patents

Only Humans Are Allowed: Federal Circuit Says No to “AI Inventors”

Vivian Lin, MJLST Staffer

On August 5, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the U.S. District for the Eastern Division of Virginia’s decision that artificial intelligence (AI) cannot be an “inventor” on a patent application,[1] joining many other jurisdictions in confirming that only a natural person can be an “inventor”.[2] Currently, South Africa remains the only jurisdiction that has granted Dr. Stephan Thaler’s patent naming DABUS, an AI, as the sole inventor of two patentable inventions.[3] With the release of the Federal Circuit’s opinion refusing to recognize AI as an inventor, Dr. Thaler’s fight to credit AI for inventions reaches a plateau. 

DABUS, formally known as Device for the Autonomous Bootstrapping of Unified Sentience, is an AI-based creativity machine created by Dr. Stephan Thaler, the founder of the software company Imagination Engine Inc. Dr. Thaler claimed that DABUS independently invented two patentable inventions: The Factual Container and the Neural Flame. For the past few years, Dr. Thaler has been in battle with patent offices around the world trying to receive patents for these two inventions. Until this date, every patent office, except one,[4] has refused to grant the patents on the grounds that the applications do not name a natural person as the inventor. 

The inventor of a patent being a natural person is a legal requirement in many jurisdictions. The recent Federal Circuit opinion ruled mainly based on statutory interpretation, arguing that the text is clear in requiring a natural person to be the inventor.[5] Though there are many jurisdictions that have left the term “inventor” undefined, it seems to be a general agreement that an inventor should be a natural person.[6]

Is DABUS the True Inventor?

There are many issues centered around AI inventorship. The first is whether AI can be the true inventor, and subsequently take credit for an invention, even though a human created the AI itself. Here it becomes necessary to inquire into whether there was human intervention during the discovery process, and if so, what type of intervention was involved. It might be the case that a natural human was the actual inventor of a product while AI only assisted in carrying out that idea. For example, when a developer designed the AI with a particular question in mind and carefully selected the training data, the AI is only assisting the invention while the developer is seen as the true inventor.[7] In analyzing the DABUS case, Dr. Rita Matulionyte, a senior lecturer at Macquarie Law School in Australia and an expert in intellectual property and information technology law, has argued that DABUS is not the true inventor because Dr. Thaler’s role in the inventions was unquestionable, assuming he formulated the problem, developed the algorithm, created the training date, etc.[8] 

However, it is a closer question when both AI and human effort are important for the invention. For example, AI might identify the compound for a new drug, but to conclude the discovery, a scientist still has to test the compound.[9] The U.S. patent law requires that the “inventor must contribute to the conception of the invention.”[10] Further defined, conception is “the formation in the mind of the inventor, of a definite and permanent idea of the complete and operative invention, as it is hereafter to be applied in practice.”[11] In the drug discovery scenario, it is difficult to determine who invented the new drug. Neither the AI developers nor the scientists fit the definition of “inventor”: The AI developers and trainers only built and trained the algorithm without any knowledge of the potential discovery while the scientists only confirmed the final discovery without contributing to the development of the algorithm or the discovery of the drug.[12] In this scenario, it is likely the AI did the majority of the work and made the important discovery itself, and should thus be the inventor of the new compound.[13]

The debate on who is the true inventor is important because mislabeling the inventor can cause serious consequences. Legally, improper inventorship attribution may cause a patent application to be denied, or it may lead to the later invalidation of a granted patent. Practically speaking, human inventors are able to take credit for their invention and that honor comes with recognition which may incentive future creative inventions. Thus, a misattribution may harm human inventiveness as true inventors could be discouraged by not being recognized for their contributions. 

Should AI-Generated Inventions be Patentable?

While concluding that AI is the sole inventor of an invention may be difficult as outlined in the previous section, what happens when AI is found to be the true, sole inventor? Society’s discussion on whether AI inventions should be patented focuses mostly on policy arguments. Dr. Thaler and Ryan Abbott, a law professor and the lead of Thaler’s legal team, have argued that allowing patent protection for AI-generated inventions will encourage developers to invest time in building more creative machines that will eventually lead to more inventions in the future.[14] They also argued that crediting AI for inventorship will protect the rights of human inventors.[15] For example, it cuts out the possibility of one person taking credit for another’s invention, which often happens when students participate in university research but are overlooked on patent applications.[16] Without patent applicability, the patent system’s required disclosure of inventions, it is very likely that owners of AI will keep inventions secret and privately benefit from the monopoly for however long it takes the rest of society to figure it out independently.[17] 

