For anyone who knows the AmeriKat personally and professionally, they will know that during the past seven weeks the AmeriKat has faced a flurry of deadlines, deliberations, duplicitous documents and a dosing of sleep deprivation. Her absence from her beloved letters was not one of choice, but one of necessity as every two days she was hit with another deadline. (picture, left - the AmeriKat up late in front of one of her many outstanding deadlines) The deadlines were increasing in frequency, but as the old saying goes “absence makes the heart grow fonder”, especially when the absence is not voluntary. When the AmeriKat was writing this post, she was curled up on her bed, watching her clock until she had to leave to catch a flight for yet another deadline. However, now with the passing of the last seven weeks, she has returned to first give you a brief glimpse of the first of the latest US IP tails. She will be back later throughout the week with more detailed posts on some of the most important news in US IP law.
Patent Reform Act 2011 Gets Senate’s Thumbs-Up
Two weeks ago the US Senate passed by overwhelming majority (95-5) the America Invents Act (“AIA”) (a.k.a. the Patent Reform Act 2011). Mr. IP himself, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) introduced the Patent Reform Act 2011 to the Senate Judiciary Committee this past January. The AmeriKat has set out below the main provisions that the original draft bill contained before the Senate and what the AIA now contains below (a comparison of the two can be found here):
First -to-File: The biggest change introduced by the AIA would be the transition in the US from a first-to-invent system towards a first-to-file system where each patent application would be allocated an “effective filing date”. Similar to that in the EU, the application’s novelty and obviousness is then judged on the prior art available before the effective filing date of the patent, but with a one year grace period still remaining in effect in respect of the inventor’s own disclosures. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein had proposed an amendment (Amendment No. 133) that would have removed these provisions arguing that their effect would be especially burdensome to small independent inventors (click here to watch her introduction of the amendment.) However, the Senate voted down the amendment by 87-13 with proponents of the first-to-file provision arguing that the availability of applications such as pre-issue disclosure, post-grant review and inter-partes review would rebalance any alleged burden that the first-to-file paradigm could create. Opponents to the first-to-file system also believe that this introduction will worsen the huge backlog of patents faced by the USPTO (see post here) and result in the system being clogged up with thousands of unmeritorious inventions.
Damages: The review of the assessment of patent damages that was taken up by Microsoft in their initial appeals in the i4i case last year (see AmeriKat posts here) evidenced only a sliver of general unrest with the assessment of US patent damages. The original draft of the Patent Reform Act 2011 introduced proposed amendments that would provide for specific procedures on how judges in patent cases manage the damages assessment. These included mechanisms for the court to consider the evidentiary merit of each parties’ case on damages and then the judge introducing a methodology that would be used in assessing the damages awards. Close the AmeriKat’s heart at the moment was the old text also requiring a judge to split the damages portion of a trial at a parties request and only rejecting that request in the absence of a good cause, such as “the absence of “issues of significant damages or infringement and validity”. All of these draft provisions did not make it past the Senate's approval perhaps signaling a reluctance to delve into the problematic pool of patent damages which may have held the entire bill’s passage hostage.
Enhanced Damages: In the current US Patent Act, there is not specific reference that the increase of patent damages should only be reserved to cases of willful infringement. Section 284 of the current statute, instead, states that “the court may increase the damages up to three times the amount found or assessed.” The Federal Circuit’s interpretation has limited this section to cases to willful infringement and where the defendant’s actions were objectively reckless. The draft text of the Patent Reform Act had basically codified this precedent, but again, like with general damages, this did not make it to the final text.
Besides deleting more interesting parts of the bill, the Senate did add Section 18 which deals with provisional measures for the establishment of post-grant review proceedings for the review of the validity of business-method patents. False marking lawsuits would be eliminated under the proposed 146 (k) except for ones filed by the US government or by a competitor who can prove competitive injury as a result of false marking. Also, reduced fees for small entities were also introduced.
The American Innovators for Patent Reform (AIPR), a trade association which promotes innovation by strengthening the US patent system, has opposed the AIA. Alexander Poltorak, the founder and President of AIPR and AIPR stated that the AIA, in particular the first-to-file provision would be viewed as a “defeat by many inventors”, however the removal of the damages provisions (which were referred to as the “most damaging provisions” – no pun intended) were heralded as a success. David Kappos, the USPTO's Director, has said that the US is already operating a pseudo-first-to-file system because in 2007 there have only been 7 interference applications (where two inventors file their patents nearly simultaneously) of which only one was decided on priority of the invention and "the truth is that only .01% of all patent applications could be affected" by the change.
The next stage of the bills life will be in the House (watch the life of a bill, courtesy of Schoolhouse Rock). If passed by Congress , the AIA could well be on its way of becoming the first substantial change to patent law in the U.S. in almost 60 years, but a bill’s life in Congress can be a rocky ride and can usually, as has been seen in IP legislation, die a quite death.