The Patent Fix: Wired’s Series on Reforming the Patent System

Wired has taken on the task of publishing opinion pieces from a variety of stakeholders in the patent system about how best to “fix” the patent system. I use the term “stakeholders” because that is what each of us is. We all are affected by the patent system, whether for good or bad. All these disparate views are valuable and show the range of opinions on the topic.

However, the case that is repeatedly made that the patent system is broken is predicated on the idea that patent litigation is running rampant and inhibiting innovation. In an earlier

piece, however, I pointed out that the number of patents issued has stayed flat relative to the size of the economy for the last half century. Also, patent litigation rates have been remarkably steady.

Competing views have been published from IBM and Google. While both have their points, the latter piece makes some poor editorial choices. For example, the image

chosen to go with the piece is figure 1, “From a patent for ‘Spam Score Propagation for

Not a patent

Web Spam Detection‘.” The only patent document I found that had that title is not an issued patent, but rather a published application that has not yet been examined by the USPTO. It’s hard to use it as an example of a poor quality patent, when it isn’t even a patent at all.

The piece also endorses the SHIELD Act which I think will have a greater deterrent effect on smaller entities who want to protect their intellectual property than it will on non-practicing entities (aka Trolls). (Here’s my earlier piece on the SHIELD Act).

There are some good thoughts presented on both sides, but the case to “fix” the patent system would be much stronger if its proponents would first show the system is actually broken.

Apple v. Samsung: Claim Construction at the Federal Circuit

Last month, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit dealt a blow to Apple in its battle with Samsung. Procedurally, Judge Koh in the District Court for the Northern District of California had issued a preliminary injunction that blocked sales of Samsung’s Galaxy Nexus smartphone based on likely infringement of an Apple patent. Samsung was appealing that injunction.

U.S. Pat. No. 8,086,604, “Universal Interface for Retrieval of Information in a Computer System”

Preliminary injunctions are issued before the case is ultimately decided, and one requirement of a preliminary injunction is a finding that the patent owner has a likelihood to succeed on the merits of their suit. Part of the analysis required is a construction of the claims that are being asserted. In this case, Judge Koh read the claims in a way that would likely have lead to a finding of infringement by Samsung. The Federal Circuit, however, disagreed and held that a more restrictive claim construction was appropriate. With the narrower construction, Apple was not likely to win so the injunction was vacated.

This happened a month ago so I’m not trying to report a news story. Rather, I want to lay out the claim language at issue and help people understand how the process works. Personally, I agree with the Federal Circuit’s interpretation and I think the case is informative for attorneys who draft claims and clients who review them before filing. I’ve written before on the power of narrow claims, and this case emphasizes the problems associated with ambiguity in claim language.

The claim at issue was to searching on a device, such as a mobile device. The claim requires that the device comprise “a plurality of heuristic modules” that are used in searching. “Comprising” is an open ended transitional phrase in patent claims. That means that additional limitations and features may be present in an infringing device, but if that device includes all the limitations of the claim, it will still infringe.

The claim then goes on to say, “each heuristic module corresponds to a respective area of search and employs a different, predetermined heuristic algorithm.” Apple and Samsung had different ideas about what this language should mean. Apple argued that “each heuristic module” refers to the individual modules encompassed by the “plurality of heuristic modules” recited earlier in the claim while Samsung argued that “each heuristic module” refers to each module used by the device.

While that may sound like a small variation, it is the difference between infringing the Apple patent, or not. Under Samsung’s interpretation, each and every heuristic module used by the device must have its own predetermined algorithm that is different from all the others and each one must correspond to a different area of search. Samsung’s search used multiple heuristics, but some used an identical algorithm for different areas of search. Accordingly, the addition of those heuristics would avoid infringement despite the “comprising” transitional phrase used in the claim.

The Federal Circuit agreed with Samsung and went so far as to provide guidance to patent drafters on how to avoid such a construction. The Federal Circuit suggests that changing the language to “each of the plurality of heuristic module corresponds to a respective area of search and employs a different, predetermined heuristic algorithm” would have avoided the problem for Apple. In conjunction with the “comprising” transitional phrase, this would have been interpreted as requiring a set of multiple heuristic modules, each of which corresponded to an area of search and each with a predetermined and different algorithm. The addition of heuristic modules that did not meet that requirement would not have mattered.

