Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Secondary Considerations are Primary in the Post-KSR Obviousness Analysis

Two recent Federal Circuit cases emphasize the importance of the so-called “secondary considerations of non-obviousness” in deciding the question of patent validity.  In Transocean v. Maersk Contractors, the Federal Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment of obviousness because the district court did not give any weight to “significant objective evidence of nonobviousness” presented by the patentee, Transocean.  The Federal Circuit held that:
The district court erred by failing to consider Transocean’s objective evidence of nonobviousness…While it is true that we have held in individual cases that objective evidence of nonobviousness did not overcome the strong prima facie case – this is a case-by case determination. [citations omitted] To be clear, a district court must always consider any objective evidence of nonobviousness presented in a case.
Opinion at 11.

Two days after deciding Transocean, the Federal Circuit decided Geo M. Martin Co. v. Alliance Machine Sys. Int’l LLC, 2009-1132, -1151 (Fed. Cir., August 20, 2010). In Geo M. Martin, the Court affirmed the district court’s JMOL holding (following a hung jury) that the asserted claims were obvious as a matter of law. In this case, the district court properly considered the “secondary considerations” of non-obviousness, but concluded that they did not overcome the strong prima facie showing of obviousness. For several points argued by the patentee, such as commercial success, failure of others, and industry praise, the Federal Circuit found insufficient evidence of a nexus between the alleged “secondary consideration” and the claimed invention. In addition, the patent owner argued that alleged copying by others also supported a finding of non-obviousness. The timing of the alleged copying, however, had the opposite impact on the Court. Rather than supporting non-obviousness, both the district court and Federal Circuit found the evidence supported acts of “simultaneous invention” and that “simultaneous inventions, made ‘within a comparatively short space of time,” are persuasive evidence that the claimed apparatus ‘was the product only of ordinary mechanical or engineering skill.’” [citations omitted] Opinion at 20. When all was said and done, “[b]alancing all of the secondary considerations, this court agrees…the [patentees] evidence of non-obviousness, even if fully considered by a jury, would fail to make a difference in this case.”  Opinion at 21.

These cases do not break significant new ground on the law of obviousness, but do provide continuing guidance as to the growing importance of secondary considerations of non-obviousness in determining patent validity.

** One final note:  Congratulations to my Dorsey & Whitney partners Tom Vitt and Sri Sankaran, who successfully represented Alliance Machine Systems in the Geo M. Martin case.

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