Some critics argue against Thaler and Abbott’s view. For one, they believe that AI at its current stage is not autonomous enough to be an inventor and human effort should be properly credited.[18] Even if AI can independently invent, its inventions should not be patentable because once it is, there will be too many patented inventions by AI in the same field owned by the same group of people who have access to these machines.[19] That will prevent smaller companies from entering into this field, having a negative effect on human inventiveness.[20]  Finally, there has been a concern that not granting patents to AI-invented creations will let AI owners keep the inventions as trade secrets, leading to a potential long-term monopoly. However, that might not be a big concern as inventions like the two created by DABUS are likely to be easily reverse engineered once they reach the market.[21]

Currently, Dr. Thaler plans to file appeals in each jurisdiction that has rejected his application and aims to seek copyright protection as an alternative in the U.S. It is questionable that Dr. Thaler will succeed on those appeals, but if he ever does, it will likely result in major changes to patent systems around the world. Even if most jurisdictions today forbid AI from being classified as an inventor, with the advancement of technology the need to address this issue will become more and more pressing as time goes on. 

Notes

[1] Thaler v. Vidal, 43 F.4th 1207 (Fed. Cir. 2022).

[2] Ryan Abbott, July 2022 AIP Update Around the World, The Artificial Inventor Project (July 10, 2022), https://artificialinventor.com/867-2/.

[3] Id.

[4] South Africa’s patent law does not have a requirement on inventors being a natural person. Jordana Goodman, Homography of Inventorship: DABUS And Valuing Inventors, 20 Duke L. & Tech. Rev. 1, 17 (2022).

[5] Thaler, 43 F.4th at 1209, 1213.

[6] Goodman, supra note 4, at 10.

[7] Ryan Abbott, The Artificial Inventor Project, WIPO Magazine (Dec. 2019), https://www.wipo.int/wipo_magazine/en/2019/06/article_0002.html.

[8] Rita Matulionyte, AI as an Inventor: Has the Federal Court of Australia Erred in DABUS? 12 (2021), https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3974219.

[9] Susan Krumplitsch et al. Can An AI System Be Named the Inventor? In Wake Of EDVA Decision, Questions Remain, DLA Piper (Sept. 13, 2019), https://www.dlapiper.com/en/us/insights/publications/2021/09/can-an-ai-system-be-named-the-inventor/#11

[10] 2109 Inventorship, USPTO, https://www.uspto.gov/web/offices/pac/mpep/s2109.html (last visited Oct. 8, 2022).

[11] Hybritech, Inc. v. Monoclonal Antibodies, Inc., 802 F.2d 1367, 1376 (Fed. Cir. 1986).

[12] Krumplitsch et al., supra note 9.

[13] Yosuke Watanabe, I, Inventor: Patent Inventorship for Artificial Intelligence Systems, 57 Idaho L. Rev. 473, 290.

[14] Abbott, supra note 2.

[15] Id.

[16] Goodman, supra note 4, at 21.

[17] Abbott, supra note 2.

[18] Matulionyte, supra note 8, at 10–14.

[19] Id. at 19.

[20] Id.

[21] Id. at 18.




I Think, Therefore I Am: The Battle for Intellectual Property Rights with Artificial Intelligence

Sara Pistilli, MJLST Staffer

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a computer or robot that is able to perform tasks that are usually done by humans because they require human judgement and intellect. Some AI can be self-learning, allowing them to learn and progress beyond their initial programming. This creates an issue of inventorship when AI creates patentable subject matter without any contribution from the original inventor of the AI system. This technological advancement has posed the larger question of whether AI qualifies as an “individual” under the United States Patent Act and whether people who create AI machines are able to claim the patent rights when the AI has created the patentable subject matter.

Artificial Intelligence “Inventors”

Patent law is continuously changing as technology expands and advances. While the law has advanced to accommodate innovative technology in the past, the introduction of AI has not been fully articulated. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) opened up for comment on patenting AI inventions in 2019, however, it does not appear they asked for any further purpose other than to gather information from the public. The USPTO again asked for comment about patent eligibility jurisprudence as it related to specific technological areas, including AI in 2021. They gathered this information as a “study” and did not pursue any official action. The first official push to recognize AI as an inventor was by Dr. Stephen Thaler. Thaler built an AI machine called “DABUS,” and sought patent rights for the machine’s inventions. Thaler did not argue for DABUS to be the patent right holder, but rather the machine to be named the inventor with Thaler as the patent owner. Thaler’s insistence to name DABUS as the inventor complies with USPTO’s rulesregarding an inventor’s oath or declaration that accompanies a patent application.