This whole issue sounds esoteric, but the language used by the Federal Circuit is how I draft claims and it’s because of the ambiguity that would otherwise exist. When you draft a claim, you must look at it from a variety of angles and decided if there are any reasonable interpretations that could be reached that would not be consistent with what the client wants to protect. I learned this practice drafting chemical cases where we wanted to keep a competitor from avoiding infringement by adding another compound to a formulation. It translates to other areas, even simple mechanical devices where I’ve used similar language.

My Comments on the Proposed Examination Guidelines Post-AIA: Why I Think the PTO is Wrong in its Interpretation of the New Section 102

As you may know, there are some significant changes being made to U.S. patent law. As part of those changes, the Patent and Trademark Office must provide guidance to the examiners on how to apply the new law. One change is in the grace period for third party disclosures made between the filing date of an application and an inventor’s disclosure made up to one year earlier.

I read the guidelines and disagree with the Office’s position. Thankfully, under the Administrative Procedure Act, there is a comment period during which members of the public can submit their views. While several people have submitted comments critical of the guidelines, mine are focused on issues of statutory construction and I also provide an alternative interpretation.

You can review previously submitted comments at the USPTO website. I also have a PDF version of these comments available for download.

The following are my comments on the Examination Guidelines for Implementing the First Inventor to File Provisions of the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act that are being submitted the the USPTO today, October 26, 2012:

Dear Sir:

I am a registered Patent Attorney (Reg. No. 56,668) and have been practicing exclusively in intellectual property for the past eight years. My practice is almost exclusive to patents, including prosecution, counseling, due diligence, and licensing. I am, however, writing only as an interested member of the public and not as an employee of my law firm. The views expressed in these comments are my own views that I hold at this time and should not be attributed to any client or other practitioner in my firm.

I am grateful to the Office for extending the time to present comments on these Examination Guidelines and am pleased to have the opportunity to have these comments considered. Having reviewed many of the already submitted and well reasoned comments, I shall limit mine to the provision where I do not feel my views have been adequately expressed by others. In particular, these comments are directed towards the portion of the Examination Guidelines related to the Office’s interpretation of the “grace period” established in 35 U.S.C. 102 as amended by the AIA.

It is my view that, at least in part, the Examination Guidelines are based on a faulty interpretation of the statutory text, and that a proper interpretation of the statute would yield a very  different application of the “Grace Period.”

I.  The Office’s Interpretation of the “Grace Period” Established by 35 U.S.C. 102 as amended by the AIA and Expressed int the Examination Guidlines

The portion of the Examination Guidelines describing the Office’s interpretation reads as follows:

The exception in 35 U.S.C. 102(b)(1)(B) applies if the ‘‘‘subject matter’ disclosed [in the prior art disclosure] had, before such [prior art] disclosure, been publicly disclosed by the inventor or a joint inventor * * *.’’ 41 Thus, the exception in 35 U.S.C. 102(b)(1)(B) requires that the subject matter in the prior disclosure being relied upon under 35 U.S.C. 102(a) be the same ‘‘subject matter’’ as the subject matter publicly disclosed by the inventor before such prior art disclosure for the exception in 35 U.S.C. 102(b)(1)(B) to apply. Even if the only differences between the subject matter in the prior art disclosure that is relied upon under 35 U.S.C. 102(a) and the subject matter publicly disclosed by the inventor before such prior art disclosure are mere insubstantial changes, or only trivial or obvious variations, the exception under 35 U.S.C. 102(b)(1)(B) does not apply.1

The relevant portion of 35 U.S.C. 102 as amended by the AIA reads:

(b)    Exceptions-
1.    DISCLOSURES MADE 1 YEAR OR LESS BEFORE THE EFFECTIVE FILING DATE OF THE CLAIMED INVENTION- A disclosure made 1 year or less before the effective filing date of a claimed invention shall not be prior art to the claimed invention under subsection (a)(1) if—
A.    the disclosure was made by the inventor or joint inventor or by another who obtained the subject matter disclosed directly or indirectly from the inventor or a joint inventor; or
B.    the subject matter disclosed had, before such disclosure, been publicly disclosed by the inventor or a joint inventor or another who obtained the subject matter disclosed directly or indirectly from the inventor or a joint inventor.2

The interpretation advanced by the Office in these Guidelines would result in the anticipation of a claimed invention by a disclosure made by a third party, subsequent to a disclosure by the inventor or joint inventor or by another who obtained the subject matter disclosed directly or indirectly from the inventor or a joint inventor, so long as the intervening disclosure includes de minimis departures from the inventor’s disclosure.3 Additionally, because minor variations between the prior disclosure by an inventor and a later third party disclosure would render the Grace Period exception inapplicable, it is difficult to foresee a situation where an obviousness rejection of claims could be traversed by application of the exception provided in the statute.

