Letter from AmeriKat: The Rite of Spring

Gone are the evenings when the AmeriKat had to activate her whiskers and night vision to illuminate the darkened journey from her office home. The days are getting longer, the afternoon sun is gliding through her Venetian blinds, and her outer garment of choice is a mere raincoat to guard against the unexpected shower. It is true, Spring may have finally graced London with her presence. However, with Spring has come the formidable western wind - Favonius (or Zephyrus)- that last week wreaked havoc on many a groomed fur coat (picture, left) and once-casually floating skirts -the winds of change have come. The winds of patent reform, first reported by the AmeriKat two years ago, have been the biggest news of the past few weeks, but the winds have also blown off the dust of some old issues and revealed some new issues.

i4i files Supreme Court argument, US Government agrees

The i4i v Microsoft battle is definitely an old IP story dating back to 2007, but only three weeks ago i4i filed their reply to Microsoft's appeal in the U.S. Supreme Court. The filing signals one of the final steps in the litigation before the Supreme Court rule on the issue of what evidential standard is required to prove patent invalidity– that of a higher “clear and convincing” standard or a “preponderance of evidence” standard. The “clear and convincing” standard has been part of US patent law for almost 30 years and supports the presumption that patents, when granted by the USPTO, are assumed to be valid; therefore a higher standard of proof is required to invalidate the patent.

Readers will recall that this case involves an epic battle between the two companies involving i4i’s US Patent No 5.787, 449 (“449 Patent”) which related to markup languages and Extensible Markup Language (“XML”) used in electronic documents. In 2007, i4i filed a patent infringement action against Microsoft in the Eastern District of Texas. Microsoft claimed that the '449 patent was invalid because an earlier version of i4i’s software had anticipated the claim. However, this earlier software, S4, had been destroyed ten years prior to the case so the USPTO Patent Examiners never had the opportunity to examine the i4i’s patent application in light of this alleged prior art. Because the S4 data had been destroyed, Microsoft argued that they never had an opportunity to provide “clear and convincing evidence” of invalidity. The trial jury found in i4i’s favor, Microsoft appealed to the Circuit Court of Appeals who upheld the lower court’s finding and then appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The US Court of Appeals upheld the Circuit Court’s ruling and so Microsoft appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court granted certiorari in the case November 2010.

As reported by the Amerikat, Microsoft is arguing that the evidential standard to invalidate a patent should be one of a “preponderance” and not of a “clear and convincing” standard (see previous posts here for Microsoft’s argument). The AmeriKat has worked her way through the i4i’s brief for a full two-parter AmeriKat post out this week, but i4i's main argument boils down to the suggestion that Section 282, the section that deals with the burden of establishing invalidity, is not silent on the burden of proof requirement. It uses language that has a settled meaning of a “clear and convincing” standard which is itself settled by Federal Circuit and Supreme Court case law history, i.e., section 282 codified the existing evidential standard. In addition, this heightened standard of proof has specifically been used in cases dealing with prior-use claims of invalidity, such as the case here. Most of i4i's argument is devoted to the stronger underlying public policy argument of maintaining the heighted evidential standard, i.e., promoting strong and stable patent rights to protect the incentives for innovation and investment. A weaker standard, such as the preponderance standard, would arguably have the counter-effect as well as weakening the powers and judgment of the USPTO.

Appealing to the USPTO's powers definitely had the right effect and the US Government came galloping to i4i's defence. A week after i4i's filing, the US government joined 21 other amici curiae briefs in support of i4i, including General Electric, Procter & Gamble, and Johnson & Johnson. The main thrust of their support can boil down to that of the USTPO's judgment:

"By allowing a law jury to second-guess the PTO's judgment even in close cases, the preponderance standard would diminish the expected value of patents and would reduce future inventors' incentives to innovate and to disclose their inventions to the public."
In particular, the US Government contended that when invalidity is challenged in infringement proceedings where the prior art was not and could not be before the USPTO during examination, although the standard of proof is arguably more difficult to determine, it should nevertheless be the clear-and-convincing evidence standard. This is because this standard should be applied uniformly and because it
"reflects the better reading of Section 282 in light of that provision’s text, history, and purposes. Most importantly, the text of Section 282 does not suggest that the standard of proof governing questions of patent validity varies depending on the nature of the evidence that a challenger introduces. Such a variable-proof regime, moreover, would reflect a substantial departure from the way in which evidentiary burdens typically operate. Although juries routinely give different weight to different types of evidence, petitioner identifies no statute under which the standard of proof governing a particular determination depends on the type of evidence that the parties introduce. The Federal Circuit’s longstanding approach to the question presented here, under which evidence that was not before the PTO “may carry more weight and go further toward sustaining the attacker’s unchanging burden” ..."

However, if the worry from the USPTO is that a lower-evidential standard may threaten the value of granted patents, then the AmeriKat wonders what they have to say about the concerns about post-grant reviews that is set out in the America Invents Act (reported last week here). Post-grant reviews are argued by some to increase costs to patent holders and would enable a higher frequency of repeated merit-less challenges, which would decrease the certainty of valid and enforceable patents, and thus the value of the patents. Interestingly, Microsoft's deputy general counsel, Horacio Gutierrez, stated two years ago that post-grant reviews are "essential to maintaining high-quality patents because it allows the validity of questionable patents to be tested."

