On Friday, May 23, 2014, right before the long holiday weekend, news began to circulate that Chief Judge Rader had announced that he would be stepping down as Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
Immediately, the Wall Street Journal and Law.com began speculating that Judge Rader’s decision to step down was tied to an email endorsing attorney Edward Reines, a patent lawyer at Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP and president of the Federal Circuit Advisory Council. This speculation picked up when Rader released a letter (see below) to the public addressed to the other members of the Federal Circuit apologizing for the appearance of impropriety associated with his email to Reines (whom he did not name directly), which necessitated his several recent recusals.
I find myself speechless, which doesn’t happen often. On the one hand, those that know Judge Rader know that he is extremely strong-willed and always eager for a vigorous substantive debate. The thought that any familiarity with someone who appears before him would lead to any advantage strikes me as thoroughly nonsensical. On the other hand, ethics for lawyers and even more so for judges is not about truth, but rather appearances.
After many delays in the Senate, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) announced on May 21, 2014, that patent reform is officially off the table for now and will not be considered in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Those in favor of patent reform who read Senator Leahy’s statement, which lamented the lack of consensus within the industry, may have taken false hope from his official statement because he ended by saying: “I hope we are able to return to this issue this year.” The reality of the legislative calendar suggests that revisiting patent legislation this year is a long shot at best. Patent reform in 2014 is all but dead.
At the end of 2013, legislative patent reform in 2014 seemed like all but a done deal. On Thursday, December 5, 2013, the United States House of Representatives passed the Innovation Act by a vote of 325-91. Surprisingly, the Innovation Act (HR 3309) had only been introduced on October 23, 2013, and was marked-up on November 20, 2013. Leading up to the vote in the House, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) said: “This schedule suggests the fix was in.” That was, indeed, how most of the opponents of patent reform felt at the time.
When patent reform bounced over to the Senate, there was much greater interest on the part of Senators and their staff to listen to critics who questioned why another round of patent reform was necessary so soon after the America Invents Act (AIA) passed, which was the most fundamental change to U.S. patent laws in many generations. Indeed, one of the central pieces of the AIA was to usher in new contested proceedings at the USPTO, which would make it more easy to challenge already-issued patents.
Over the past several days, the United States Supreme Court has issued several important decisions that will impact the patent system.
First, on June 13, 2013, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Association of Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, which has sometimes been referred to as “ACLU v. Myriad” in recognition of the fact that it was the American Civil Liberties Union that was responsible for bringing the challenge in the district court and pursuing the matter through the judicial system.
In Myriad, Justice Thomas wrote for a nearly unanimous Court. Only Justice Scalia wrote a brief separate opinion in which he concurred in part and concurred in the judgment.
The majority decision in Myriad is not long, and the first 10 pages are background. Despite not giving much detailed attention to the significant legal issues presented, the Supreme Court did manage to do real and serious harm to much of the biotechnology industry.
Justice Thomas summarized the Court’s decision by saying:
“[W]e hold that a naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated, but that cDNA is patent eligible because it is not naturally occurring.”
The decision has widely been reported as the Court recognizing that cDNA is patent eligible, but the ruling is far more nuanced. In fact, Justice Thomas specifically recognized that some cDNA is not patent eligible. He wrote:
“cDNA is not a ‘product of nature’ and is patent eligible under §101, except insofar as very short series of DNA may have no intervening introns to remove when creating cDNA. In that situation, a short strand of cDNA may be indistinguishable from natural DNA.”
I have spoken with a number of people who are in the biotech industry and they all seem to think this decision means that cDNA is patent eligible and I shouldn’t make too much out of Thomas specifically saying that at least some cDNA is not patent eligible. Personally, I think this is misplaced hope; we all know how the district courts will respond, and it won’t be to an expansive reading of patent eligibility. While the USPTO seems poised to say that cDNA is patent eligible, the fact that some has been determined not patent eligible will be used by challengers and likely successfully so. Further, it seems clear that Thomas is saying that if something is man-made but identical to what appears in nature, it is not patent eligible. This fundamentally undercuts the most important aspects of Chakrabarty and would effectively kill research into such important areas as artificially grown organs, which by their very nature must be identical to what is produced in nature to be transplanted into the human body, for example.
On June 6, 2012, a patent was granted to a small inventor who received assistance with his patent application from a Minnesota pilot pro bono program. Nick Musachio, an independent inventor in St. Paul, Minnesota, turned to the LegalCORPS Inventor Assistance Program after his initial patent application was rejected. With the professional expertise from attorneys at Fish & Richardson, Musachio was granted Patent Number 8157712 – a patent covering a “resistance exercise and physical therapy apparatus”.
This recent development is the first of what is expected to be many instances of small inventors contributing to the nation’s innovation via means of pro bono legal assistance. In the name of promoting innovation and equal access to the patent application process, the America Invents Act provides that the USPTO should “work with and support intellectual property law associations across the country in the establishment of pro bono programs designed to assist financially under-resourced independent inventors and small businesses.” In Minnesota, the LegalCORPS Inventor Assistance Program was co-founded by three Minneapolis firms: Lindquist & Vennum; Meyer & Njus; and Patterson Thuente Christensen Pedersen. (more…)
Today we continue our weekly installment highlighting the best of the patent blogosphere from the past week. If there are any patent blogs you think should be highlighted by our Top 5, please comment on this post and we’ll check them out.
1) Patent Docs: Tomato Genome Determined – The recent news that the “entire genomic DNA sequence of the tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) has been deciphered” inspired this post. It takes an in depth look at the “interesting relationships between tomatoes and closely-related species.” No discussion of whether there will be a push to patent the tomato genetic sequence.
2) IP Watchdog: Mobile App Developers Gain Ally to Fight Patent Infringement – This post highlights the attempt to promote innovation within the mobile app industry. The world’s largest patent research community announced the formation of a partnership with a global trade organization for mobile software developers, which this post argues could in fact impact the mobile app industry in a positive way by benefiting the small businesses and individual entrepreneurs behind the technology. (more…)