United States’ Rulings

Thaler applied for patent rights over a food container and devices and methods for attracting enhanced attention. Both of these products were invented by his AI machine, DABUS. After applying for a U.S. patent, the USPTO rejected his application stating that U.S. law does not allow for artificial intelligence to be listed as an inventor on a patent application or patent. USPTO cited the Patent Act, stating an inventor must be a person, not a machine. USPTO stated that to allow “inventor” to include machines was too broad. Thaler requested reconsideration from the USPTO which was later denied. In 2021, Thaler appealed his rejection in the Eastern District of Virginia. Thaler failed to obtain patent rights with Judge Brinkema ruling only a human can be an inventor. Judge Brinkema relied heavily on statutory interpretation of the word “individual” which was performed by the Supreme Court in a 2012 case on the Torture Victim Protection Act. The Supreme Court had concluded that an “individual” referred to a “natural person.” Judge Brinkema further stated, that it will be up to Congress’ discretion on how they would like to alter patent law to accommodate for AI in the future. Thaler now has a pending appeal to the Court of Appeals.

International Rulings

While countries’ patent systems are independent of one another, they can be influenced based on technological and regulatory advancement happening in another country. Thaler has sought patent rights for DABUS’ two inventions discussed above in several countries including, but not limited to, the United Kingdom, Australia, and South Africa. Thaler obtained patent rights in South Africa, constituting a first in intellectual property history. Of note, however, is that South Africa’s patent system does not have a substantive patent examination system like other countries, nor do their patent laws define “inventor.” Thaler received a more persuasive ruling in Australia that may be able to effectuate change in other countries.  In 2021, Thaler’s patent application was denied in Australia. The Australian Patent Office (APO) stated that the language of the Patents Act was inconsistent with AI being treated as an inventor. Thaler appealed this decision to the Federal Court of Australia. Justice Beach ordered that this case must be remitted based on his ruling that AI can be a recognized inventor under the Australian Patents Act. Judge Beach further stated that AI cannot, however, be an applicant for a patent or an owner of a patent. It is with these reasons that Judge Beach requested reconsideration and remitted this case back to the Deputy Commissioner of the APO. The APO is now appealing this decision. Similar to the APO, the United Kingdom Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) also pushed back against Thaler’s application for patent rights. In 2019, the UKIPO rejected Thaler’s application stating that the listing of DABUS as an inventor did not meet the requirements of the United Kingdom’s Patent Act. They stated a person must be identified as the inventor. Thaler appealed this rejection and was again denied by the UKIPO, who stated that a machine as an inventor does not allow for the innovation desired by patent rights. Thaler appealed again, to the England and Wales Patents Court, and was again denied patent rights. The judge stated that Thaler was using the Patent Act text out of context for his argument, ruling that the Patent Act cannot be construed to allow non-human inventors. In 2021, Thaler appealed this decision in the England and Wales Court of Appeals. He was again denied patent rights with all three judges agreeing that a patent is a right that can only be granted to a person and, that an inventor must be a person.

Future Prospects

Thaler currently has pending applications in several countries including Brazil, Canada, China, and Japan. The outcome of the appeal against the Federal Court of Australia’s decision on whether AI can be an inventor may prove crucial in helping to amend U.S. patent laws. Similarly, if more countries, in addition to South Africa, outright grant Thaler his patent rights, the U.S. may be forced to re-think their policies on AI-invented patentable subject matter.


Quantum Computing: Ready To Be Patented!

Shuang Liu, MJLST Staffer

In June 2021, IBM presented its newest and most powerful quantum computer—Q System One. This news highlighted people’s continuing confidence and resolution in the research and development of quantum computing. As a matter of fact, several countries and leading high-tech corporations are investing from millions to billions in various aspects of quantum computing technology, and filing patent applications to protect their research achievement.

(Q System One at Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, Germany)

This article attempts to provide a brief introduction of quantum computing technology (Part I), a potentiometric analysis of the high-tech corporations in quantum computing industry (Part II), and a discussion of potential legal challenges in obtaining patents related to quantum software (Part III).

I. The Quantum Computing Technology and Its Potential Applications

The world’s most famous cat, Schrödinger’s cat, is both alive and dead until it is observed. A quantum bit (“qubit”) behaves similarly—it is both 0 and 1 until it is measured. A classical computer transmits and processes n-bit information with n bits. In contrast, since a qubit represents 0 and 1 at the same time (that is, a superposition of 0 and 1), a quantum computer transmits and processes 2n-bit information with n qubits. Therefore, if a good algorithm is found and the superposition property is utilized properly, a quantum computer can compute exponentially faster than a classical computer.

However, algorithms for quantum computers (hereinafter “quantum algorithms”) are not easy to find and algorithms for classical computers (hereinafter “classical algorithms”) cannot be readily applied on quantum computers. After all, classical algorithms solve problems in a deterministic way (where bits are either 0 or 1), while a quantum computer by its nature processes probabilistic information (where bits are superpositions of 0 and 1). It took people decades to develop the first quantum algorithm that showed capability of solving real-life problems. To date, although quantum algorithms are still far from enough, the available ones do show a great potential of applications.

