Along with their ABC’s and multiplication tables, patent lawyers learn two basic principles. First, claims define the invention. Second, a court should not read limitations from a single embodiment into the claims, absent a demonstrated clear intention by the patentee to do so.
Don’t believe them.
When the Federal Circuit brings up the principle that one should not import the limitations of a single embodiment into a broader claim, expect the opinion to show how, under the particular, specifically limited facts of the present case, the inventor actually intended to limit the claims to the disclosed embodiment. The decision in Abbott Labs. v. Sandoz, Inc. provides an excellent example of the court’s reasoning. There, the specification described only a single embodiment, but the claims extended beyond the embodiment, but no issues of either prior art of enablement were present. The fact that the patent presented only a single example served as a starting point, after which the court was able to find “clear intent” to limit a broad claim term, “crystalline,” to a particular crystal.
Time was, patent lawyers were magicians, and their bags of tricks were filled with claim drafting tools. Write “a widget,” and shazam! “a widget” becomes as many as one could desire, all through the rules of claim construction. Single sentence claims went on for days, every other word was “said,” and language included words like “slidingly.” The mechanical people all said “comprising,” and the chemical people all said “consisting,” but nobody knew why, except maybe Judge Rich and Irving Kayton.
Now we have patent practitioners. We think about monetization. Edison, Tesla, Kilby, Noyce—they are all gone, and now our idea of high-tech is a patented tax strategy. If a person commits the sin of colorful language, some guy from Chicago puts a price on his head.
The claim drafting wizard is gone, but no one notices that his passing is not a normal, stylistic change, going from gray flannel to bellbottoms to designer jeans.
One of the biggest problems that inventors face when setting out to define their invention is with describing what the law refers to as “alternative embodiments of the invention.” Most inventors are quite good at describing exactly what they have invented. The invention is your work and you know it best, so it is not surprising that most inventors can (with enough effort) explain the preferred version of the invention; what the law refers to as the “preferred embodiment.” Nevertheless, it is absolutely essential to think outside the box when describing your invention in any patent application. Stop and think about different ways that your invention can be made or used, even if you deem them to be inferior. Failure to disclose alternatives will almost certainly foreclose your ability to say those alternatives are covered by your disclosure, which will prevent any issued patent from covering those undefined variations.
Focusing only on the large picture and not describing nuances and alternatives may not seem like a big deal, but history has shown that it is critical. If you are lucky enough to have invented something of great importance there will be a number of individuals and companies trying to capitalize on the opportunity you have created. If you dismiss variations or entirely different and unique embodiments then you are leaving those to the individuals and/or companies that would seek to capitalize on a product or process that is similar to your own, but not specifically covered by your patent claims. So what can you do?
Drafting a patent application is not easy. A patent application needs to describe your invention completely, and if you really are entitled to a patent then at least some aspect of your invention is new and non-obvious, which means that heretofore it hasn’t existed. Describing something new that has not previously existed if more of a challenge than most people realize.
Many times inventors fail to adequately describe their inventions because the invention is obvious to them, and they think it will be equally obvious to others. The law, however, requires that a patent application explain the invention to someone who is not already familiar with the invention. One of the best way to do this is to explain it like a child explains things when doing a show and tell at school. Children explain everything in excruciating detail, no matter how obvious. Kids do this when they describe things because they have no idea what the person listening knows, and to them it is new and interesting so they explain everything with tremendous detail (whether you want to hear it or not). That is exactly what you need to do in the application. Explain your invention with so much detail that you will bore the knowledgeable reader to death.
That is all fine and well, but how do you explain your invention? Here are five things to keep in mind that are critical in order to fully and completely describe your invention. Thoughtful consideration of these will help you better articulate what you have that is unique in a way that will satisfy legal requirements in the United States.
This is one of those articles that I write every so often, in slightly different ways, in order to try and explain to inventors what it is that they need to know before they make an enormously costly mistake. For better or for worse, there is a popular misconception that patent attorneys and patent agents are not really necessary and an inventor can do it themselves and save money. The truth is that patent attorneys are among the most highly trained attorneys you will ever meet. In addition to having to successfully complete law school and taken a State Bar Examination, patent attorneys must have a scientific background or else they cannot even sit for the Patent Bar Examination. As John White explains, a person becomes a patent attorney when they lack sufficient personality and charisma to do tax work! But when it comes to describing your invention in a document that will grant you exclusive rights with respect to only what is disclosed and claimed, isn’t that the exact type of person you want in your corner?
