According to 37 C.F.R. 1.75(e), improvement patent claims should follow a specific template. Rule 75(e) states:
(e) Where the nature of the case admits, as in the case of an improvement, any independent claim should contain in the following order:
(1) A preamble comprising a general description of all the elements or steps of the claimed combination which are conventional or known,
(2) A phrase such as “wherein the improvement comprises,” and
(3) Those elements, steps, and/or relationships which constitute that portion of the claimed combination which the applicant considers as the new or improved portion.
Claiming done as Rule 75(e) suggests is known as writing a claim in Jepson format, or simply a Jepson claim. A Jepson claim is one where the preamble makes some kind of statement that relates to the state of the prior art, and then claims an improvement over the prior art. Jepson format allows the patentee to use the preamble to recite elements or steps of the claimed invention which are conventional or known. A Jepson claim is not something that you must employ and it comes with significant disadvantages with only the most nuanced of advantages in very rare circumstances, such as in responding to a double patenting rejection.
When using the format of Rule 75(e), the preamble is considered to positively and clearly include all the elements or steps recited therein as a part of the claimed combination. Therefore, the elements or steps recited in the preamble become a part of the claim and do in fact act as limitations. For more information on patent claiming generally and those claims dealing with Jepson format specifically, see Faber on the Mechanics of Patent Claim Drafting and Advanced Patent Prosecution Workshop: Claim Drafting and Amendment Writing.
Below is an example of a claim in Jepson format, which is taken from claim 6 of US Patent No. 4,892,244:
In a staple cartridge insertable within a surgical stapler and containing staples and comprising an elongated body including one or more longitudinal slots for slidably receiving one or more longitudinal pusher bars comprising a firing mechanism of said surgical stapler, and a plurality of drivers engageable by said pusher bars for ejecting the staples from the cartridge, said staple cartridge releasably fastened to a said surgical stapler, the improvement comprising a lockout mechanism connected to said longitudinal slots for preventing said pusher bars from passing more than one time through said longitudinal slots.
The Jepson preamble in claim 6 of the ‘244 patent (above) is all that comes prior to “the improvement comprising.” That which comes before “the improvement comprising” is describing what is already known in the prior art, a very dangerous thing to do without knowing what prior art the Patent Examiner will use against you.
Here is another example of a Jepson claim, take from claim 9 of US Patent No. 4,007,960:
In a reclining chair having a frame, a back portion, a seat portion, recliner actuator means including means forswinging said back portion between an upright and a reclined position, the improvement comprising elevator means for raising said seat and also tilting said seat forwardly to assist exit from said chair, and power actuated drive means common to both the recliner actuator means and the elevator means for sequentially actuating both the recliner actuator means and the elevator means and being operable sequentially in a first mode of operation to drive the recliner actuator means and operable in a second mode of operation to drive the elevator means, said power-operated drive means comprising an extensible ram which extends in one range during said first mode of operation and in another range in said second mode of operation.
(emphasis added). Jepson claim meets means plus function claiming! Yikes!
The relevant case law on Jepson claims suggests that the preamble elements in a Jepson-type claim are admitted to be prior art. In fact, according to MPEP 2129: “Drafting a claim in Jepson format is taken as an implied admission that the subject matter of the preamble is the prior art work of another.”
Overcoming the admission implicitly created by a Jepson claim is not an easy task and, therefore, Jepson claims should be avoided in all but rare circumstances. Of course, as with all general rules, there are exceptions and circumstances where Jepson format may be useful. One such situation is when the patentee is attempting to overcome, or prevent, a double patenting rejection. For example, when the applicant explains that the Jepson format is being used to avoid a double patenting rejection over the applicant’s own copending application, the implication that the preamble is admitted prior art is overcome. See Reading & Bates Construction Co. v. Baker Energy Resources Corp., 748 F.2d 645, 650, 223 USPQ 1168, 1172 (Fed. Cir. 1984).
