I am frequently told by inventors that they have done a patent search and cannot find anything that remotely resembles what they have come up with. While there are many reasons for not finding prior art, just because you do not find prior art does not mean that there is no prior art to be found. In fact, it would be extremely rare (if not completely impossible) for there to be an invention that does not have any relevant prior art. Said another way, unless you have invented something on the level of an Einstein-type invention there is prior art, you just haven’t found it.
Prior art is probably best understood as information that can be used by the patent examiner to reject claims in a patent application. This information is most commonly prior publications, such as technical articles, issued patents or published patent applications. It is also possible for prior art to consist of actions, such as a sale or public use prior to a patent application being file. But for the sake of this article let’s assume that the prior art we are talking about are issued patents and published patent applications.
It is absolutely critical to understand that a reference, such as an issued patent or published patent application, does not need to be identical to an invention in order for the reference to qualify as prior art. A reference can be used as prior art for whatever the reference explains. For example, if you design 5-wheel transportation device you are going to have to distinguish all other wheeled transportation devices, regardless of whether they are identical. So if a patent examiner finds a 4-wheeled transportation device that will be used against you as prior art. It will be up to you to explain why your 5-wheel device is not obvious in light of the 4-wheel device. The critical question will be this: Why wouldn’t it have simply been obvious to simply add another wheel?
Hamilton Beach and Sunbeam are direct competitors in the small kitchen appliance industry. Both Hamilton Beach and Sunbeam sell competing versions of “slow cookers,” which are electrically heated lidded pots that are used to cook food at low temperatures for long periods. Hamilton Beach sued Sunbeam for infringement of U.S. Patent No. 7,947,928. It was this patent that was at issue in the decision announced by the Federal Circuit yesterday in Hamilton Beach Brands, Inc. v. Sunbeam Products, Inc.. The dispute between the parties centered on whether the district court erred when it granted a motion for summary judgment finding claims 1 and 3-7 of the ‘928 patent invalid.
The issue of interest in this case centered around whether there was a pre-AIA 102(b) on-sale bar. You might expect such issues not to be worthy of a Federal Circuit precedential opinion, but there was an issue with respect to whether there really was a contract in place before the critical date, but also an issue about whether the on-sale bar could apply when the offer for sale was from a Hamilton Beach supplier to Hamilton Beach themselves. The short answer is that the Federal Circuit, over a dissent by Judge Reyna, determined that there was a triggering offer for sale and it is of no concern whether the offer for sale was initiated by a supplier who was making the units at the request of the patent owner.
The Patent Office should be estopped from raising a § 112 (a) rejection after raising a § 102 or § 103 rejection in an earlier office action. 35 U.S.C. § 112 (a) states:
The specification shall contain a written description of the invention, and of the manner and process of making and using it, in such full, clear, concise, and exact terms as to enable any person skilled in the art to which it pertains, or with which it is most nearly connected, to make and use the same, and shall set forth the best mode contemplated by the inventor or joint inventor of carrying out the invention
Logically, if the application does not describe an invention in terms that allows one skilled in the art to make and use it, then the Patent Office should not have sufficient information to suggest that the application is not novel or obvious. In order to determine something is not novel or obvious you first have to know what it is. I have no objection to the Patent Office putting a 35 U.S.C. § 112 (a) and novelty/obviousness rejection in the same Office Action, where the PTO explains that to the best of their understanding of the invention it would not be novel or obvious for the following reasons.
The America Invents Act (AIA) has now gone through its second phase of implementation. Initially there were few things that went into effect over the initial 90 days after President Obama signed the legislation into law. The first major wave of the AIA took effect on September 16, 2012. See, for example, Citation of Prior Art, Supplemental Examination, Oath/Declaration and Post-Grant Review et al.The most significant of the changes to U.S. patent law, namely the shift from first to invent to first to file, will not take place until March 16, 2013. This is a monumental change to U.S. patent law so it is never too early to discuss the many issues that will present with this shift.
The first and most obvious place to begin any discussion of the shift to first to file is with a very basic question: What is prior art? This is anything but an easy, straight forward question even under first to invent laws that we know so well and have been familiar with virtually throughout the entire history of the United States. The complexity in what seems an otherwise simple question stems from the fact that prior art is defined by statute. There is no common sense way to conceptualize what is, or what is not, prior art.
There are essentially five substantive requirements that must be satisfied before any invention can be patented. These requirements together are commonly referred to as the patentability requirements.
Unfortunately, the patentability requirements are frequently misunderstood, including by the United States Supreme Court. For many who are not well versed in patent law one of the reasons it can be confusing when considering patentability is due to the fact that the first of the patentability requirements asks whether the invention exhibits patentable subject matter. This is sometimes phrased in terms of patent eligibility, which leads the many anti-patent zealots and other patent neophytes to erroneously conclude that if an invention is patent eligible then a patent issues. Nothing could be further from the truth, but those who hate the patent system aren’t exactly concerned with facts or reality.
So what is required for an invention to be patented? The subject matter of the invention must be patent eligible, the invention must be useful, it must be new, it cannot be obvious and it must be described with the particularity required so that people of skill in the relevant field can understand what the invention is, make it and use it without engaging in undue experimentation. Let’s take each of these one at a time.
