On the afternoon of Tuesday, September 13th, the intellectual property subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee convened for a hearing on oversight of practices and procedures at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The day’s sole panelist was USPTO director Michelle K. Lee. The day’s discussion focused on recent reports from federal governmental agencies regarding issues at the USPTO surrounding patent litigation as well as time and attendance abuses among USPTO examiners.
A press release posted in advance of the hearing contained statements from both House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet subcommittee chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) provided a good indication of the direction the hearing would take. Both statements reflected a wariness regarding timesheet abuses among USPTO employees. “The amount of wasted man-hours that could have been spent reducing the patent backlog is astounding, not to mention the millions of taxpayer dollars that were wasted paying USPTO employees for work they were not doing,” Goodlatte’s statement read. Issa added, “If the PTO can’t even guarantee sufficient oversight of its employees timecards, how can we be assured patent examiners aren’t just rubberstamping ideas without oversight as well?”
The concerns of both Congressmen stem from an examiner time and attendance report issued August 31st by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) within the Department of Commerce. The Commerce Department’s OIG found 288,000 unsupported hours of work claimed by examiners over a 15-month period, which was equated to more than $18.3 million in potential waste. The OIG report also found multiple weak points in USPTO policy which limits the agency’s ability to detect fraud, including no requirement for teleworking examiners to log into computers during workdays as well as no requirement for workers with average or high performance ratings to provide supervisors with work schedules.
The methodology used during the OIG’s study on time and attendance abuse was also questioned by Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY). Nadler’s prepared remarks noted that the unsupported work hours identified in the OIG’s report amounted to less than 2 percent of all hours worked by examiners during the 15-month period of the study. “In fact, the IG acknowledges that after the USPTO instituted certain reforms to its telework policy, six months into the study, the percentage of unsupported hours dropped to just 1.6%, an efficiency rate that most employers would boast about,” Nadler’s prepared remarks stated. “But, the IG buried this fact in a footnote deep in the report.”
“My team and I do not tolerate time and attendance abuse,” Lee told the subcommittee. While she did note that the USPTO had taken disciplinary actions against examiners that have abused time and attendance reports, such actions ranging from counseling to expulsion and repayment for hours not worked, she added that there was evidence that instances of time and attendance abuse were not widespread. She cited a report on the USPTO’s telework program issued by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) in July 2015. The report found that “It would appear to be unlikely that [time and attendance] abuse is widespread or unique to teleworkers, and it does not appear to reflect the actions of the workforce as a whole.”
On August 10, 2016, the Federal Circuit issued an important ruling in Arendi S.A.R.L. v. Apple, Inc.
The dispute dates back several years to December 2, 2013, when Apple Inc., Google, Inc. and Motorola Mobility LLC (collectively “Appellees”) filed a petition for inter partes review (“IPR”) of U.S. Patent No. 7,917,843, which is owned by appellant Arendi S.A.R.L. After conducting the administrative trial proceeding, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (“Board”) issued a decision finding claims 1-2, 8, 14-17, 20-21, 23-24, 30, 36-39, and 42-43 obvious.
The Federal Circuit panel (Judges Moore, Linn and O’Malley) determined that the Board misapplied the law on the permissible use of common sense in an obviousness analysis and reversed.
“I have not yet run into an Art Unit that does not have someone designated as an Alice expert,” explained JiNan Glasgow of Neopatents. “They won’t always tell you who it is, but they all say they have an Alice expert.”
While discussing the importance of doing interviews in every single case, Glasgow explained that although it is not something that has been generally publicly disclosed by the Patent Office, “in every art unit examiners confirm that there is an examiner within the Art Unit who is the Alice expert and that examiners have said that even if they are ready to allow a case, nothing can be allowed without the approval of that Alice expert.” This applies to TC 3600 and beyond, according to Glasgow.
If what examiner after examiner has told Glasgow is correct, this means there is essentially a return to the so-called “second pair of eyes” review at the Patent Office.
Although women have more than quintupled their representation among patent holders since 1977, a pronounced patent gender gap remains. In 2010, according to a new briefing paper by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), fewer than one in five patents had at least one woman inventor named. Although quintupling the number of women inventors over the last 30+ years is impressive, at the current growth rate, it is projected that it will take until 2092 for women to reach parity in patenting.
The IWPR briefing paper reports that women make up only 7.7 percent of primary inventors who hold patents. According to IWPR, those women who are the primary inventor tend to hold patents for inventions associated with traditional female roles, such as jewelry and apparel.
Recently, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued a decision in BASCOM Global Internet Services, Inc. v. AT&T Mobility LLC. Writing the opinion for the majority was Judge Raymond Chen, who also authored the Court’s decision in DDR Holdings, which is one of the few cases to similarly find software patent claims to be patent eligible. Joining Chen on the panel were Judges O’Malley and Newman, with Judge Newman concurring and writing separately.
In this case, the Federal Circuit agreed with the district court that the filtering of content is an abstract idea because “it is a long-standing, well-known method of organizing human behavior, similar to concepts previously found to be abstract.” However, the Federal Circuit ruled that the claims did add significantly more and, therefore, the claims are patent eligible.