The first, surest application is cryptanalysis. Integer factorization plays a key role in cryptanalysis. The Shor’s algorithm, one of the most famous quantum algorithms, is able to factor all integers in polynomial time, which has not been made possible by classical algorithms so far.

Another promising application is predicting new chemicals and materials having certain properties. Properties of chemicals and materials usually depend on a variety of factors and can be too complicated for a classical computer to make simulations. A quantum computer, with a stronger computation power, is expected to be able to make such simulations. To be noted, researchers are hopeful to use a quantum computer to find a way to build materials that can be superconducting at room temperature.

Complex processes, such as biological processes, economic development modelling, energy allocation optimization, and big data processing, are also good candidates for which a quantum computer can use its exceptional computation power.

II. Patent Landscape of Leading Corporations

People’s confidence in the potential of quantum computing leads to a race in patents. In the last five years, nearly a thousand patent applications related to quantum computing have been filed in the US, and a little bit fewer before the WIPO.

The figures below show the number of applications filed by leading corporations related to quantum computing and the number of applications related to specific areas. Among them, IBM is the first active patent applicant, leading other corporations by big margins and showing interest in almost every aspect of quantum computing. Other leading applicants are interested in different aspects of quantum computing. For example, Microsoft is mainly working on the software side (machine learning and optimization), while Intel devotes its most energy on the hardware side (quantum circuits). It is also worth noting that Bank of America has filed many applications in the cryptology aspect of quantum computing—it is endeavoring to be the first to use quantum security keys to protect its data.

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Figure 1

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Figure 2

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Figure 3

Turning our eyes to the world, we can see that Huawei, a Chinese telecommunication company, has filed a large number of quantum computing related applications before the World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO). Its major interests reside in quantum communication and securing such communication with cryptographs. NEC, a Japanese electronics corporation is also an active global patent applicant. It mainly focuses on building a quantum computer itself.

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Figure 4

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Figure 5

III. Potential Legal Issues

In the process of obtaining a patent, the most common substantive rejections are novelty and obviousness rejections. For a quantum software application, a patent-eligibility rejection is also likely. The subsections below discuss patent-eligibility and obviousness challenges especially for quantum software applications.

A. Patent Eligibility

The case law on patent eligibility of software has been unclear and inconsistent. This subsection does not attempt to, nor can it, predict the patent eligibility of quantum software. But at least there are more arguments available for patent eligibility of quantum software than those of classical software.

Courts tend to find a software claim ineligible if it is “not tied to any particular novel machine or apparatus, only a general-purpose computer.” From a policy perspective, such claims are disfavored by courts because “[they] would risk disproportionately tying up the use of the underlying ideas and . . . pose . . . risk of pre-emption.”

To facilitate discussion and avoid confusion, the remainder of this and next subsection will discuss with claim 1 ofU.S. Pat. No. US10990677B2 (hereinafter “‘677 claim 1”):

“A method, comprising:

programming a quantum computing device to implement quantum circuits that perform a machine learning technique using one or more qubits of the quantum computing device, wherein the machine learning technique employs principal component analysis based on at least one median estimate stored as a quantum bit string . . . .”

In a nutshell, ‘677 claim 1 recites a machine learning technique implemented by a quantum computing device. It was drafted in a way that it is closely tied to the quantum computing device, in contrast to “a general-purpose computer.” Therefore, if challenged, the patentee can always argue that this method is closely tied to “a particular novel machine,” and can’t possibly preempt all use of the underlying concept in the claim.

It is worth noting that, instead of simply claiming a machine learning method implemented by a quantum computer, the claim ties the implementation with “quantum circuits” and “one or more qubits.” When drafted this way, the patentee has a strong argument that this claim is not an abstract idea under the commonly used pen and paper test,because a human cannot implement quantum circuits and/or use qubits either mentally or by a pen and a piece of paper.

Other quantum software or algorithm patents might have other arguments available. For example, the patent eligibility of an error correction algorithm patent can be supported by the fact that it greatly improved the performance of a quantum computer, which is a common theme of the current case law of patent eligibility.

B. Obviousness

As can be expected, ‘677 claim 1 has been challenged under 35 U.S.C. §103. In the Non-Final Office Action, the Examiner asserted Mork et al. in view of Kappor et al. in further view of Kerner et al. renders the claim obvious, wherein Mork discloses a classical computer implementing a similar machine learning technique, Kerner discloses a quantum computing device, and Kappor recites that “[t]he machine learning acceleration hardware . . . may comprise . . . a quantum computing device” without providing any details. Such a combination of references can be a recipe for obviousness rejections against quantum software claims.