One of the most common questions I receive, dating back to the very beginning of IPWatchdog.com, is whether recipes can be protected by any form of intellectual property. Typically the question presents specifically by a reader asking whether a recipe can be patented, or how once can patent a recipe.
In most cases the typical recipe for a “killer Margarita” or “the best barbeque sauce ever” will not be patentable because they won’t be unique enough, typically failing on the non-obviousness requirement. Of course, the only way to know for sure is to understand how the Patent Office reaches its conclusions relating to what can and cannot be patented. It is certainly possible to obtain a patent on a recipe or food item if there is a unique aspect, perhaps if there is something counter-intuitive or a problem (such as self live or freshness) is being addressed. The trick will be identifying a uniqueness that is not something one would typically think to try.
The “America Invents Act,” H.R. 1249, contains several provisions that raise substantial questions of constitutionality. Discussed in this article is an important aspect of the “first-inventor-to-file” provision that received no prior public attention because its drafters have concealed its meaning ever since its introduction in previous sessions of Congress. A day after the Senate voted to pass the bill (S. 23), a “clarification” for this poorly drafted section was entered into the Congressional Record as a fabricated “colloquy” that never actually took place on the Senate floor. The colloquy substantially changes the ordinary meaning of the bill to a meaning that had never been discussed publically – Senators had no opportunity to either learn of the “intended” construction or to debate it. While it is uncertain whether the courts would actually interpret the new statute as the colloquy intends, this paper analyzes H.R. 1249 under a construction which the bill’s drafters and the colloquy purport to achieve.
A patent is a proprietary right granted by the Federal government to an inventor. There are three types of patents available in the United States: (1) a utility patent, which covers the functional aspects of products and processes; (2) a design patent, which covers the ornamental design of useful objects; and (3) a plant patent, which covers a new variety of living plant. Each type of patent confers “the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling” the invention in the United States or “importing” the invention into the United States. It is important to note, however, that patents do not protect ideas, but rather protect inventions and methods that exhibit patentable subject matter.
The United States Constitution grants to the Congress the power to grant patents; this power residing in the Congress is found in Article I, Section 8, Clause 8. Unlike most of the enumerated powers granted to Congress in the Constitution, the Intellectual Property Clause is a qualified grant of power, which does limit Congressional discretion in significant ways. The Congress does not have free reign to decide that patents should be easily or freely given, but rather must limit their exercise of power to the dictates of the clause itself. See Bonito Boats, Inc. v. Thunder Craft Boats, Inc., 489 U.S. 141, 146 (1989). See also Graham v. John Deere Co. of Kansas City, 383 U.S. 1, 5 (1966) (“The clause is both a grant of power and a limitation. This qualified authority, unlike the power often exercised in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by the English Crown, is limited to the promotion of advances in the ‘useful arts.’”).
Since at least 1998 business methods have been patentable in the United States. This is thanks to the decision of the United States Court of Appeals in State Street Bank & Trust Co. v. Signature Financial Group, Inc., which categorically and unceremoniously did away with what had previously been come to be known as the business method exception to patentability. Essentially, the business method exception said that no method of doing business deserved patent protection. The Federal Circuit, per the iconic Judge Giles Sutherland Rich, pointed out that the business method exception had never been invoked by either the Federal Circuit or its predecessor court the CCPA. Furthermore, the case frequently cited for establishing the business method exception did not ultimately rely on that exception to deny patentability, meaning it was nothing more than dicta. The Court explained that “[s]ince the 1952 Patent Act, business methods have been, and should have been, subject to the same legal requirements for patentability as applied to any other process or method.”
I frequently am told by inventors that they have searched the marketplace and cannot find anything like their invention. I am also frequently told that they have done a patent search and cannot find anything that remotely resembles what they have come up with. While there are many reasons for not finding prior art, just because you do not find prior art does not mean that there is no prior art that needs to be considered. In fact, it would be extremely rare (if not completely impossible) for there to be an invention that does not have any relevant prior art. Said another way, unless you have invented something on the level of an Einstein-type invention there is prior art. Even the greatest American inventor, Thomas Edison, faced prior art for the vast majority of his inventions.
Earlier this week Apple, Inc. had three patent application publish on what most would consider strange, overbroad and/or dubious inventions. I came across these patent applications thanks to CNET (via Unwired View), and they relate to a method of using a smartphone or other portable electronic device to access travel services (US Patent Application 20100190510), a method of using a smartphone or other portable electronic device to access hotel services ( US Patent Application 20100191551) and a method for providing enhanced access to high fashion using a smartphone or other portable electronic device (US Patent Application 20100191578).
The patents largely follow the same formula, the drawings are remarkably similar, and all relate back to provisional patents filed at the end of January 2009. Many will ridicule these patent applications, and given that obviousness is now about common sense thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in KSR v. Teleflex I think rightly so. I find it hard to believe that there would not be prior art located that dates back to before January 2009 that will present massive difficulties for Apple.
Rather than go through each of these patents with detail, allow me to pick one. Staying well clear of the fashion patent because I don’t want to get in over my head, that means I need to select from an automatic notification of an airplane arrival or a method of configuring a hotel room based on user preferences. As fun as the hotel thing sounds an automatic arrival notification seems more practical to me, although probably less patentable.