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Federal Circuit Rules on Case Involving New USPTO Patent Rules

Written by on Monday, March 23rd, 2009 Print This Post Print This Post

The Federal Circuit issued a long-awaited decision late last week in  the case of Tafas v. Doll. 

At issue in this case was whether or not the USPTO had the authority to adopt a set of rules in 2007, which were aimed at reducing the backlog of unexamined patent applications and also at addressing the USPTO’s difficult in examining applications that contained a large number of claims.  The Federal Circuit held in its decision that the rules at issue were procedural in nature, and that they therefore did fall in the scope of the USPTO’s rulemaking authorit y.  However, the Court found that one of the rules, Final Rule 78, conflicts with 35 U.S.C. Section 120 and is therefore invalid.  The final decision on the status of the other rules is left to the lower courts, to which this issue is remanded. 

What were the particular USPTO rules at issue in this case?

Final Rule 78: This rule provided that an applicant is entitled to file two continuation applications, but to file any additional applications, the applicant is required to make a showing as to why the amendment, argument, or evidence could not have been submitted in a prior continuation application.

Final Rule 114: This rule provided than an applicant is entitled to file on request for continued examination per application family, but to file any additional requests, the applicant is required to make a showing as to why the amendment, argument, or evidence could not have been submitted prior to the close of prosecution in the application.

Final Rule 75: This rule provided an applicant who submits either more than five independent claims or twenty-five total claims must provide the examiner with an examination support document.

Final Rule 265: This rule set forth the requirements for the examination support document, which were as follows: (i) conducting a preexamination prior art search, (ii) providing a list of the most relevant references, (iii) identifying which limitations are disclosed by each reference, (iv) explaining how each independent claim is patentable over the references, and (v) showing where in the specification each limitation is disclosed. 

The decision focused on an analysis by the Federal Circuit on whether the rulemaking exercised by the USPTO was substantive or procedural.  The Federal Circuit found that Congress did not intend to give the USPTO substantive rulemaking authority, but that procedural rulemaking was in the scope of the USPTO’s delegated authority, stating:

While we do not purport to set forth a definitive rule for distinguishing between substance and procedure in this case, we conclude that the Final Rules challenged in this case are procedural.  In essence, they govern the timing of and materials that must be submitted with patent applications.  The Final Rules may "alter the manner in which the parties present . . .  their viewpoints" to the USPTO, but they do not, on their face, " foreclose effective opportunity" to present patent applications for examination.  JEM, 22 F.3d at 326, 328.

As for why Rule 78 was held to be invalid, the Federal Circuit stated:

Rule 78 is invalid because it attempts to add an additional requirement–that the application not contain amendments, arguments, or evidence that could have been submitted earlier–that is foreclosed by the statute. . . .[T]he statute is clear and unambiguous with respect to this issue.

The commentary on this case has been mixed, but there seems to be an overall feeling among commentators that a more definitive decision on the issue would be desirable. 

The Patent Baristas expressed some exasperation at the result, stating:

Apparently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit could not bear to see an end to the drama between the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and its customers over proposed patent application rules. . . . .Expect everyone to find something to dislike about this ruling. . . .Will Congress ever step up and fix this mess?

Peter Zura of The 271 Patent Blog wrote:

While many are hopeful for en banc review, the odds don’t seem in favor of it right now. 

Since I do not personally prosecute patents, I must admit that my reaction to this decision is a bit muted.  As a patent and copyright licensing attorney, my practice is only tangentially affected by USPTO rulemaking, so I just do not have a strong opinion on the issue. 

Having said this, I must say that if you read over the rules that were at the heart of this case, it is easy to see why the USPTO set off a controversy when it enacted these rules.  Should the USPTO be able to enact this type of rule, which certainly puts some serious constraints on patent filing?  I think that the Patent Baristas are right: perhaps Congress needs to take a look at this issue as it revisits the patent reform issue this session.

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