Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Some Things To Watch For In 2011

With 2010 winding down, it’s a good time to look ahead a bit and see what 2011 may have in store for us folks practicing IP law.

False Marking Cases

In 2010, we saw the surging tide of false marking cases. This cause of action, that was asserted less than a dozen or so times leading up to 2010, was the basis for over 600 cases filed during the year. What could 2011 bring?  Probably, more of the same, but some potential changes may help:

• In In re BP Lubricants USA Inc., BP Lubricants filed a petition for a writ of mandamus to the Federal Circuit seeking to overturn the denial of its motion to dismiss the complaint for failing to sufficiently plead intent. The complaint had allegations that many of us are all too familiar with now, including vague allegations that “’upon information and belief,’ that defendant is a ‘sophisticated company’ which ‘knows, or should know’ that the patent at issue had expired.” (DOJ Brief In Support of Petition at 4.). In a somewhat surprising move, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) filed an amicus brief in support of BP’s petition. The DOJ's brief urges the Federal Circuit to hold that the intent element of a false marking action needs to satisfy the heightened pleading requirement of Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(b) and that under this standard, the complaint in the BP case is insufficient as a matter of law.

The BP case squarely presents the question of the requirements for pleading a false marking case. If the Federal Circuit adopts the position urged by BP and the DOJ, in 2011 defendants will have valuable precedent to use in seeking early dismissal of a large number of the false marking “troll” cases that are supported by nothing more than bland, generic allegations of what a company “should know” about its expired patents.

• In 2010, several legislative proposals were made that would have effectively ended the majority of false marking cases. These proposals were lumped in with patent reform legislation which stalled in Congress. Will 2011 include a legislative solution to the false marking problem?

Patent Reform Legislation

• In 2010 (as in many years prior), it looked like progress was being made on patent reform legislation and there was some momentum in Congress for a patent reform bill. During IPO’s annual meeting in September, one Congressional staffer even suggested that a vote on the pending bills was possible in 2010. That didn’t happen. Will 2011 be the year that patent reform legislation finally makes it through Congress?

The Supreme Court

• As noted in an earlier post, the Supreme Court has taken up three patent cases for its current term. Clearly, the most significant of these cases is Microsoft v. i4i which has the potential to fundamentally alter patent litigation by changing the standard of proof required to establish patent invalidity. A change from the “clear and convincing” standard to the “preponderance of the evidence” standard would greatly impact all phases of patent litigation, from pre-filing due diligence through trial and appeal. This is clearly poised to be the most significant event in patent law in 2011! Then again, many thought that Bilsky had that same potential, and looking back now, we know that didn’t happen.  Only time will tell.

The stage is set for 2011 to be an interesting year for patent law.

I hope that everyone has a very Happy New Year and that 2011 brings excitement, fun and prosperity to all!

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Supreme Court is Set to Significantly Re-Shape Patent Rights and Litigation

The Court Agrees to Hear Three Patent Cases in 2011

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear three patent cases in its upcoming term. The first case touches upon the standard for establishing intent in the context of inducement of infringement. In October, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Global-Tech Appliances Inc. v. SEB S.A. on the question of “whether the legal standard for the ‘state of mind’ element of a claim for actively inducing infringement under 35 U.S.C. 271(b) is ‘deliberate indifference of a known risk’ that an infringement may occur or instead ‘purposeful, culpable expression and conduct’ to encourage an infringement.” The difference in these standards, essentially the difference between “known” and “should have known,” will significantly effect the way that businesses deal with third party patents from the point of conducting clearance searches and obtaining opinions all the way through trial.

The second case on the Supreme Court docket is Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University v. Roche Molecular Systems. In this case, the Supreme Court will consider ownership rights to inventions that were made with government funding under the Bayh-Dole Act. Although this case addresses a fairly narrow question, it could prove to be a significant case to universities and research institutions which rely heavily on federal research grants to sponsor wide ranging research projects which are the source of many inventions.

The third case, Microsoft v. i4i Ltd. 10-290, could prove to have a fundamental impact on every patent case, as it deals with the core issue of the burden of proof for establishing invalidity of a patent claim.

On November 29, 2010, the Supreme Court granted Microsoft’s petition for a writ of certiorari on the question “did the court of appeals [for the Federal Circuit] err in holding that Microsoft’s invalidity defense must be proved by clear and convincing evidence?”  As noted in a previous posting, Microsoft's petition was supported by numerous amici.

At trial, Microsoft’s invalidity defense was based on a lack of novelty due to a prior sale of the patentee’s own earlier software. This prior art was not before the patent office during examination and was not considered by the patent examiner. Despite the fact the patent office never had the opportunity to consider this prior art, the patent benefited from the “presumption of validity” and the district court (bound by Federal Circuit precedent) rejected Microsoft’s request for a jury instruction seeking to prove invalidity only by a “preponderance of the evidence." The Federal Circuit affirmed, setting the stage for Microsoft's petition.

The Microsoft case has the potential to significantly change the nature of patent litigation and level the playing field between plaintiffs and defendants. If the Supreme Court reduces the burden of proof for proving invalidity on issues that were not before the patent examiner to a preponderance of evidence, defendants will face a far less daunting task in establishing a successful invalidity defense. Considering the less stringent standard for establishing obviousness under the Supreme Court’s holding in KSR, lowering the burden of proof required to establish an invalidity defense would certainly reduce perceived strength of every issued patent.