The key for this rejection to stand is the “connecting” reference (in this example, Kappor), that is, how the classical algorithm can be connected to a quantum computing device. As discussed in Section I of this article, it’s not just that the computation powers of a classical computer and a quantum computer are different; the ways they compute are not at all the same.

Accordingly, for this specific example, the rejection is erroneous because Kappor does not provide any details of how to apply its machine learning process to a quantum computing device, let alone providing teachings of how to apply the machine learning technique disclosed by Mork to a quantum computer. In general, a reference that motivates and teaches to apply a classical algorithm on a quantum computer can be extremely difficult to find. That is because, there is few, if any, classical algorithm can be readily applied on a quantum computer!

Therefore, it is fair to say that a reference in the classical software domain is almost never effective to defeat the patentability of a quantum software.

Conclusion

Although quantum computing technology is still in its infancy, people are very confident in its potential. Corporations in the industries of communication, computing, electronics, and even finance have joined the patent race of quantum computing related technologies. The patent space of quantum computing technology is still quite sparce, and a patent on quantum computing can be obtained much more easily now than later.


Open-Source Biotechnology: Failed to Take Root or Waiting in the Wings?

by Joe McCartin, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff

Biotechnology encompasses a wide range of cutting-edge fields, from the genetic modification of agricultural crops and energy producing bacteria, to immunology and medical device manufacturing. Rapid innovation in these areas has led to today’s most challenging ethical issues. One such concern is the fear that profits, rather than providing incentives for innovation, will slow down innovation by restricting the dissemination of new technologies, processes, and insights. In Volume 6, Issue 1 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science, & Technology, Robin Feldman outlined the problems an open-source biotechnology movement, one similar to the open-source computer programming world, faces in patent law, and ways that movement could navigate those complexities and potentially enhance the common good.

Feldman discussed the work of molecular biologist, Richard Jefferson, founder of Cambia and BioForge, who sought to democratize the field of plant genetics. The failure of those efforts was detailed by Sam Finegold in “The Hard Path to Open Source Bioinnovation.” Jefferson claimed that the financial incentives available to researchers were no match for an industry that had become dominated by a small handful of industrial chemical companies.

So, is there a future for open-source biotechnology? While it would seem that the pharmaceutical industry would present similar challenges to the open-source biotech movement, Connie Wong posits that open-source may be exactly what the pharmaceutical industry needs in the face of shrinking R&D budgets. She argues that small, lean players can fully utilize their competitive advantage and still protect their work by using open-source arrangements that create a fair-playing field that allows them to operate nimbly. Perhaps the Affordable Care Act may transform the pharmaceutical industry in a way that creates room for open-source innovations?

But perhaps open-source biotechnology’s real promise can be found in the work of Matthew Todd, who sought to bring the power of open-source to a neglected disease, flatworm infections. The World Health Organization documented the amazingly quick success Todd had finding more cost-effective methods of producing praziquantel, the preferred method of treating flatworm. While recognizing that the task far exceeded his abilities by himself, by tapping into not only researchers, but pharmaceutical and chemical companies, he found not one but two new methods of producing the drug! This appears to be the perfect example of the promise of open-source biotechnology. The profit motive focused attention on other diseases, restricting innovation until an open-source community sprung up. While open-source may not be the future of biotechnology innovation, it may end up playing a large role in a transformed pharmaceutical industry.


Myriad Genetics: A Look at Recent Developments in Patent Law and the Human Genome

by Roma Patel, UMN Law and Public Health Student, MJLST Staff

Years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that inventors are not entitled to federal patent protection for discoveries of laws of nature. The Court said, “natural phenomena are the basic tools with which every would-be inventor starts, so locking up the right to use them in a monopoly held by a specific patent owner will frustrate others who might want to look for new ways to interpret [those] phenomena.”

On June 13, a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court ruled that, “a naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated, but complementary DNA is patent eligible because it is not naturally occurring.” The ruling, authored by Justice Thomas, was issued in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, a landmark case bringing an end to the practice of patenting isolated parts of the human genome as they originally exist.

The defendants, Myriad Genetics, discovered and then patented the location, sequence and mutations of BRCA1 and BRCA2. Both genes are highly associated with a risk of breast and ovarian cancers. If Myriad’s patent claims were found valid, Myriad would have gained the exclusive right to isolate an individual’s BRCA genes–a necessary step in conducting diagnostic testing for the cancers.

