On Wednesday, January 20, 2016, I had the opportunity to go on the record with Michelle Lee, who is Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
During our 30-minute conversation, we discussed a wide range of topics, including the release of the Commerce Department’s Copyright White Paper, which among other things recommends expanding eligibility for statutory damages in certain copyright infringement actions. We also discussed Lee’s recent visit to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the power outage that brought down USPTO electronic filing systems, the Office’s patent quality initiative, the new patent classification system, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB), and more. For the full transcript of our interview, please see An Exclusive Interview with Michelle Lee.
What follows are the highlights of our interview.
Right before the holidays, on December 22, 2015, the USPTO suffered a major power failure. Everything is back to normal now, but I wanted to ask Director Lee about where we stand and if she could confirm no data had been lost. Director Lee explained things are indeed back to normal and no data was compromised.
LEE: Yes. So we are fully up and running as before, and we have been for a while now. No data was lost, and it was really an unprecedented outage of our online systems caused by an electrical failure to the data center that was owned and operated by contractors. It was not a failure of our IT systems or the result of foul play. And I have to say, Gene, the dedicated team of USPTO employees mobilized and immediately stabilized and restored the systems. They worked around the clock when the outage occurred, during the holidays, to restore customer service and we were, again, fully operational within a matter of days. That’s a real testament to the incredible hard work, the incredible dedication of so many employees here at the PTO working very hard and really wanting to do what’s in the best interest of the stakeholders to get those services up and running. So everything is up and running as normal. We did not lose data. And we’re conducting careful forensics and we’re looking to incorporate what we learn into further improvements to our system. Actually, not our systems, but the third-party systems that feed our systems. So it’s not a lost opportunity, but we’re glad to have it up and running, and I give all the kudos to the team.
On Friday, January 15, 2016, the United States Supreme Court accepted the petitioner’s request to hear Cuozzo Speed Technologies v. Lee, a case that will now require the Court to address two questions about inter partes review (IPR) proceedings.
IPR proceedings were created by the America Invents Act (AIA), which was signed into law by President Barack Obama on September 16, 2011. IPR and the other two forms of post-grant challenge to issued patents — Post Grant Review (PGR) and Covered Business Method (CBM) Review — did not become available as a procedure to challenge patents until September 16, 2012. Thus, these proceedings are quite new and Cuozzo will be the first opportunity for the Supreme Court to weigh in on these controversial administrative proceedings.
According to the statute, “[a] person who is not the owner of a patent may file a petition to institute an inter partes review of the patent.” 35 U.S.C. 311(a). Significantly for this appeal, the statute also says: “The determination by the Director whether to institute an inter partes review under this section shall be final and nonappealable.” 35 U.S.C.314(d). Additionally, although the statute is silent as to the proper claim construction standard to use in post grant proceedings, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has decided to apply the familiar standard used elsewhere throughout the Office, which is the broadest reasonable interpretation (BRI) rather than the so-called “Phillips standard” that is used in district court litigation and narrowly construes claims in an already issued patent. (more…)
Several weeks ago, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued a decision in Redline Detection, LLC v. Star Envirotech, Inc., relating to an inter partes review (IPR) challenge brought by Redline challenging the validity of certain patent claims of U.S. Patent No. 6,526,808 (the “’808 patent”).
After deciding to institute the IPR, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) found in favor of the patent owner. Redline appealed the decision of the PTAB to the Federal Circuit, arguing that it was improperly denied the opportunity to submit supplemental information under 37 C.F.R. §42.123(a) and that the PTAB erred with respect to finding that claims 9 and 10 of the ‘808 patent were not invalid.
The ‘808 patent, owned by Star Envirotech, relates to methods of generating smoke for use in volatile and explosive environments. More specifically, the ’808 patent describes methods for generating smoke that enables the presence and location of leaks in a fluid system to be accurately and visually detected depending upon rate of the air flow through the fluid system under test and whether smoke escapes from the system. The invention allows for the more accurate testing of whether automobile emissions are leaking into the environment.
On Tuesday, February 23, 2016, the United States Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Halo Electronics, Inc. v. Pulse Electronics, Inc. (14-1513) and Stryker Corporation v. Zimmer, Inc. (14-1520), which have been consolidated for appeal. These two cases will force the Court to dive into one of the most thorny patent litigation issues – the issue of enhanced damages for willful patent infringement.
The statute in question says very little that is relevant, merely saying that the district court judge “may increase the damages up to three times the amount found or assessed.” 35 U.S.C. § 284. Simple and straightforward enough, but over the years the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has issued rulings that make it virtually impossible for a victorious patent owner to ever receive enhanced damages. The rigid structure of the enhanced damages test has effectively removed the permissive and discretionary language of the statute, which just says that the district court judge “may increase the damages.”
In the Supreme Court’s recent decisions in Highmark Inc. v. Allcare Health Management Systems, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 1744 (2014) and Octane Fitness, LLC v. ICON Health & Fitness, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 1749 (2014) the Court, interpreting 35 U.S.C. § 285, found that there was no textual support in the statute to impose an onerous, rigid test for the awarding of attorneys’ fees to a prevailing party in a patent infringement lawsuit. Most notably, the Supreme Court explained to the Federal Circuit that they misinterpreted a key ruling of the Supreme Court when they created the test that would result in attorneys’ fees never being award. That same exact misinterpretation is at the heart of Federal Circuit case law relating to the awarding of enhanced damages to a victorious patent owner.
A patent is an exclusive right. This means that the owner of a patent can prevent others from engaging in activities that are covered by an issued patent. But as is true with any right, a patent is only worth something if the owner is willing to take action to preserve the rights and litigate against those who are treading on the rights granted. In the United States, that means litigation in federal district court, which can easily cost millions of dollars.
Today, given the climate within the industry, being willing to take action when infringement is suspected is only the first hurdle. Yes, the decision to undertake litigation is a difficult one regardless of whether it is made by a company or an individual. Attention is diverted from other endeavors and opportunities, and there is a very real financial cost associated with litigating a dispute. Litigation is not free.