Last week, I published an article about inter partes review on IPWatchdog.com. Patent Office statistics for FY 2013 and FY 2014 show that there have been a total of 361 decisions on IPR petitions, with 288 trials instituted. There have been 11 cases that have been joined and only 62 petitions denied, which corresponds with an 82.8% IPR petition grant rate. Having said this, the IPR grant rate during FY 2013 was 87.2%, while so far during FY 2014, the IPR grate rate has been 77.2%.
But what about post-grant review?
Both inter partes review and post-grant review became a reality when “Phase 2″ of the America Invents Act (AIA) became effective on September 16, 2012. But you haven’t seen any post-grant reviews yet, aside from the quasi-post-grant review known as covered business method (CBM) review. That is because the post-grant review provisions apply only to patents issued from applications that have an effective filing date on or after March 16, 2013. Said another way, post-grant review proceedings are only available to patents issuing from applications subject to first-inventor-to-file provisions of the AIA.
Obviousness is where the rubber meets the road in terms of patentability, and it seems that the state of the law of obviousness is anything but clear. It has always been difficult to explain the law of obviousness to inventors, business executives and law students alike. Since the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in KSR v. Teleflex, it has become even more difficult to provide a simple, coherent articulation of the law of obviousness that is at all intellectually satisfying. That is in no small part due to the fact that the determination about whether an invention is obvious is now completely subjective.
If you look at the Federal Circuit cases, it seems that there is a lot of post hoc reasoning that simply justifies a conclusion already formed. De novo review of all the facts allows the Federal Circuit to be a super-panel that can simply supplant its own beliefs for the considered beliefs of patent examiners, the Board, a District Court Judge or even a jury. While conceptually it may seem like a good idea to have a fresh look by a reviewing court, this fresh look at all things leads to no predictability, and obviousness law in utter disarray.
In 1998, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, in State Street Bank & Trust Co. v. Signature Financial Group, Inc., did away with what had previously been come to be known as the business method exception to patentability. The Federal Circuit, per Judge Giles Sutherland Rich (shown left), pointed out that the business method exception had never been invoked by either the Federal Circuit or its predecessor court, the CCPA. Judge Rich explained that “[s]ince the 1952 Patent Act, business methods have been, and should have been, subject to the same legal requirements for patentability as applied to any other process or method.”
Although the United States Supreme Court did away with that test when it issued its decision in Bilski v. Kappos, it is still nevertheless illustrative and the best test that is out there. Simply stated, in order to have a patentable business method, it is necessary for the invention to accomplish some practical application. In other words, in order for a business method to be patent eligible, it must produce a “useful, concrete and tangible result.” Judge Rich was correct to point this out and the Supreme Court has made a horrible mess of the law as it applies to business methods and computer-implemented innovations because it fails to understand what Judge Rich really meant.
If you really understand what Judge Rich meant by “useful, concrete and tangible result,” you come to the inescapable conclusion that it is the appropriate test. Indeed, those drafting patent application would do well to really target the description of the invention to satisfy the test.
The United States Constitution is a relatively short document, but one that has provided guiding principles for over 220 years. Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution granted Congress the power to grant patents and copyrights for limited times in order to promote the progress of science and the useful arts. Clearly demonstrating just how important the Founding Fathers perceived a patent system to be, at the prompting of George Washington in his first State of the Union Address, the young Congress passed the the Patent Act of 1790 as the third Act of Congress.
Section 1 of the Patent Act of 1790 explained that a party would be awarded a patent in the event that it was deemed a sufficiently important discovery or invention:
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That upon the petition of any person or persons to the Secretary of State, the Secretary for the department of war, and the Attorney General of the United States, setting forth, that he, she, or they, hath or have invented or discovered any useful art, manufacture, engine, machine, or device, or any improvement therein not before known or used, and praying that a patent may be granted therefor, it shall and may be lawful to and for the Secretary of State, the Secretary for the department of war, and the Attorney General, or any two of them, if they shall deem the invention or discovery sufficiently useful and important…
Patent Act of 1790, Ch. 7, 1 Stat. 109-112 (April 10, 1790).