The Plaintiffs, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Public Patent Foundation, consist of a coalition of patients and researchers from University of Pennsylvania, New York University, Columbia, Yale and Emory. Plaintiffs claimed that Myriad’s patent monopoly was invalid under 35 U.S.C. § 101 and that patents on isolated natural genetic sequences would restrict medical research, limiting progress. From a patient’s perspective, such exclusive patent rights would make getting a second opinion regarding genetic predisposition almost impossible. Additionally, exclusivity would keep the cost of testing BRCA 1 and 2 higher through the absence of competitive pricing.

While patient’s rights advocates and research and educational institutions applaud the decision, many are critical. Attorney and chemistry professor Bernhard Saxe stated that the Court, “trivializes chemistry and elevates biological “information” over chemical structure in patent law, and that usurps the role of Congress and creates a new class of patent-ineligible subject matter by judicial fiat.” In Issue 2 of MJSLT’s 12th volume, Peter Edwards noted that, “It is unwise to blithely remove patent eligibility from fields in which incentives for innovation have a dramatically positive effect on the population as a whole. Patent law was established to incentivize inventions that are useful to the public, while still allowing fair access to innovations. Because the public benefit resulting from incentivizing gene patents far outweighs the potential for public loss, it is in the country’s best interest to structure and interpret patent law to find genes and methods employing them patent eligible.”

Other case outcomes, Mayo v. Prometheus and In re Bilski have determined most diagnostic claims are not patentable. Now that the Court has determined natural isolated genetic sequences are also not patentable, Myriad’s business model, an enterprise predicated on exclusive administration of the BRCAnalysis test to diagnose breast and ovarian cancers, will be difficult to sustain. Biotechnology businesses driven by research and development and investors may face less of an incentive to innovate, which could mean fewer diagnostic tests available on the market. However, multilateral ownership of such natural phenomena could possibly drive more tests to market at lower prices and provide for more accuracy due to alternate testing options. Time will tell us the precise effect this ruling will have on patients, but for now the road beyond the Myriad decision remains unclear.


Will AIA Post-Grant Procedures Reduce Litigation?

by Nihal Parkar, UMN Law Student, MJLST StaffNihal-Parkar-Thumbnail-White-Back.jpgThe America Invents Act (AIA) was signed into law in 2011 and fully went into effect on March 16, 2013. The AIA resulted from efforts to strengthen the US patent system and bring it in conformity with global patenting standards. One of the aims of the AIA was to reduce post-grant litigation related to patent validity. It is common for alleged infringers to challenge the validity of patents that are asserted against them in court. However, such litigation can be expensive and protracted.

Pre-AIA patent law did provide for some processes for challenging patent validity, but they were limited. The AIA tries to expand on pre-existing post-grant patent challenges by providing for patent challenge procedures that mirror litigation (discovery, witness examination, and so on) at an alternative forum for resolving validity disputes: the Patent Trial and Appeal Board at the US Patent and Trademark Office.

It is interesting to contrast pre-AIA scholarly analysis of patent challenge procedures and suggested reforms with post-AIA studies. The Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology provides two contrasting articles on point. An earlier, pre-AIA article by Matthew Sag and Kurt Rohde, Patent Reform and Differential Impact (8 Minn. J.L. Sci. & Tech. 1, 2006) proposed a multistage post-grant review process. They addressed the lack of discovery and other issues in pre-AIA post-grant processes, and concluded that discovery would be unnecessary as long as the scope of reviewable issues was kept narrow. A recent MJLST note by Kayla Fossen, The Post-Grant Problem: America Invents Falling Short (14 Minn. J.L. Sci. & Tech. 573, 2013), reviews the changes introduced by the AIA, and points out that post-grant processes cannot really undo the damage created by ineffective pre-grant procedures. Therefore, the AIA is unlikely to significantly impact post-grant litigation.


Shapewear Patent War: Case of the Bad Patent?

by Jennifer Nomura, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff

Thumbnail-Jennifer-Nomura.jpgWhen most people think of patents they think of the latest computer technology or advances in medical science; but what about women’s shapewear? For those unaware of what shapewear is, it’s basically the modern version of a corset; it keeps everything pulled in, but (hopefully) more comfortable than a corset. Heather Thomson, founder of Yummie Tummie, has a patent on some of her styles of tank-top shapewear. Corset_Patent_Image.jpgWhen she found out that Spanx, a competing company, was making a very similar looking piece of shapewear, Thomson wasn’t happy. Thomson sent a cease-and-desist letter to Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx and then took to social media to complain. Websites like Forbes and the Huffington Post picked up the story. So far, the situation sounds fairly typical of other patent infringement cases, so why all the press coverage? Did I mention that Heather Thomson is a TV star of Bravo’s Real Housewives of New York? Needless to say, Thomson is not afraid of a little drama. Thomson has declared war against Blakely and Spanx. But Sara Blakely is not the underdog in this situation. Blakely founded Spanx in 2000 and is now a self-made billionaire. Blakely has now filed a declaratory judgment action in court alleging that Spanx is not infringing any of Yummie Tummie’s patents.