Of course, financial resources can and do provide a real impediment to moving forward with any business opportunity. Unless you are independently wealthy you are almost certainly going to need to proceed one step at a time as you move forward toward your goal of commercial success and financial reward. That means investing wisely, and sometimes doing more on your own than you would like. To get from point A, where you have an idea or early stage invention, to point B, where you are reaping the rewards, it is imperative to proceed in a business responsible way. That must also include proceeding with your eyes fully open and understanding the potential pitfalls and consequences if you are going to attempt to represent yourself in the patent world. If the choice is to move forward on your own versus not moving forward at all, then representing yourself is the only option. If you have the choice and can afford professional assistance, hiring a patent practitioner should be considered essential.
In order for any patent application to be complete the invention must be described with great particularity. Many times an inventor will only generally describe the invention in a patent application, which creates a significant problem.
This problem recently presented itself to me when an inventor provided me with an extremely vague description of their invention and wanted me to do a patent search and prepare a provisional patent application. I explained to the inventor that I needed much more detailed information. The inventor told me that he supplied plenty of information and was not going to supply any more because he wanted to keep the description very general. That is, of course, his right, but a general description is a recipe for failure. I declined representation. I don’t need those type of headaches.
This interaction is more common than you might think. Inventors not only frequently think they know more about patents than a patent attorney, but inventors also frequently think it is best to have the broadest most vague description of an invention possible. Conceptually a general description may seem best, but if you have any knowledge of U.S. patent law you realize that general, non-informative and vague descriptions are unacceptable. The law simply requires more.
“It’s never good news when your area of the law is on 60 minutes,” says Courtenay Brinckerhoff, partner at Foley & Lardner LLP at the 2013 AIPLA Annual Meeting. It’s no secret that the Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics case had more than its fair share of media buzz. The decision, holding that isolated DNA was not patent eligible, left many of us wondering how to best address the needs of our biotech clients going forward.
The main claims at issue in this case are the isolated DNA claims. Claim one is broad enough to cover naturally occurring DNA, and claim two is specific to synthetic DNA. In 2010, the district court came out with a decision holding that DNA was not patent eligible subject matter, which was a bit of a shock to us. Most of the rationale was focused on the idea that DNA embodies information, and regardless of what the actual molecule looks like, Myriad’s claim is for that defining characteristic. The case went up to the Federal Circuit where former chemist Judge Lourie held that technically the isolated DNA is different than natural DNA, because you have to break the covalent bonds to isolate the methylated gene. There were, of course, also policy reasons to uphold the claim like the reliance of the biotech industry on the USPTO already having granted these sorts of patents for nearly 20 years.
If you’re trying to draft a patent application for a computer-related invention, you’re basically left in a mess of opinions that the Federal Circuit refers to as CLS Bank Int’l v. Alice Corp. The decision, described by Judge Rader as a failure of his institution, left us wanting for just a tad –by a tad I actually mean a ton– more predictability. For now, we can only try to parse out why the opinions differed, take cues from our historical backdrop, and revise our prosecution strategy accordingly.
“A lot of times when we talk about patent eligibility we really need to know what the claims look like, so I thought we could spend four or five hours discussing this claim. Oh not enough time,” says Bruce Sunstein, founder of Sunstein, Kann, Murphy, and Timbers LLP at the 2013 AIPLA Annual Meeting. Fair point, Sunstein. So here’s the gist of CLS Bank. We have a computer readable medium claim in a format we’re accustomed to and that seems to be perfectly acceptable— program code for this program code for that. There are system claims that also would seem completely okay. Finally, there’s a method claim, which notably doesn’t include the word “computer.” Unfortunately for us, seeming completely okay was clearly not the test for patent eligibility. This was an en banc decision. The 10 available votes came out as follows:
Seven judges say method claims are not patent eligible.
Three judges say method claims are patent eligible.
Five judges say systems claims are not patent eligible.
Five judges say systems claims are patent eligible.
Judge Lourie writing with Dyk, Prost, Reyna, and Wallach says none of the claims are patent eligible. They reject the method claims for being too abstract. Then they say the storage and systems claims are just method claims in disguise, and so are also not patent eligible.