To reach this interpretation, the statutory term “subject matter disclosed [by another]”4 used in 102(b)(1)(B) must be taken to mean that this third party disclosure is, for all intents and purposes, identical to that “disclosed by the inventor….”

II.  An Alternative Interpretation

An alternative interpretation to that advanced in the Examination Guidelines would be one in which the statutory term “subject matter disclosed” is provided a meaning that is different from one that requires identity with the inventor’s prior disclosure. Such a statutory interpretation could, for example, be that the “subject matter disclosed” means “the nature or gist of the disclosure.”5 Such an interpretation takes a broader view of the statutory term “subject matter disclosed,” and is more consistent with the AIA than the interpretation expressed by the Examination Guidelines.

Under this interpretation, any intervening reference that anticipates or renders obvious a claimed invention would not qualify as prior art, even if the disclosure cited includes obvious variations of the claimed invention.

III.  Reasons for Adopting a Broader View of the Term “Subject Matter Disclosed”

There are several reasons why a broader view of the term “subject matter disclosed” is appropriate, many of which have been addressed adequately by other commentors. In addition to those, there are two that I wish to address in these comments. First, the principals of statutory construction suggest that the statute is more amenable to a broader view than the interpretation expressed in the Examination Guidelines. Secondly, there are several situations in which the interpretation expressed in the Examination Guidelines would result in perverse results.6

    A. Statutory Construction of Section 102

        1.  Plain Meaning

The interpretation expressed in the Examination Guidelines is one that would have “subject matter disclosed” mean that the third party disclosure is identical to that “disclosed by the inventor….” However, such a meaning could have been made very clear by use of other language and is inconsistent with the plain and common meaning of “subject matter.”

I note that other commentors have taken an opposing view. For example, one commentor has said in supporting the Office’s position:

In 102(b)(1)(A) the statute says that “the subject matter disclosed” by the inventor cannot be used against the inventor. In 102(b)(1)(A) the statute says that “the subject matter disclosed” by the inventor cannot be used against the inventor if disclosed by a third party who obtained “the subject matter disclosed” from the inventor, either directly or indirectly. Therefore, it is eminently reasonable for the USPTO to say that for subsequent disclosures after a disclosure of the inventor to be excluded as prior art they must be the same as the disclosure of the inventor with even trivial differences enough to prevent application of the exclusion.7

This argument, however, is circular. In essence, the argument is that “subject matter disclosed” means “subject matter disclosed” and since the drafter of the legislation used the same words they must mean the same thing. However, these instances of “subject matter” relate to different disclosures: namely the initial inventor’s disclosure and the intervening third party disclosure. This argument also fails to address the underlying question: what does “subject matter disclosed” mean. I will concede that once properly interpreted, the interpretation should be consistent throughout the statute. However, the crux is whether “subject matter disclosed” is properly interpreted to mean an identity between disclosures, or if a boarder view is appropriate.

“Subject matter” is not used to describe the exact expression of a concept or idea. Rather, the “subject matter” of a disclosure is the idea or concepts described. An analogy to another area of intellectual property law is the idea/expression dichotomy of copyright. In that context, the subject matter of a work would be the non-copyrightable idea, not the expression thereof. Similarly, the subject matter of a disclosure would be the ideas, concepts, limitations, and elements described by the disclosure, and not the language in which the author of the disclosure chose to express them. Another area where the term “subject matter” is used consistently with my proposed broader view is in current 35 U.S.C. 103(c) where the term is clearly used with a meaning broader than that adopted by the Office in the Examination Guidelines.8

Accordingly, the plain meaning of “subject matter disclosed” is more amenable to a broad view than to the view expressed in the Examination Guidelines.

        2.  Each Statutory Provision Should be Interpreted to Have Effect

Application of the interpretation expressed in the Examination Guidelines would render the Grace Period created by section 102(b)(1)(B) without any practical effect. If the only third party disclosures that can be obviated by showing prior publication by the inventor are those in which there are not even mere insubstantial changes, or only trivial or obvious variations between the cited art and the prior disclosure, 102(b)(1)(B) has no purpose or effect.

The odds that an independently developed, third party disclosure would not include, at the very least, “insubstantial changes” are infinitesimal. Any such disclosure would almost certainly have been made by one “who obtained the subject matter disclosed directly or indirectly from the inventor or a joint inventor” and thus be eliminated as prior art under section 102(b)(1)(A). Accordingly no third party disclosures would be excluded as prior art by section 102(b)(1)(B), and the interpretation expressed in the Examination Guidelines would effectively read this subsection out of the statute.

