On Monday, April 30, 2007, the United States Supreme Court issued its final decision in the matter of KSR v. Teleflex, which overruled the Federal Circuit’s application of the so-called “teaching, suggestion, motivation” rule (or simply TSM) as it applies to determining whether an invention is obvious. This 5th Anniversary of the ruling provides an opportunity to revisit the decision and where we have come since. This will be a recurring theme this week on IPWatchdog.com as we look at the law of obviousness in the wake of this infamous decision.
At least for the last generation (and likely longer) no other Supreme Court case in the patent arena has been nearly as influential as the Court’s decision in KSR v. Teleflex. This is because obviousness is where the rubber meets the road for the patentability of inventions. It is not enough that the invention is different; it also must also be non-obvious. TSM sought to inject objectivity into the obviousness analysis, and did so rather successfully. There were from time to time patents granted on inventions that would make you scratch your head and wonder, but was that any reason to remove objectivity from the obviousness analysis? No, but that is what the Supreme Court did when they issued the KSR decision, taking many by surprise.
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.
On Monday, April 30, 2007, the United States Supreme Court issued its much anticipated decision in KSR International Co. v Teleflex, Inc. For many months patent pundits tried to predict how the Supreme Court would handle the Federal Circuit “teaching, suggestion and motivation” test, used to determine whether a particular patent claim is obvious. Predictions of this sort are usually no more reliable than predictions of any other kind, and while everyone had an opinion, few actually anticipated what the Supreme Court would do. Whether the surprise that was KSR was owing to the patent bar being willful blind or simply having misplaced hope is another story for another day.
The Supreme Court dislikes bright line rules, but surely they wouldn’t opt for a totality of the circumstances approach to obviousness and throw away TSM, thereby leaving some 6,000+ patent examiners to make their own determinations about the qualitative value of an invention? Isn’t that what erasing “flash of creative genius” was meant to do away with? Sadly, the Supreme Court put on display their severe lack of understanding for all to see, believing obviousness to be about common sense. But who’s common sense? What boundaries would be put in place? As is all to familiar, the Supreme Court took the “we decide, you figure it out” approach. I guess they loathe showing their work, which is probably why they aren’t mathematicians!
John Calvert, USPTO Inventors Assistance Program, will teach claim drafting at the Conference
The United States Patent and Trademark Office will host an Independent Inventors Conferencefrom August 12 – 13, 2011, in Pasadena, California. This California Regional Conference will be the west coast equivalent to the Independent Inventors Conference that has been held at the campus of the USPTO in Alexandria, Virginia in previous years. The purpose for having this Pasadena Regional Conference is to try and bring the USPTO to other parts of the country and give inventors from a variety of locations the opportunity to interact with USPTO Officials without the need to travel to Alexandria.
Senior USPTO officials, successful inventors, including National Inventor Hall of Fame inductee Dr. Gary Michelson, and intellectual property experts will be on hand to provide practical advice and information for both novice and seasoned inventors. Congressman Adam Schiff, a member of both committees with oversight of issues related to intellectual property protection and the USPTO, the will be the opening speaker August 12. Teresa Stanek Rea, Deputy Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Deputy Director of the USPTO, will deliver a keynote address at the luncheon on August 12. Mark Hatch, CEO of TechShop and Louis Foreman, Chief Executive of Enventys® and producer of Everyday Edisons will also deliver keynote addresses for attendees.
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.’”).
Yesterday the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, in a split decision with Judge Lourie writing and Judge Bryson joining, took a step forward in the evolution of the law of obviousness that confirms my worst fears about obviousness in this post-KSR era.
I have written about KSR v. Teleflex numerous times and we have engaged in thought-provoking and sometimes heated debate in the comments to those articles. We have argued about the extent to which the obviousness laws have changed, and many have sought to calm my fears by pointing out that even under the ridiculously naive approach to obviousness set forth by the Supreme Court in KSR it was still necessary under previous Supreme Court rulings that the prior art teach each and every element of the invention. In short, it has been argued by many that even after KSR it is not an appropriate rejection, or reason to invalidate an issued claim, that it would be “common sense” to modify elements within the prior art in a wholly new way and then combine the “common sense” modifications. I did agree that was true, at least until yesterday.
The January 17, 2011, edition of Fortune magazine has Chief Justice John Roberts on the cover. Roberts is the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, a Court now made up predominantly of conservatives by a 5 to 4 majority. It is the contention of the author of the article on Roberts that the Roberts Court is the most pro-business Court the United States has ever seen. If that is the case, which I am not at all sure is the case, it would have to mean that one can be “pro-business” while being “anti-patent,” which given the state of American manufacturing and the future of the U.S. economy seems questionable.
Of course, if you are anti-patent then you are anti-innovation because those who innovate are not the behemoths of industry, but rather start-up companies that absolutely require patents in order to attract funding, expand and create jobs. Thus, given the hostility toward patents it is entirely accurate to characterize the Roberts Court as anti-innovation. The Roberts Court increasingly puts hurdles in the way of high-tech job growth. You see, it is easy for anyone to characterize the Supreme Court as “pro-business” because selecting a victor in a “business case” almost necessarily means that a business has been victorious. But what business? One that is likely to innovate, expand, create jobs and form new industry? Or one that once innovated and expanded, but now finds themselves stagnant and laying off employees?
In something of a switch for Apple, Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL), the company known for such popular devices as the iPad, iPhone and the iPod, has obtained a patent on a glove. Yes, the company known for pushing the envelope with high tech gadgets has entered the clothing market with a patented glove. Not just any glove mind you, but rather one that will be sure to help you keep your hands and fingers warm while still being able to use your favorite smart-gadgets.
The patent issued to Apple earlier this week was U.S. Patent No. 7,874,021, which is titled “High tactility glove system.” Don’t let the title fool you though. I turned to the patent to see what kind of high-tech glove gadgetry Apple had come up with and to my surprise what was invented was a glove with openings at the top of the index finger, middle finger and thumb so as to allow skin to actually be able to touch the screen of your iPhone, iPad or iPod.