig into the PTA statute, the more problematical this ruling in Novartis becomes.
Novartis also addresses another thorny issue of when a patent applicant dissatisfied with the PTA determination by the USPTO may timely challenge such a determination (i.e., 35 U.S.C. § 154(b)(4)(A) (and which also went against the patentee, Novartis), but I’m going to focus solely on the B period exclusion issue. I’m also going to provide here a summary of the PTA statute as it relates to these 3 periods used for determining the cumulative PTA that the patent applicant gets. See the 2012 Eastern District of Virginia’s decision in Exelixis, Inc. v. Kappos which was vacated by the Federal Circuit’s companion decision to Novartis, and provides a nice, concise explanation of how these 3 periods work for determining the cumulative PTA owed the patent applicant.
In a non-precedential opinion issued October 18, 2013, the Federal Circuit issued a decision that calls into question the overall utility of forum selection clauses in contractual relationships. In fact, Eli Lilly lost its bid to have its dispute with Genentech and City of Hope heard in the Northern District of California despite having a forum selection clause in the governing contract that stated the parties would litigate any dispute in the Northern District of California. See In re Eli Lilly and Co.
The en banc Federal Circuit on September 13, 2013, heard oral argument on whether to overrule its en banc decision in Cybor Corp. v. FAS Technologies, Inc., 138 F.3d 1448 (Fed. Cir. 1998), and hold that claim construction can involve issues of fact reviewable for clear error, and that it is not entirely an issue of law subject only to de novo review. Lighting Ballast Control LLC v. Universal Lighting Technologies, Inc., Fed. Cir., No. 2012-1014, 3/15/2013.
Lighting Ballast Control LLC (LBC) owns a patent (5,436,529) on control and protection circuits for electronic lighting ballasts commonly used in fluorescent lighting. The patent includes the term “voltage source means” in the following context: “voltage source means providing a constant or variable magnitude DC voltage between the DC input terminals.” LBC sued Universal Lighting Technologies, Inc. (ULT).
District Court Decision
On appeal is the district court decision that a person of ordinary skill in the art would understand the claim term “voltage source means” to correspond to a rectifier or other voltage supply device. It thus rejected ULT’s argument that the term invokes Section 112 ¶6 and that the claim is invalid for indefiniteness for lack of specific structure in the specification. A Federal Circuit panel reversed in a nonprecedential decision, concluding from a de novo review that “voltage source means” does invoke Section 112 ¶6 and that the claim is invalid for indefiniteness. That panel decision was vacated when the appellate court decided to consider the claim construction issue en banc.
The Federal Circuit’s original opinion issued January 22, 2013, and was authored by Judge Neman with Judges Prost and Reyna in agreement. In that January 2013 opinion the Court identified claim 34 as representative of the “shopping cart” claims, and held claim 34 invalid on the ground of obviousness. The parties stated, on petition for rehearing, that the Federal Circuit ruling should have been for claim 35, which would conform to the judgment entered on the jury verdict. But that is where the agreement between the parties ended. Soverain requested further proceedings on the merits, while Newegg proposed that the Federal Circuit correct what they referred to as a “typographical error.” The Federal Circuit ordered additional briefing.
Supreme Court Bound?
Before jumping into the substance of this case, the first thing I noticed was that Seth Waxman of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr was listed as the lead attorney for Soverain Software in both the petition for rehearing and the ensuing briefs. Robert Wilson of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, who specializes in life sciences litigation and appellate matters, was previously the lead attorney for Soverain. Wilson remains on the brief, which is common when the next step toward the Supreme Court is contemplated. But it is hard to imagine that Soverain has brought in Seth Waxman at this late stage if they are not contemplating an appeal to the Supreme Court.
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.
Well, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit sort of decided CLS Bank v. Alice Corporation earlier today. Truthfully, all the important questions that we thought might be answered remain completely and totally unanswered because there were only 10 judges who sat on the en banc tribunal and no more than 5 judges signed on to any one opinion.
The only thing we know is this — the Federal Circuit issued an extraordinarily brief per curiam decision, which stated:
Upon consideration en banc, a majority of the court affirms the district court’s holding that the asserted method and computer-readable media claims are not directed to eligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101. An equally divided court affirms the district court’s holding that the asserted system claims are not directed to eligible subject matter under that statute.
Thus, all of the asserted claims are not patent eligible. At the moment I am completely flabbergasted and don’t know what to say.