    B.  The Interpretation of “Subject Matter Disclosed” Expressed in the Examination Guidelines Would Lead to Perverse Results

Apart from the already discussed result that section 102(b)(1)(B) would be read out of the statute, there are other peculiar results from application of the interpretation expressed in the Examination Guidelines.

For example, the Office’s interpretation produces the odd result that a reference that is less like the inventor’s prior disclosure has a greater preclusive effect on patentability than a reference that is identical to (even if developed independently from) the disclosure of the inventor. This is because an identical disclosure that would otherwise anticipate a claimed invention would not qualify as prior art, while a variated disclosure that renders the claimed invention obvious would be prior art. In effect, there would be no Grace Period except in regards to intervening publications that are verbatim reproductions of the inventor’s disclosure.

IV. Conclusion

The Examination Guidelines rely on a faulty interpretation of the term “subject matter disclosed.” A proper interpretation of the statute leads to a broader view of “subject matter” and is consistent with the rest of the statute. This broader view also avoids peculiar results that are contrary to what would be expected such as the effective elimination of section 102(b)(1)(B) from the statute. Such results are contrary to the structure and language of the statute and should be avoided by adopting an interpretation that is in harmony with the plain meaning of the statute and does not deprive section 102(b)(1)(B) of meaning.

With this broader (and more appropriate) view of “subject matter disclosed” in mind, the Examination Guidelines should be revised. In particular, I believe the statute compels the result that intervening references that would otherwise anticipate or, by themselves or in combination with others, render a claimed invention obvious are not prior art under 35 U.S.C. 102 as amended by the AIA.

Again, I wish to thank the Office for the opportunity to provide these comments. I also want commend the Office on the preparation and publication of several comprehensive rule packets for implementation of the AIA in a relatively short period of time.

Regards,

Sean P. Connolly

 

Endnotes:

1 Request for Comments, 77 Fed. Reg. at 43767, col. 2.

2 35 U.S.C. 102, as amended by the America Invents Act, Public Law 112-29 sec. 3.

3 For purposes of brevity, I will refer to initial disclosures by an inventor, joint inventor, or by another who obtained the subject matter disclosed directly or indirectly from the inventor or a joint inventor, as an “inventor’s disclosure.”

4 The restriction “by another” is inferred from Section 102 because disclosures by an inventor or derived from the inventive entity are not prior art under section 102(b)(1)(A).

5 This is not to say that disclosing “nature or gist” of an invention would be sufficient to antedate a reference. It may well be necessary to show satisfaction of the enablement and other requirements within the prior disclosure by the inventor in order to obviate an intervening reference, but that is not a question that need to be addressed here. Rather, any interpretation of “subject matter of the disclosure” that allows for reasonable variation from the intervening disclosure could be suitable for purposes of these comments.

6 While I often take a dim view of the effectiveness of using legislative history to interpret a statute, such arguments have been reasonably made by other commentors and I shall refrain from making such arguments here.

7 Comments of Eugene R. Quinn, Jr., Submitted October 3, 2012, at 4. Available at http://www.uspto.gov/patents/law/comments/e-quinn_20121003.pdf

8 “Subject matter developed by another person, which qualifies as prior art only under one or more of subsections (e), (f), and (g) of section 102 of this title, shall not preclude patentability under this section where the subject matter and the claimed invention were, at the time the claimed invention was made, owned by the same person or subject to an obligation of assignment to the same person.” 35 U.S.C. 103(c)(1). An interpretation of “subject matter” that means identity between disclosures would be nonsensical in the context of section 103 which deals with obviousness.

Patent Litigation Rates: What They Tell Us and What They Don’t

Over the course of the last week, I’ve come across two blog posts, via my twitter feed, that show opposite views on patent litigation. The first takes the position that patent troll litigation is rampant and stifling innovation, especially for startups. The title, “Numbers Don’t Lie: Patent Trolls are a Plague” sums up the author’s position nicely. However, the piece doesn’t paint a very comprehensive picture.

The numbers referred to are those based on a survey by Colleen Chien of Santa Clara University – School of Law. Prof. Chien notes that 40% of respondents stated that troll activities had had a significant impact on the startup’s operations. However, the fact that patents are asserted against emerging businesses more often than others shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, if a company is arguably infringing a patent as part of its core business, it would be expected that the issue would come up earlier in the company life cycle. These numbers could be skewed relative to the economy as a whole.