Spanx has been in the shapewear business 8 years longer than Yummie Tummie and has its own patents, so this might be the case of the “bad patent”. In an article entitled Patent Reform and Differential Impact, published in Issue 8.1 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, authors Matthew Sag and Kurt Rohde define a “bad patent” as one “that should not have been issued.” But Sag and Rohde want to go further. HeatherThomasPatent-cmp.jpg They argue that the term “bad patent” should also include “a patent that was validly issued but is now the subject of hyper-assertion.” The main concern with bad patents is that they “are capable of generating significant revenues and thus have a distorting effect on the allocation of resources in the economy.” This can happen where once a patentee sends a cease-and-desist letter, even if the patent qualifies as a “bad patent,” the alleged infringer will immediately license with the patentee. Or it could be that the parties could take their dispute to court, like Spanx and Yummie Tummie. Now there will be an expenditure of money on both sides trying to settle this issue in court. There is also a drain on public resources as the conflict has to make its way through the court system. Sag and Rohde make several proposed reforms in order to remedy the problem of bad patents. One of their proposed reforms to the litigation process is by fee-shifting. Fee-shifting would require the patentee to pay the costs of litigation if the patent was invalidated based on easily-discoverable prior art. This proposed reform could push potential patent applicants to perform a more comprehensive search through current patents before submitting their application to the PTO. Fee-shifting could prevent bad patents from being issued in the first place, or at least making patentees think twice before they try to enforce their patent against an alleged infringer.

While the public’s interest in the dispute between Yummie Tummie and Spanx has more to do with the reputations of both founders, this situation could revive a push for reform to the patent litigation system. Perhaps there will be a revival of the interest to limit or eliminate “bad patents.”


And the Patent Goes To…… The First to File

by Emily Puchalski, UMN Law Student, MJLST Notes & Comments Editor

Thumbnail-Emily-Puchalski.jpgIn just about one month the most monumental provision of the America Invents Act (AIA) will take effect. As of March 16, 2013 patents will be awarded to the first to file rather than the first to invent. This first to file system will bring the United States in accord with many other countries of the world. However, it is important note that the first to invent rule will still apply to patent applications filed before March 16th 2013.

Many patent lawyers and their clients have already began thinking about what the first to file system will mean for the American patent system. For example, a group of patent attorneys have already outlined some strategies that could be employed by inventors and predictions for how the new system will operate. Patent lawyers are not the only ones thinking about what the new systems will look like. Universities, for example, which can derive significant revenues from the patented inventions of its faculty, have implemented strategies for dealing with the new system. The University of North Dakota, for example, has stressed that the changes in the law as of March 16th govern towards immediate disclosure of any invention to the school’s intellectual property office to make sure that it can obtain patent rights on the invention, if desired, by filing an application as soon as possible with the Patent and Trademark Office.

Despite the prominence of the first to file provision of the AIA, it is important to remember that the AIA has many other important provisions aimed at changing the American patent law system. The AIA has also significantly changed the review available after a patent has been granted. The AIA both strengthens existing review procedures and creates new ones as well. In her article published in Issue 14.1 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, “The Post-Grant Problem: America Invents Falling Short,” author Kayla Fossen provides an in-depth description of the post-grant review process under the America Invents Act. Fossen also takes a look at whether the new post-grant proceedings can effectuate change on the American patent system where patents are frequently invalidated in infringement litigation. Interestingly, Fossen proposes a pre-grant review process that could be used in addition to the post-grant proceedings under the America Invents Act to ensure that patents issued are strong enough to survive validity challenges in any infringement litigation. Even though March 16, 2013 will mark a big change in US patent law, it is important to evaluate the big changes that the America Invents Act has already made, one of them being post-grant review. Luckily, Fossen’s article does just that.


Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For Your Patent . . .

by Caroline Marsili, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff

Thumbnail-Caroline-Marsili.jpgThe candidates aren’t talking about patents (with the exception of a brief quip about IP piracy in last Tuesday’s debate). But if it’s “all about the economy,” they should be talking patent policy.

In the presidential and vice-presidential debates of recent weeks, the candidates have exchanged vitriol and “gotchas,” and have established a contrast in both policy and character for voters. Notably absent from the debates has been discussion of innovation, and more specifically, the role of IP policy in innovation. IP policy would seem an attractive platform for discussing job creation, as IP industries account for a vast portion of the Nation’s jobs and GDP (“IP-intensive industries” accounted for 27.7 of all jobs in the economy in 2010). It’s possible that the candidates find common ground on this issue. Alternatively, the topic is, for the time-being, moot in the wake of the America Invents Act, the full effects of which are yet to be seen.

