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.

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