The second article takes another tack as you can see from the equally suggestive title, “The ‘Patent Litigation Explosion’ Canard.” As you can guess, the author, Prof. Adam Mossoff, disagrees with the idea that there is a “Patent Litigation Explosion” going on. This piece discusses patent litigation rates (measured as a percentage of issued patents litigated). From 1790 to 1860 the rate averages 1.65%. From 2000-2009, it was 1.5%.

I’m inclined to think the litigation rates over time to be a better indicator of the growth of patent litigation than a survey of startups. To be honest, I was skeptical of the litigation rates, not that they are inaccurate, but they may not be very meaningful if the number of patents issued relative to GDP has gone up. My assumption was that the number of patents issued per billion dollars of GDP would have grown and that the a constant litigation rate would actually mean an overall increase in patent litigation relative to GDP. That assumption was wrong.

First I looked to the USPTO data regarding patents issued. Here is a chart for patents issued each year from 1963 to 2011.

The “ups” and “downs” unsurprisingly correlate to the general state of the economy as fewer patents issue during and after economic downturns. However, I was interested in the number of patents issued per billion dollars in GDP. I used real GDP data (GDP adjusted for inflation) and the number of utility patents issued for each year from 1963 to 2011. So, I simply divided the number of patents issued in a given year by the inflation adjusted GDP that year. The following chart shows what I found:

While there is a lot of variation, the overall trend appears relatively flat. The average number of patents issued per billion dollars of GDP from 1963 to 2011 was 13.00, and a significant portion of the last decade was below that. Accordingly, the litigation rates referenced by Prof. Mossoff are informative and it appears that there has not been a significant increase in patent litigation, relative to GDP.

Of course, this is only part of the story. Calculating litigation rates as a function of the number of patents issued in a particular year doesn’t necessarily correlate to the number of patents in force (i.e. issued and with all relevant maintenance fees paid that have not yet expired) for that year, but it is, perhaps, a leading indicator of the number of patents that will be in-force in years to come. Such a calculation, however, is easier to make and is likely a reasonable starting point.

Another issue is that these numbers doesn’t tell us the economic impact of patent litigation. While the number of cases relative to GDP is steady, the average price tag (damages, attorney’s fees, etc) associated with a patent litigation may have grown relative to GDP, or there may have been a significant increase in licenses entered before a complaint is filed. However, I haven’t seen any data to show that either of those things has happened.

The Power of Narrow Claims

I was meeting with a client last week and going over a proposed claim amendment. He felt that one of the independent claims would be too narrow. So, I asked him, “would it still cover your product?” After some discussion we were both comfortable that it would. Then I asked him, “does it still cover the way your competitors would most likely try to do this?” again, we both felt it did. Finally I asked him, “as an inventor, if you saw this claim and it belonged to a competitor, how would you design around it?” We spent a quite a bit of time talking through alternatives. We focused on the feasibility of each relative to his claimed product. All of the various alternative either wouldn’t work as well or would cost significantly more than his claimed invention.

The lesson here was that while broad claims can be great when you want to accuse someone of infringement, you will have to defend the patentability of those broad claims if the issue goes to court. Typically, this defense will be against prior art you don’t know exists before the lawsuit. Conversely, drafting narrow claims can lead to an issued patent, but the questions above are important to ask to make sure you don’t cede so much ground that your competitors can easily design around your claims.

These narrow claims are also helpful in those cases where a competitor can design around them. While their competing product may not infringe your claim, that competing product will, hopefully, be at a competitive disadvantage due to performance or cost.

One example for this concept is the rubber-band effect for scrolling on Apple iOS devices that was patented and litigated in the Samsung case. Those claims are very detailed and correspondingly narrow. They have pushed many phone manufactures to not include the feature or provide a modified version of it. However, exact copying of the way Apple implemented the concept was still protected by the claims.

Don’t only try for the broadest claim you can. Sometimes, in the long run, narrow claims can be very powerful. Their value isn’t just in the damages an infringer may pay, but also in the competitive disadvantage non-infringing product will have.

Lecture Q&As at Peter Kiewit Institute

A few weeks ago I had the privilege to give a lecture to students at the Peter Kiewit Institute in Omaha about intellectual property. The lecture was one of a series over this semester for students in a business leadership seminar. Unfortunately an hour long lecture doesn’t give much time for questions and a lot of material had to be squeezed into a short talk. Thankfully, the coordinator arranged to send me the students’ questions in writing after the lecture so I could write responses that could be shared with the class. He also graciously has allowed me to post some of these questions and my answers here.