Since its passage just over a year ago, some critics have expressed doubt that the Act will create jobs and promote innovation as promised. Others argue not that the Act is failing, but that it represents a misplaced effort to reform patent policy.

The solution? “Don’t just reform patents, get rid of them.” A recent working paper by Boldrin & Levine makes the bold case that our patent system is ultimately more trouble than it’s worth. The authors admit that abolishing patents “may seem ‘pie-in-the-sky'” and acknowledge the glut of transitional issues that would need addressing; just the same, they conclude that the key to reforming our patent system is to get rid of it. Their central beef with the system is the want of empirical evidence that it does what it purports to do: promote innovation and productivity. Meanwhile, there are other incentives for innovation and many negative externalities of the patent system.

Other authors have proposed less radical approaches to revamping the patent system. In her recent article in MJLST, “An Organizational Approach to the Design of Patent Law“, Liza Vertinsky also finds that empirical literature fails to decisively connect patents to innovation and economic growth. However, Vertinsky takes a more optimistic approach to the floundering patent system, arguing that policy-makers should seize reform efforts as an opportunity to tailor the patent law to innovation objectives. The America Invents Act, she argues, isn’t a significant change in the direction of patent policy and instead seeks to remedy narrower concerns with administrative backlog, litigation costs and patent quality. In her view, patent policy should be revamped to encourage innovation based on how individuals and organizations–corporations, Congress, the PTO–really function.

Vertinsky’s “organizational approach” entails a new way of thinking about patents in terms of how patent policy, informed by economic theory, should be fashioned to strengthen the organization of innovation rather than focusing on incentivizing acts of invention. For example, patent laws can be tailored to the needs of different innovation processes across different industries. While sweeping changes in patent policy are unlikely at this time (witness the battles encountered in passing and implementing the America Invents Act), Vertinsky’s proposals should inform discussion among policy-makers about what the patent system can and should do. The Obama Administration’s national innovation strategy neglected to give patent policy a more central role in encouraging innovation, but the desire to build an “innovation economy” is certainly there, and a rational and successful patent policy is vital to attaining the kinds of high-level jobs and industry the country needs and the candidates promise.

(Others think patent policy may not matter at all. What do you think?).


The Written Description Requirement Strikes Back

by Nihal Parkar, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff

Nihal-Parkar-Thumbnail-White-Back.jpgThe written description requirement for patents often resembles the proverbial neglected middle child–it is left to its own devices and entrusted with its own care. The typical patent practitioner carefully chisels away at the claims with a thesaurus, and then proceeds to encase the exquisite sculpture with a glob of written description. Yes, the detailed description of the drawings and alternative embodiments may follow the core structure of the claims, but let’s face it–the average specification is hardly as painfully beautiful as the average claim.

A recent paper by Aaron Rabinowitz in Volume 12 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, Ending the Invalidity Shell Game: Stabilizing the Application of the Written Description Requirement in Patent Litigation, analyzes this paradox in the context of how courts apply the written description requirement to routinely invalidate patents issued by the USPTO–those very issued patents that have gone through the tortious path of examination at the PTO and have been vetted by examiners and reshaped in course of the ping-pong game of office actions and their replies.

A high level of invalidation by the courts seems problematic. After all, shouldn’t patent owners be entitled to rely on the PTO’s evaluation of their patent, and be freely able to assert the patent against alleged infringers in court, without fearing that the court will find the written description to be as addled with holes as the typical chunk of Swiss cheese? Well, the courts can’t quite be blamed, given that the PTO works in mysterious ways. Reviewing the file wrapper often does not explain how each claim fulfilled the written description requirement in combination with the rest of the specification. A law firm helpfully points out, “Make Sure Your Patents Do Not Prove Their Own Invalidity!” To add to the complexity of the situation, the “written description requirement is separate from enablement.”

Patent owners would be wise to worry about the potential pitfalls of the written description getting shredded between Scylla and Charybdis. As Rabinowitz points out, “over 2000-2009, parties that attacked a patent on written description grounds succeeded more than forty percent of the time.”

Fortunately, Rabinowitz does not merely cry wolf, but supplies some solutions to keep the wolf at bay. To strengthen a patent’s validity, patent applicants can choose “to affirmatively identify the written description support for their claims in the application”. And then eagerly wait for “the PTO to either approve or question the applicant’s statement of support.” Of course, with patent examiners already being somewhat overburdened, the PTO may not be enthusiastic about yet another step in prosecution.

Rabinowitz’ article raises an interesting question that is often overlooked, and provides a practical, workable solution that is likely to be of benefit to patent owners, patent challengers, the PTO, and the courts.