The AmeriKat will be back later this week with a more detailed report of i4i’s brief.

More Unrest in US Patent Reform and AIA

The winds of change are not shifting the AmeriKat's post from patent issues today. Last week the AmeriKat reported on the America Invents Act (AIA) and the controversy surrounding some of the House's version of the Senate bill S.23. Last week, American Innovators for Patent Reform (AIPR) along with eight other national organizations including the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) and National Association of Patent Practitioners (NAPP) sent a letter to the members of the House of Representatives and the staff of the House Judiciary Committee detailing their many objections to the AIA, including the increasing cost in securing and defending a patent (see post-grant review above), reducing access to the patent system for inventors and small businesses (see post-grant review above), and increase the current 700,000 patent application backlog (see first-to-file scare last week).

A more nuanced objection has also been raised - that of grace periods (picture, right - the AmeriKat's favorite painter, Botticelli's Primavera picturing the Three Graces). There is an arguable tension in switching to a first-to-file system and the issue of grace periods. The letter argues that that with the introduction of the first-to-file standard, the current year "grace period" currently afforded to inventors before filing an application will be shortened. The AIA provides that the grace period will only apply in circumstances where the inventor publishes a disclosure (unhelpfully undefined in the AIA) of the invention, however it is argued that small businesses and startups do not routinely publicly disclose their invention soon after it is made. The worry is that the AIA will return patent law to a system that effectively does not provide for a grace period where there is non-disclosing public-use and on-sale activity, not just disclosure. The Bill's proposed section 102(a)
"includes public-use and on-sale bars which have no counterpart exception for grace in proposed 102(b). This is a bad system part of which has been tried in the U.S. and was abandoned in the Patent Act of 1839, which established a grace period of such activity."
Although, adversaries of the Bill abound, the House promptly picked up the AIA this week where the Senate left off. USPTO Director David Kappos, who will be visiting the AmeriKat's alma mater tomorrow appeared before a subcommittee hearing on the bill on last week saying that AIA's measures would "reduce legal costs, improve fairness, objectivity and transparency, and support US innovators." Director Kappos's written statement can be read here. Broad language like this, says the AmeriKat, is exactly what has inflicted the AIA and created such discord with a section of the US inventor community. The AmeriKat has another - if the purpose of AIA is to reduce backlog, surely the new post-grant review procedures are going to create more strain on the USPTO's staff and resources and further increase the backlog?

Proenza Schouler target Target's Mossimo bag

Now something a bit closer to the AmeriKat's heart - and she realizes she now has a reputation about writing about fashion and shopping so she does not wish to disappoint. Proenza Schouler, the New York based luxury womenswear line headed by designers Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez have spoken out about the similarity between their PS1 bag and Target's Mossimo Messanger bag. The PS1 bag (picture, left) retails for $1,595 and is made of genuine leather. The Mossimo bag retails for $34.99, is currently out of stock on-line (the AmeriKat just checked) and is made of fake leather. Although the placement of the straps and closure are different, the other design features including the shape and weight of the bag are quite similar, suggests Hernandez. As reported by the New York Times he stated that
"Our whole aesthetical idea with this bag was to take the hardware off. And the attitude, the slouch of the bag - they got the weight really right."
The numerous fashion blogs that look out for cheaper versions of the more desirable luxury products heralded Target's bag (picture, right - from the New York Times article) as the perfect affordable version of the much-coveted item. McCollough stated that although he can understand this thinking, such products are detrimental for small companies like Proenza. He stated "Yeah, why save up and buy ours when you can buy theirs right away?"

However, the biggest issue is what the AmeriKat originally thought this piece was about. Target has collaborated with several famous luxury fashion labels and desingers, including Mulberry, Liberty and Isaac Mizrahi. Proenza also previously collaborated with Target a few years ago, designing 65 garments for sale in Target stores and has recently reissued some of those pieces in Target this spring. The Massimo bag is thus appearing in the same store that Proenza's authorized designs are also appearing.

The AmeriKat's day-to-day work focuses on the fashion industry and in recent years she has seen how many luxury brands create bespoke lines and license some of their designs and IP out to hight street and mass retailers such as to H&M and Target (picture, left - 2010's Jimmy Choo and H&M collaboration). Although, arguably, these collaborations represent a new revenue stream to luxury brands and notionally act as getting into the stores before the knock-offs and infringement start there are dangers that can often be ignored. Not only can these types of licensing agreements, if used too often and too frequently, be in danger of diluting the attractive power of a luxury brand (products, prices and exclusivity) but it can also potentially dilute the power of any later infringement actions they wish to take. Knock-offs are usually of poorer quality than the originals, but often so are the designs located on the racks at H&M and Target which are authorized by the luxury designer. What happens to the brand and legal reputation of a luxury brand in these circumstances? Also, when brands licence their IP for lines in high-street and mass retail shops, what are the assurances that the hand that feeds these retailers won't be bitten by the appearances of a later knock-off or infringing item, such as what has allegedly happened in the Proenza case? Is this a matter to be dealt with in the contract between the two? What do readers think?
Letter from AmeriKat: The Rite of Spring Letter from AmeriKat: The Rite of Spring Reviewed by Annsley Merelle Ward on Sunday, April 03, 2011 Rating: 5

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