The intent of the lecture was to provide a brief background in intellectual property for engineering students who will be business leaders. I provided a brief discussion on utility patents, design patents, and trade dress. I then walked through the application of these topics to some of the claims in the Apple v. Samsung case. Here are the lecture slides.

These are some of the questions and my answers:

Why did you start chemical engineering and later switch to law?

I really enjoyed engineering school, but after a co-op, I felt like I’d be pigeonholed. I wanted to see a variety of technologies and work with a lot of different companies. The more I learned about patent law, the more I felt it fit with what I wanted to do.

Sean, what interested you about the IP process to make you want to work with it as a career?

As far as the process goes, I really enjoy working with inventors and founders of startups. They have a lot of passion and energy so it’s hard to not have fun working with them.

What is the coolest invention you’ve seen as an attorney?

I don’t normally talk about client matters, but I’ve seen some really cool and pioneering inventions. Maybe it’s my background in engineering, but actually I am really drawn to the simple, elegant solutions to existing problems.

What is the first step in acquiring a patent, trademark, or copyright?

As obvious as it may sound, the first step is to come up with the idea. Trademark rights begin just by using the mark. Copyright attaches the moment the work is made. Patent’s, however, must be applied for, and with recent changes in the law, that should be done as soon as possible.

How long does the process to patent or trademark something generally last?

Trademarks typically issue within a year or so of filing an application. Patents have an average pendency or three years or so.

How would one go about searching to see if an idea that they have for a trademark is already in use and registered?

If you are good with boolean searching, the USPTO has a decent interface. Google also has a patent search system in beta. However, these searches can be rather difficult. My firm does them and so do many others.

How are copyrights different in the process of obtaining them different from patents?

Copyright attaches to a work as soon as it is created and fixed (i.e. written down). However, damages for infringement of a copyright only accrue once you register the work with the Copyright Office.

What are your thoughts on Apple vs. Samsung?

It is a complex case with lots of issues. Some of the points I found most interesting I wrote about on my blog. In all, I wasn’t terribly surprised with the outcome.

What do you learn, if anything, from high profile cases, like Apple vs. Samsung?

I don’t litigate infringement cases, but they teach me a lot. Litigation often highlights those things that a lawyer did in getting a patent that no one would have faulted them for at the time, but become problems later. Seeing how disputes work themselves out is very helpful in refining the way I draft agreements and patents.

Is it right that the billion dollar lawsuit in Apple vs. Samsung, was decided by a jury or should it have been resolved by a more technical group of people?

Jury pools are picked from random lists, but those pools are pretty big and the parties do go through a process to decide who will be on the jury. Both parties likely spent a lot of money on jury consultants for that process. In the end, the foreman was an engineer who has several patents of his own.

Does your firm end up working more on the creation side of this or on the enforcing/defending side?

We mostly work on patent prosecution, which is the process of getting patents through the USPTO. However, we also help clients deal with competitors who may be infringing and do a lot of work licensing technology. We don’t do litigation, but we do work with other firms that do.

What type of client does Adventip normally associate with? i.e. personal, business, patent litigation.

We cover the range from individuals, to fortune 100 companies.

Why would an individual get an unregistered TM rather than get it registered?

It’s really a business decision. Registration costs money, so if the mark isn’t particularly important to the business or will only be used regionally, it might make sense to save that cost.

Can patents be renewed or can a company re-apply for the same patent that just expired?

No. It used to be possible to prolong the life of patents by delaying when they issued. That was because the term used to be 17 years from the issue date. In the mid ‘90s the term changed to 20 years from the filing date of the earliest domestic priority application (excluding provisional applications).

How does copyright/patented property deal with very similar “knock-off” brand with almost identical logos/designs?

Logos are dealt with under trademark law. The standard isn’t that the infringing mark be the same, just that it is “confusingly similar.”

Are patents easier or harder to get in other countries?

It depends on the country and the technology area. For example, most people agree that it is harder to patent anything in Japan. India is easier, except for pharmaceuticals which are treated differently. Europe is hostile to software patents. However, most major countries have joined WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) and signed the TRIPS Treaty (Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) that set certain standards for patentability and term.

Is it difficult to prove “Independent Development?”

It depends on the case. It can be proven in a trade secret case, but independent development is not a defense to patent infringement.

What is considered the “geographical area” covered in an unregistered trademark?

