Patent law has always swung like a pendulum. The law swings between extremes, spending very little time in the middle. It is easy to get caught up with the shifting laws and even easier to start looking at the trees instead of the forrest, worrying where there is really no need to become so distressed. Lately, however, there has been an ever increasing and significant assaults on patent rights. It is not much of an exaggeration to wonder whether any commercially relevant innovation can be and remain patented. We seem to be back to the days when valid patent claims were those that had not been litigated. Today it is more fair to say valid patent claims are those that haven’t reached the Supreme Court or the Federal Circuit. Ubiquity is now the touchstone of ineligibility, or obviousness, rather than being celebrated for such wide spread adoption.
I am more concerned now than ever that the pendulum has swung so far and has gained so much momentum that it will fly clear from its support base point. I raised this with Ray Niro, the famous patent litigator who was originally called the first patent troll, back in July 2013. Then he told me: “looking at the bright side of things, I believe that the pendulum will swing. I believe it will come back.” I again asked him his thoughts on the matter in another interview approximately 11 months later, Niro said that he thought the pendulum would swing back, but he was far less optimistic.
As I was reading recent Federal Circuit decisions I initially skipped right past I/P Engine, Inc. v. AOL, Inc. (CAFC, August 15, 2014). After all, this decision was non-precedential, so how important could it really be? But the Federal Circuit seems to have a peculiar definition of “non-precedential” these days.
In this case the jury found that the asserted claims were infringed, the jury found that the asserted claims remained non-obvious because the defendants’ evidence did not establish obviousness with clear and convincing evidence, and the plaintiff won a verdict of over $30 million with an ongoing royalty rate of 3.5%. The district court judge reviewed the jury determinations, particularly with respect to obviousness, and found that the jury was correct. The Federal Circuit, in their infinite wisdom, disagreed and found the asserted claims obvious. To do so the majority provided no deference to the factual determinations of the jury.
When attempting to determine whether an invention can be patented it is necessary to go through the patentability requirements in an effort to see whether patent claims can likely be obtained. Ideally you want patent claims that are meaningfully broad and commercially relevant, but at a minimum you must have claims that embody patent eligible subject matter, demonstrate a useful invention, cover a novel invention and which are non-obvious in light of the prior art. Obviousness is typically the real hurdle to patentability, and unfortunately the law of obviousness can be quite subjective and difficult to understand. At times obviousness determinations almost seems arbitrary.
The basic obviousness inquiry was set forth by the United States Supreme Court in Graham v. John Deere nearly 50 years ago, and remains good law even today. In order to determine whether an invention is obvious one must work through this analytical framework: (1) Determine the scope and content of the prior art; (2) Ascertain the differences between the claimed invention and the prior art; (3) Resolve the level of ordinary skill in the pertinent art; and (4) Consider objective indicia of non-obviousness (i.e., are there secondary considerations of non-obviousness that suggest a patent should issue despite an invention seeming to be obvious). See Understanding Obviousness: John Deer and the Basics. While this seems easy enough, the application of these factors or considerations is exceptionally difficult.
Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in KSR v. Teleflex obviousness was rather mechanical. With obviousness we are asking whether there is any combination of prior art references that when put together would be the invention in question. In other words, could an ordinary mechanic create your invention or was there some kind of non-obvious innovation. Defining the concept with using the concept is hardly illuminating, but that is the way the law of obviousness works. This is true because what is obvious to some large degree is in the eye of the beholder.
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?
CHICAGO, December 12, 2013 – Soverain Software LLC announces that, after requesting an extension, Newegg Inc. today filed its Brief in Opposition (BIO) to the Supreme Court of the United States, demonstrating the importance of Soverain’s petition for certiorari in the case Soverain v. Newegg. This appeal has far-reaching ramifications on the issues of property rights, validity of patents, obviousness, and fundamental legal principles such as the Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial and the burden of proof.
Soverain’s President, Katharine Wolanyk, says, “Newegg now denies that the appeals court decided disputed factual issues, despite their attorney conceding at oral argument that there were genuine issues of fact in dispute that needed to be decided by a jury. The reality is that this case is important enough for Newegg to file a response and we hope the Supreme Court will agree with our amicus briefs and grant certiorari.” Wolanyk adds, “The Court of Appeals’ ruling in Soverain v. Newegg is an egregious violation of our Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial, and invalidating our patents in this manner is both wrong and a damaging precedent to set for all inventors and patent owners.”
The original January 2013 opinion was authored by Judge Neman with Judges Prost and Reyna in agreement. In that 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. Ultimately, the rehearing was not successful and claim 35, like claim 34, was ruled invalid because it was obvious. See Soverain Software LLC v. Newegg, Inc. (Fed. Cir., September 4, 2013).
The Newegg brief in opposition to Soverain’s Petition for Certiorari was due on November 18, 2o13, but Newegg’s attorney requested an extension until Thursday, December 12, 2013, so we await the filing of Newegg’s opposition brief. I have been told that Soverain plans to file a reply to whatever Newegg files, so it will be some time before we know whether the Supreme Court will take this important case.
The Pioneering Technology
Before diving into why this case matters and everyone should pay close attention, allow me to point out that the technology involved in this case is THE original shopping cart technology. In fact, the ’314 patent matured from a patent application that was filed on October 24, 1994. Despite what you may have heard, this is not an example of a bad patent, nor is it something that wasn’t new or was legitimately obvious at the time it was invented, which would have been some meaningful time before October 24, 1994. This is an example of a pioneering invention that came about at the dawn of Internet as we know it today. The fact that it is ancient in Internet terms does not mean that the claims are bad, it merely means that the innovation embodied in the patent is fundamentally important. Indeed, the Soverain’s enterprise software product has been in use for nearly 18 years, and has been used by over 1,000 customers in over 25 countries, including companies such as Time-Warner, AT&T, Sony, Disney, BusinessWeek and Reuters.
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.
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.