It depends on the facts of the particular case such as where you advertise, where you customers come from, where you ship to, etc.

Given the increasing rate of “progress” in society, are the long durations of intellectual ownership too long? IP law is intended to enable innovation, not artificially slow it down.

I don’t think the term of patents are really the issue. If an area of technology progresses quickly, many patented inventions will be obsolete before the patent term lapses. Under the current system, a patent owner has to pay maintenance fees 4, 8, and 12 years after a patent issues and each one gets progressively larger. A large number of patents expire when these fees are not paid.

 

Who Owns Your Social Media Account?

There is definitely value in a Twitter account, but to whom does it belong? Brands have to be careful to maintain control of their messaging, and many work diligently to cultivate their social media profiles. But what about the brands of service providers and knowledge workers? It may be a straight forward to answer the question “who’s account is this?” when a brand account is operated by an anonymous marketer, but what about the situation where a person uses a twitter account identified both with their company and themselves?

In the context of an attorney in a law firm, the firm may have a branded twitter account that is operated by a designated staff member. In addition, individual attorney’s may have their own twitter accounts with their own cultivated list of followers. These “personal” twitter accounts are often used, as in my case, for both business development and for personal interests.

In a recent example, PhoneDog sued a former employee, Noah Kravitz, when he refused to turn over his twitter account to the company. His account had become a very effective means to engage with PhoneDog’s current and prospective customers who were among his 17,000 followers. Kravitz’s tweets were also effective at driving traffic to PhoneDog’s website.

The question in the PhoneDog case is who should control the account going forward? Ownership isn’t really an issue as Twitter asserts, through its user agreement, that it owns the accounts. There are a number of conflicting factors for both sides. For example, while he worked for PhoneDog, Kravitz used @PhoneDog_Noah as his twitter handle, he started the account while an employee, and published tweets during working hours. However, the connections he created were both personal, and professional, posted at all hours of the day, and clearly identified himself as an individual, not just as the brand of his employer.

These conflicting factors, coupled with the fact that the employment agreement was silent about social media, make this a bit muddy. However, this can be an learning moment for both companies and individuals. The lesson learned, in my opinion, depends on an important fact: Content is King.

In the context of social media, your content is king. The quality of the content you generate and/or share will define the quality of the account. Of course, that content may be personalized (if not personal) to an individual employee. If the content is geared towards marketing an individual within an organization, the social media account should be branded as the individuals and feature the content the individual creates and wants to share. If the social account is for the marketing of the organization, it should be branded accordingly. My firm, for example, has a Twitter account and blog, but the individual attorneys also have their own social accounts. It’s always important to think through which account is the more appropriate platform from which to share any piece of content.

For an individual in an organization who is using social media it’s appropriate to put a link to your company in your profile, but you may want to avoid incorporating your employer’s brand in your username. Use a personal email address to register the account or, better yet, use an existing one if you have one. In short, avoid having what should be your social media account look like an extension of your company’s marketing department.

However, it’s the content that determines the value of a social media account. If the content changes drastically when a new employee takes it over, or the account holder leaves their employer, so to will the demographics of the followers. Clicking the “unfollow” button is as easy as clicking “follow.” The account won’t be worth much to anyone if it isn’t maintained.

photo credit: Matt Hamm

Apple Scores a Big Jury Verdict Against Samsung, But What About an Injunction?

There are some very good summaries of the Jury verdict, and there is also a lot of speculation about what happens now that the jury found various Samsung patents infringe Apples patents and trade dress. The jury’s verdict form shows how they answered the various IP claims. In summary, all of Apple’s and Samsung’s patents (utility and design) were found valid. However, none of Samsung’s patents were infringed and the vast majority of Apples were. However, the jury form also gives a some indications of what may happen next in this case.

While a lot will be written in the next week on pending appeals and cross appeals, motions for judgement notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV), and other post trial maneuvers, Judge Koh will also have to decide if she will award an injunction preventing future sales and imports of the infringing products. Injunctions are imposed as an equitable remedy by the judge, not the jury. In deciding whether or not to grant an injunction in patent cases, federal judges must apply the eBay factors, named for the 2006 eBay v. MercExchange case in which the Supreme Court clarified the factors that must be weighed. Those factors that a plaintiff must demonstrate include:

(1) that it has suffered an irreparable injury;

(2) that remedies available at law, such as monetary damages, are inadequate to compensate for that injury;

(3) that, considering the balance of hardships between the plaintiff and defendant, a remedy in equity is warranted; and

(4) that the public interest would not be disserved by a permanent injunction.

Since that case, courts have been more reluctant to grant permanent injunctions at the end of a patent trial. One reason cited for the decline in injunctions is that the presumption of irreparable harm is dead. This case is a bit different though.

In addition to the patents infringed, Samsung was found to both infringe and dilute Apples iPhone trade dress (both registered and unregistered). The strength of Apple’s trade dress is in its distinctiveness and Apple’s continued use of it. Trade dress protection is only available so long as the trade dress serves as a source identifier for the product. If another manufacturer can sell goods that infringe or dilute Apple’s trade dress going forward, that would likely do irreparable harm to Apples trade dress rights against other parties.

In this case, there is significant overlap between the design patents and Apple’s trade dress. There is even an arguable overlap between the utility patents and trade dress as the rebounding scroll lists covered by some of the utility patents are part of the look and fee of the various iOS devices. In this unique case, Apple is in a position to argue that failing to provide a permanent injunction would pose an irreparable harm to Apples other intellectual property, namely it’s trade dress.

My personal feeling is that Apple has a better than average chance of obtaining a permanent injunction. Whether the rationale behind it will be based solely on the patents, trade dress, or a combination where the various forms of intellectual property reinforce a showing of irreparable harm will be interesting to see. Keep in mind, that while it isn’t a slam dunk, Judge Koh did show a willingness to impose a preliminary injunction early in the case.

As it stands now, Apple will file its motion and brief on August 29, Samsung will reply on or before September 12 (the rumored launch date of the iPhone 5), and a hearing before Judge Koh will be held on September 20.

UPDATED: Judge Koh, has scheduled the hearing for Decmeber 6.

A Review of the Legal Claims in Apple v. Samsung: Utility Patent Infringement

Friday was the last day of evidence in the Apple v. Samsung case. Closing arguments will likely be on Tuesday week and then the jury will get the case. I posted earlier on the trade dress and design patent claims Apple has made against Samsung in Apple’s complaint. In this post I’ll focus on Apple’s utility patents.

Unlike design patents and trade dress, utility patents protect useful articles and methods. Here is a list of the patents originally asserted by Apple in its Complaint:

With over a year of pretrial motions, hearings, and orders, the list of asserted patents has been whittled down to three: the ‘163, ‘381, and ‘915 patents. These patents relate to various features of the iOS UI including pinch to zoom, rebounding list scrolling, and rebounding scrolling on the home screen, respectively. These patents are not so broad as to block any competing smartphone. If fact, earlier versions of the Android operating system did not include rebounding scrolling and

In preparation for closing arguments, Apple prepared and filed a chart outlining which Samsung devices were accused of infringing Apples various patents.

Samsung is arguing that the patents are not valid because the features claimed were already known when Apple filed its patent applications.

A Review of the Legal Claims in Apple v. Samsung: Design Patent Infringement

Today should be the last day of evidence in the Apple v. Samsung case. Closing arguments will likely be on Tuesday next week and then the jury will get the case. I posted earlier on the trade dress claims Apple has against Samsung that are in Apple’s complaint. In this post I’ll focus on Apple’s three asserted design patents related to the iPhone.

Design patents protect the appearance of an article rather than the functional features. Here is a table with the design patents and their titles:

Design Patent Table from Apple’s complaint

When looking at a design patent, the solid lines show what is claimed and protected. Broken lines provide context but don’t limit the patent. So, while the D677 patent shows the iPhone 4, only the front screen area is in solid lines, so the side buttons and other features don’t restrict the scope of the patent. Similarly, the D790 patent claims the GUI. Only the icons and rectangular touch screen limit the scope of the patent. Below is a table comparing the Samsung Galaxy to these three patents:

Apple’s design patent comparison to Samsung’s Galaxy from Apple’s complaint

Samsung is attacking the validity of these design patents by trying to show that phones with the claimed design elements were publicly known prior to the filing of the applications that issued as these patents. Samsung can also avoid liability if they convince the jury that the design features are functional rather than aesthetic.

One thing Samsung won’t be able to rely on is an argument that they independently developed their own design. In copyright cases a defendant can avoid a claim of infringement if they came up with the material without any reference to the copyrighted material. That is because copyright law protects against, as the name suggests, copying. Patent law, however, doesn’t allow for a defense of independent development.

From what I’ve read so far, Samsung isn’t spending much time arguing that their designs are not similar to Apple’s, but are attacking the validity of the design patents. The jury will get to decide that issue.